I am not a very squeamish or prude person and have been known to let out a swearword or 10. At the same time, I know that words are powerful things and can deeply hurt and offend others.

I was therefore taken aback when I read that Irvin Khoza had told a black journalist at a media conference that he should “stop thinking like a kaffir because you are contriving and misleading about something that is not there”. I was even more surprised when Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya, defended the use of the word “kaffir” in a column in the Mail & Guardian last week.

This term has an ugly history in South Africa and was almost exclusively used by white racists as a gross generalisation to denigrate black South Africans. To be called a “kaffir” is to be called a lazy and stupid person. But the assumption behind the word is that by being lazy and stupid, one is merely behaving as all black people always behave — as white people expect and know all black people to behave. So even when a white person is called a “kaffir”, the recipient of the insult is being told that he or she is just as lazy and stupid as all black people are known to be by all racist white people.

Moya argued that it was acceptable for one black person to call another black person a “kaffir”:

There is a difference when blacks say that someone is “behaving like a kaffir” and calling a person a “kaffir”. The first instance implies that the person so described is behaving in a manner that the racists expect of them. The latter says that you associate yourself with the racist moniker. The two cannot be guilty of the same offence.

Although there is clearly a distinction here, I do not think that this is a justifiable distinction that would rehabilitate an otherwise objectionable word. It is not as bad for one black person to call another black person a “kaffir” as it would be for a white person to do so, but it certainly is not progressive either. This is because even in such a case the word is still used in a pejorative manner and the user of the term is at least inadvertently reinforcing the prejudice and racism associated with the word.

When a black person calls another black person a “kaffir”, it reinforces the idea that there is such a person as a “kaffir”, that such a person is a really bad person, and that such a person is thus not worthy of respect. By using it in a negative way — even if it is in a different context — one perpetuates the notion that a “kaffir” is a bad person, worthy of contempt and ridicule.

Instead of undermining the power of the word to hurt and humiliate, one is reinforcing that power and giving the racists who might use it a powerful tool they can continue using to denigrate and hurt black people.

It would be different if people started using “kaffir” in a positive sense and completely subverted the negative connotation of the word and undercut the power that it still holds for white racists. If black South Africans began using the word positively, say, by calling each other “my fellow kaffir”, or, when giving someone a compliment for being so cool and switched on, saying that so and so is “a real kaffir” (meaning a cool dude), it would undermine the racist power of the word.

This is what happened in the United States where gay and lesbian academics and activists started using the word “queer” — which used to be a deeply insulting and hurtful term for homosexuals — in a positive manner. Soon, queer-studies departments flourished on campuses all over the States and being queer stopped being a negative or shameful thing.

We all wanted to be queer because that was hip and happening. Being queer meant that one was adventurous and questioned traditional boundaries, and generally a clever person who questioned the status quo.

Some of us are also trying to rehabilitate the word “moffie” to mean something similar to “queer”, but sadly gay men and lesbians themselves often still use the word in a pejorative way, which makes the task rather difficult. When one gay man says that another is “such a moffie” — just like Irvin Khoza said the journalist was behaving like a “kaffir” — that gay man is really saying that another gay man is behaving in a camp or girlish manner, thus exactly like prejudiced heterosexuals think all gay men behave.

But my question would be: What is wrong with behaving like a moffie? Who cares what heterosexual homophobes think? By worrying about that and by buying into that stereotype, one is merely handing power back to those who have always used the word to hurt and humiliate. Why not use “moffie” as a positive term to mean an out and proud gay man who does not care a f@#$k what others might think of his behaviour?

After all, the only thing “wrong” with being a camp and girly man is that one will be judged by homophobic and prejudiced hetero- and homosexuals who wish to police gender boundaries that are far more fluid than they wish to admit to themselves or others.

So let us “kaffirs” and “moffies” get together and celebrate the fact that we are proud and out “kaffirs” and “moffies” who will not be intimidated and hurt by the prejudices of others. That way we will help to pull the sting of these words and strike a real blow against racism and homophobia.


  • Professor Pierre de Vos teaches constitutional law at the University of Western Cape. His writing has been published widely in both scholarly journals and in the popular press on a wide range of topics, including gay rights, the right to equality, social and economic rights, and affirmative action. Since October 2006 he also publishes a blog, Constitutionally Speaking.


Pierre de Vos

Professor Pierre de Vos teaches constitutional law at the University of Western Cape. His writing has been published widely in both scholarly journals and in the popular press on a wide range of topics,...

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