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)