The origins of the name Kaffirs to describe a race group in Sri Lanka were probably much the same as for others from Southern and Eastern Africa – adopted from the Arabs by the Portuguese in their slave trading, and then taken over from the Portuguese by the British at the same time as they absorbed some Portuguese areas into the Empire. The etymology is interesting, and it is not clear whether the original pre-Islamic meaning of ‘one who hides or covers’ was taken, or the subsequent extension which meant ‘unbelievers’.

  Anyway, there is a major difference regarding the term in Sri Lanka as compared with Africa. There, the group have embraced the name, continue to use it, and are proud of it.


   In South Africa the term is skated around with quite ridiculous and unnecessary delicacy. Imagine the reaction in this country to a visiting Sri Lankan member of this ethic group announcing, with total accuracy, ‘I am a Kaffir!’ Like any other word, though, it is only actionable when deliberately used to demean, insult or humiliate, and the simple utterance or writing of it is not illegal as some people seem to think. It is not even, in my view, distasteful, however much brainwashing may have been done to make it seem so.

   Amongst the many stupid things done in South Africa after the Apartheid regime stood down is this legislation making it an offence to use ‘racist’ terms – not defined, but the way in which it is applied clearly seems to indicate that words describing blacks in a derogatory way are racist and verboten, but those doing the same to whites are OK. The thing is, of course, that mostly the whites simply shrug off the terms meaning ‘scum’ (dirty white foam) in various dialects which are so often used against them.

   Why aren’t the white farmers pressing for the term ‘boer’ (farmer) to be replaced by ‘plaas eienaar’ (farm owner) because the ‘boer’ term has been used with negative connotations? Why, in fact, didn’t the Afrikaans people do something on those lines after the Boer War, when the British used the term derogatively?

   I suggest that the main reason is because of being far less insecure in themselves, and far more sensible about the subject. It could be argued that the Kaffirs and our local Coloureds (also in regard to their Coon Carnivals) have a far less juvenile approach than those who shy away from the old names.

   This is one of those areas like Prohibition – introduce controls, and the problem will go underground and worsen. A more mature outlook, however, would have allowed the changing nature of the country and its interactions between races to sort out matters for themselves, leaving terms to be used in a factual way (e.g. early legislation relating to ‘labour conditions for Kaffirs’) or jocularly, as one would describe a ‘Mick’ or a ‘Pommie’. 

  Or a ‘Rooinek’. The latter is the mocking ‘red-neck’ term given to the British forces in the Boer War and in the vast majority of cases is not used these days with genuine insulting intent. However, even if it was, I cannot see an indignant English speaker succeeding in legal action against an Afrkaner radical who had used the term. Or, for that matter, one becoming indignant even if it was. I speak from experience on that, having lived during part of my boyhood in towns still actively fighting the Boer War. Countering the ‘Rooinek’ jeers with calmly stating I was proud to be one tended to put a damper on them.

   The same mistake was made in America – with equally negative results – in regard to ‘Negro’ and ‘Nigger’, extending there and in other countries even to include other words like ‘Golliwog’. The sensible blacks, who themselves had embraced the terms and turned them into something to be proud of, were unfortunately swamped by those whose thought processes were not as mature. I offer three cheers to the minibus taxis which are seen daily on the streets of Durban with ‘Niggaz’ emblazoned across them, filled with quite happy and predominantly black commuters.

  In the final analysis, the effect of an insult comes not from the insulter but from the insulted. Words intended to injure can have no power if they are simply shrugged off with deserved contempt.

   In my youth, the words Kaffir, Coolie, Hottentot and Bushman etc. were used descriptively, in the same way as one might say Indian or Zulu or Italian or Englishman, and had no particular slur attached. It was only in the more rabid Apartheid days when the terms increasingly began to assume insulting undertones. That was a brief period in history, however, which should have become regarded as incidental, and even at the height of it the words were used overwhelmingly more often as descriptors than as insults. 

   It is interesting to note that other terms intended to be descriptive, like ‘Muntu’ and ‘Bantu’ were also demonized, and of course one of the silliest things of all was to shy away from the word ‘Native’. It is the clearest and most innocent of all the names, as well as being the most accurate. (Ironically, the Americans have returned to that to describe what were formerly called Red Indians – and it appears that very many of that group vastly prefer the Red Indian name.)

   However, it seems that sensitivity arose no matter what terms were brought in. It was total absurdity when Native Affairs went to Bantu Affairs and was then renamed as ‘Ministry of Plural Relations’ and the wags would ask how many Plurals you had working with you.

   Sometimes I wonder which PC is worst: the Puerile Cretins who create the abuse in the first place, or the Prissy Clods who overreact and draw undue attention to it.

© Colonialist April 2012 (WordPress/Letterdash)

About colonialist

Active septic geranium who plays with words writing fantasy novels and professionally editing, with notes writing classical music, and with riding a mountain bike, horses and dinghies. Recently Indie Publishing has been added to this list.
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36 Responses to KAFFIRS

  1. I never thought about this, in this way! My children were taught not to use the word and I will not use it myself, because it is simply seen as an offensive term by most black people. If they don’t like it I think we should honour it, although I don’t mind to be called a Boer!


  2. Son says:

    This is one of the most sensible takes on the situation I have read in a long time. Sticks and stones can break my bones… 🙂


  3. adinparadise says:

    It’s impossible to please everyone, and I do agree with you in the main. I don’t however think that any of these terms when used in a malicious or derogatory manner, are to be tolerated. It’s a difficult one, really.


    • colonialist says:

      That applies to ANYTHING used offensively, and has for a long time existed in any country with decent general legislation. Crimen injuria adequately dealt with it. Therefore it didn’t need the special hoo-ha.


  4. arkenaten says:

    Not being short of readers this choice of topic coming from your ‘pen’ surprises me somewhat.
    And not even a wooden spoon warning either? Brave man, Col.
    Oh well…..
    You are right…and wrong.
    Right, because it is just a word; not really different from many other that may be considered offensive or derogatory. And irrespective of the etymology of ‘ Kaffir’ (non-believer etc) one might squirm a tad if we suddenly added ‘stupid cunt’ to the lexicon of “acceptable derogatory words for politicians”

    Wrong because to my knowledge no white person in South Africa or the States, or anywhere that I can think of has ever been legislated against merely on the basis of the colour of his skin, or been regarded as a sub-human species.
    In this context, afirmative action is not the same thing.
    Not legislating against it, especially in this country would have seen its use continue unabated and with impunity regardless of the hurt it may cause.

    To say, ” I don’t mind being called Soutie, Boer, Plank, Rooinek” or whatever,is a bit fascile, as I have shown the minute I put up a post suggesting English should be the only language used in SA. And it should too. (I KNOW Ghia’s hackles are alreading rising).This immediately invites a torrent of cleverly couched invective suggesting I used shove it where the sun doesn’t shine and bugger off to Blighty, Dontcha know?

    In the context of SA’s racial history, there is no reason why the use of the word should not have been legislated against.


    • colonialist says:

      That description of a politician always has been offensive and always will be; and when applied to anything else, too. The point is that if politicians are increasingly called that with the degree of contempt and dislike currently attached to the word, will it have to be outlawed?

      I still strongly maintain that the legislation did nothing to reduce the underlying problem, and in fact did a lot to exacerbate it. That has been my experience. However, this could descend into one of those, ‘Did!’/’Didn’t!’ -type arguments.

      Incidentally, the emotive use of the word ‘sub-human’ is also inaccurate unless applied to the attitudes of the crassly stupid. The conclusion reached from empirical evidence was that tribal nations the world over were at an earlier stage of civilised development. The argument then raged as to whether it would be a blessing or a curse to force them into the stage reached by older civilisations. On the one hand the idea was held that it merely took exposure to the advancement to have them ranking pari passu, and on the other hand many strongly felt that it was akin to forcing a young child into an adult role. The latter theory explains why a lot of ‘good’ and ‘moral’ people went along with the separate development idea.


      • arkenaten says:

        I used the political vulgarity to emphasis a point of how distasteful a word can be.
        The term sub-human was used to describe Aborigines.
        In SA’s context the word kaffir, with all the baggage it carries, cannot be poo-pooed away merely because we are now democratic.
        You are trying to rationize this from the perspective of someone / race who has never been marginalised in this fashion or legislated against because of skin colour.
        The mark of indelibility will not go away whilst those whose polarized cultures this involved are still so intimately brought together.
        I disagree that legislating against its use will have no effect. If nothing else, it is a minor deterrent against those who would use it without a moments thought.
        I was at a braai a while back where two mixed couples had to endure this type of racist diatribe from threee beer sodden louts who were reminded they were breaking the law and eventually asked to leave.
        Unfortunately, the tone of the post is analytical without being sympathetic.
        Our situation is unique amongst world racism – Apartheid. It undermined, and to an extent, defined a nation. Anything that removes that stain is welcome.


        • colonialist says:

          Of course, we are getting away from one of my original points – the word has NOT been legislated against. Only in practice is it given greater weight than other ‘insults’.
          I have not only been sympathetic but also, to a lesser degree, ethinically discriminated against. I have also been active during the Apartheid era (albeit in a modest way) in trying to bring about equality and enlightenment – against opposition not only from fellow whites but from blacks as well.
          The thing is, I am running out of sympathy. In historical context, Apartheid was a mild form of discrimination indeed as compared with slavery and mass genocide of the past, and even with more recent history. The Nazis proved that even a modern, advanced, and ‘civilized’ race can descend into the most dreadful racism. OK, that is viewed today with the horror it deserves, but still we get black-on-black racism resulting in massive genocide which doesn’t seem to attract nearly the bad press Apartheid has. Why? Perhaps that is another form of racism – tacitly saying it isn’t as bad because it is not imposed by whites?


          • arkenaten says:

            As soon as other elements are drawn into the arguement it suggests the original point was weak and now needs bolstering.
            Again, in context, usage of the word….
            If it only attracts the wrath of the law when used under blatently hurtful and racist conditions why the problem and why the post?


            • colonialist says:

              Hey, I was not the one who originally wandered way off the point! I merely responded,
              The points are as stated in beautiful, elegant, crystal clear prose, in the post. 🙂


  5. optie says:

    Good post Col, people are far too sensitive these days. I hate all the PC terms that we are supposed to embrace.


  6. OyiaBrown says:

    Reblogged this on oyiabrown.


  7. paul says:

    From a “Soutie” this is very well put.


  8. newsferret says:

    You left out the rock spiders and vaalpense!!


    • colonialist says:

      Oops, sorry about that. Very remiss of me. Now you have me wondering where on earth that ‘rock spider’ thing came from. It was just one of the things one said in fun or when a bit miffed.


  9. Pussycat44 says:

    I am proud to be called a Kaaskop!


  10. melouisef says:

    I will watch the comments with great interest


  11. Reblogged this on nebraskaenergyobserver and commented:
    The gem in here is that an insult is an insult only if you are small enough to be insulted. Otherwise know as “Stick and stone may break my bones but words will never hurt me” Grow up, kids.

    Hattip to theconservativehillbilly.


  12. 68ghia says:

    I, being from Boer descent, have been called that many times. As often as not in a derogatory fashion. Do I care? No, not really. I am not ashamed of my ancestors, and I’m not ashamed to be who I am.
    When people take themselves too seriously – that’s when things start hitting the fan…
    Good post Col 😉


    • colonialist says:

      Thanks – generally the people taking themselves so seriously have little to be seriousl about, because they are figures of fun. I, too, count some Boere amongst my ancestors, and even some Rooinekke who were invited to partake in the Great Trek.


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