The word kaffir, sometimes spelt kafir, is a term of Arabic roots which literally means a concealer of the truth, a disbeliever, an infidel, an unbeliever, one without God; a disgrace. Originally it was used by Arab and Somali Muslim traders to refer to non-Muslims in southern Africa – rejecters of the Islamic faith. The Oxford English Dictionary, the famous OED, known as the definitive record of the English language defines the term kaffir as “A member of a group of South African peoples belonging to the Nguni subdivision of the Bantu family, including the Xhosa (and sometimes the Zulu) peoples; =caffre n. 2. Also attrib., and as the name for their languages. Also: (in later use freq. disparagingly) any black African. In extended use (as a term of opprobrium): a white person who associates with or is thought to favour black Africans.” The OED gives the example: “A Kafir, when sitting on the ground, stretches his legs like a European.” The definitive record of the English language proceeds to warn: “Since the early 20th cent. The word is extremely offensive in S. Afr. contexts, and widely avoided elsewhere.” Let’s get distracted a bit by other linguistic niceties. The OED reveals the word Kaffirs may be used to refer to “The Stock Exchange term for South African mine shares. Also attrib. Now hist.” As in the example “Tintos climbed to 12¼, and even Kaffirs raised their sickly heads.” Or “Dealers in the Kaffir market.”
The word Kaffir was used by Portuguese explorers to refer to African tribes they encountered in southern Africa before colonialism. The word was also used in English, Dutch and, later, Afrikaans, from the 16th century to the early 20th century as a general term for several different black peoples of southern Africa. Later in the 20th century the Afrikaners seized on the term as the highest level of insult against the black Africans of southern Africa. The early Boer trek farmers used the word to describe a person not converted to Christianity. The word is now considered highly racially offensive. Recently I was fortunate to read a chapter from the historian Paul S. Laundau’s book Popular politics in the history of South Africa, 1400-1948. I have to think the historian Fred Morton for this privilege. In the chapter Translations (Missionaries and the invention of Christianity) Landau writes: It makes little sense to think in terms of a traditional religious system, per se, or even a set of practices and ideas with a discreet religious function, over most of southern Africa. There was no separate body of practices with an interpretative priesthood or set of rituals; no accepted set of ideas connected to an afterlife or eternal life; no vision of an omnipotent God standing apart from men and time. No religious system or spiritual domain can be postulated before missionaries introduced those ideas themselves.” Put differently, before the missionaries, the southern Africa did not know God. Before the missionaries, the southern African was a kaffir, an infidel, a concealer of truth. Having said that Landau quotes Malcolm McVeigh, the author of God in Africa,who observes that: “The Tswana for example use an elaborate system of signs in their worship. One method is for a man to put his hand on his chest. Another worshipper strikes his thigh, followed by the tossing of dirt or pieces of wood into the air….these are the equivalent of voiced prayers.” Commenting on this act of prayer Landau observes that “the people can be said to have always known prayer, but imperfectly, incompletely”. The argument that the people can be said to have always known prayer, but imperfectly, incompletely raises the question of whether there is such an entity or concept of what we refer to as perfect or complete prayer. Does prayer have to be verbal for it to be perfect prayer? Couldn’t bowing, raising, or making the sign of the cross on the chest as Catholics do, be considered prayer?
Further Landau points out that: “Indeed one can hadly speak of “the Xhosa” in a stable sense over a wide area without simply using it as a polite substitute for “kafirs,” the derogatory employed by the British settlers in the Eastern Cape”. There is some evidence that the term “kafirs” was occasionally used to refer specifically to the Xhosa people, as in such inoffensive linguistic works as interpreter Bud’ Mbelle’s Kafir Scholar’s Companion, Kropf’s Kaffir-English Dictionary, J. Torrend’s Outline of Xosa-Kafir Grammar‘, and J. McLaren’s Introductory Kaffir Grammar‘, where a distinction was made between the ‘Kaffir’ Xhosa and the other Bantu tribes of Southern Africa.
Many historians did mention that “the Highveld population displayed no religious worship. There was no realm of the sacred, and no false idols to overturn. The first missionaries found Highveld farmers, and indeed all South Africas, entirely unconcerned with a “deity” in their own lives”. This led van der Kemp to proclaim that these south Africans had “No word to express the Deity by”. William Shaw observed that there was “No knowledge of any God true or false”.Broadbent that the people had “no idea of spiritual, visible, and infinite Being”. Robert Moffat observed that the people he worked amongst: “had no religion. They were entirely ignorant of a…Creator….they were neither theists nor idolaters”. If this view was pervasive, is it any wonder that the Tswana as well as other southern Africans were considered kaffirs; a label which once defined the entire Xhosa group? If one without faith is called a kaffir, does that mean Londoners and New Yorkers who are unbelievers, whether they be yellow, black or white, are kaffirs? The view that southern Africans had no idea of God has offended many of my friends and has led them to label Landau a racist. We were just kaffirs or historians such as Landau as well as missionaries poorly understood the complexity of African religious system in southern Africa? It is up to you to make your mind on this matter.