A fellow traveler and I were visiting the Constitutional Court of South Africa. This place is where the South African Supreme Court resides and court cases are heard. Through prior arrangement, we were given a tour of the Hall by two young people who worked there: a white South African man who was a descendant of the Afikaaners and a black South African woman. Both were born on or around the time when Apartheid was vanquished so they represented the new South Africa.
Even though Constitutional Court is for judicial purposes, it houses numerous art exhibits and these I found the most interesting. There were works in various forms such as ceramics and paint but the photography placed on one wall was what I found the most revealing. There were a series of documentary-style photographs showing anti-Aparteid street battles, black-on-black violence, poor living conditions and other themes.
While we were looking at the photos, I was asked by the guides which was the most interesting. I replied that my favorite was the photo titled Welcome to Hell Park. I liked the it because it showed in the foreground a hand-painted on a sign with another sign in the background saying Welcome to Hell Park. The poem very well expressed the frustration of a black South African and how he was seen by whites and how he in turn saw the whites.
One word in the poem puzzled me because it didn’t make sense in the context of the poem and that word was “kaffir.” I thought that was an Arabic word for non-believer, infidel, a person without a religion. In this context, frustration about race, it didn’t make sense.
I pointed to the word and asked the white South African what it meant. He said that it was “a very loaded word”, and then looked away, his body language telegraphing he was uncomfortable answering my question.
I then turned to the black South African and asked her. She answered simply, “It means ‘nigger’.” As I found out later, kaffir was derived from the Arabic word “kafir” which does mean infidel but was used by whites as a pejorative term under Apartheid. Since words do hurt people and since kaffir was used to insult black South Africans, the use of is was made unacceptable and if used at all “k-word” should be said.
America did something similar with the word nigger. This word too was deemed hate-speech and if to be used at all, especially by white people, “n-word” must be used.
Before I came to South Africa I had been expecting to see lingering race hatred because of Apartheid. I was expecting that any contact with black South Africans would be strained at best and that the language of racial hatred would still be there. However, I was treated very well by blacks and whites. In many places I couldn’t see any evidence of Apartheid or racial friction and in some ways it looks like South Africans have put racism behind them but like America and its n-word, South Africa has its k-word.