The K-word Using South Africa’s version of the N-word may soon mean jail time

This week, South Africa released a draft law that would criminalize racism by referring future hate speech cases to criminal courts instead of the civil courts where they are currently heard.

  • Published:
24/7 Live - Subscribe to the Pulse Newsletter!

JOHANNESBURG — After thieves broke into her car, a white South African motorist lashed out at the responding black police officers. She called black people “plain and simple useless” before unleashing the most offensive racial slur around.

Not the N-word, but the K-word: kaffir.

The word is South Africa’s most charged epithet, a term historically used by whites to denigrate black people and considered so offensive that it is rarely said out loud or rendered fully in print.

Because of her racist tirade, caught on video early this year, the driver, Vicki Momberg, is on trial and will probably face a hefty fine. Because of her rant and several others like it, lawmakers in South Africa, where the wounds of apartheid remain raw, are moving to make hate speech a crime punishable by up to 10 years in prison.

This week, South Africa released a draft law that would criminalize racism by referring future hate speech cases to criminal courts instead of the civil courts where they are currently heard.

“The recent racist utterances and many other incidents of vicious crimes perpetrated under the influence of racial hate, despite our efforts over the past two decades to build our new nation on these values, has necessitated further measures,” Justice Minister Michael Masutha said at a news conference Monday.

The government’s move has ignited a fierce debate. Criminalizing hate speech, opponents say, would have a chilling effect on another hard-won victory: freedom of expression. Under the proposed law, hate speech would be broadly defined as direct or electronic communication that “advocates hatred,” incites violence or causes contempt or ridicule.

A first-time offender could be punished by up to three years in prison, and a repeat offender could face imprisonment of up to 10 years.

Beyond the stiff penalties, critics say, the proposed law would also distract from the real problems in South Africa, where blacks have political power but where economic power and cultural influence remain disproportionately in the hands of whites, who account for only 9 percent of the population.

“Race and racism should be understood as structural problems, problems of inequality, to be resolved through a program of justice and not criminalization,” said Joel Modiri, a lecturer in jurisprudence at the University of Pretoria. “Here you have a black-majority society that is essentially demanding protection from a white minority. It’s revealing the deeper problem that you have a majority in this country that is fundamentally powerless.”

By adopting such a law, South Africa would join Britain, Canada, France, Germany and other countries where hate speech is a crime.

But it would move further away from the United States, a country with which it shares a history of racism by whites against blacks. In the U.S., the First Amendment protects almost all expression, no matter how offensive.

In February, Momberg was caught in Johannesburg verbally abusing the black officers.

The video, which spread across the internet in South Africa, shows Momberg, apparently angry at how long it took the police to respond, yelling that she did not want the assistance of a black officer. She said she wanted to be helped by an official who was white, Indian or mixed race.

“One kaffir is bad enough,” she said. “This happens all the time, all the time. The kaffirs here in Joburg are terrible. I’m so sick of it.” She is also heard calling black people “opinionated,” “arrogant” and “useless.” Later in the video, she says that if she sees a black person, “I will drive him over.”

“If I have a gun I will shoot everybody,” she adds.

The South African Human Rights Commission has said it will also take Momberg to the Equality Court, a body established in the post-apartheid era to deal with discrimination.

While South Africa’s post-apartheid constitution guarantees freedom of expression, it excludes “advocacy of hatred that is based on race, ethnicity, gender or religion, and that constitutes incitement to cause harm.” An act passed in 2000 broadened the definition of hate speech to include expressions that are “hurtful” and “harmful” or that will “incite harm” or “promote or propagate hatred.”

Pierre de Vos, a constitutional scholar at the University of Cape Town, said the country was already “quite aggressive in targeting hate speech.”

“Given our history, the people who drafted our constitution assumed that although freedom of expression is very important, hate speech cannot under any circumstance serve any valuable purpose,” he said.

Last month, a high court judge ordered a white man named Wayne Swanepoel to pay 100,000 rand, or about $7,000, for using the epithet against a black man during an argument. The judge said the word “cannot be heard without flinching.”

Critics say that too broadly defining hate speech will erode freedom of expression and do little to heal the country’s racial wounds.

“You cannot legislate for good human behavior; you cannot legislate for social cohesion,” said Tusi Fokane, executive director of the Freedom of Expression Institute, a private organization. “Given our past, a lot more will be required than banning and criminalizing expressions.”

The difficulty in defining hate speech is evident in the differences between the constitution and the 2000 act, experts said. Even the most explosive slur would be considered hate speech under the act, but would not automatically be labeled such under the constitution.

The offensive word is derived from the Arabic word “kafir,” meaning nonbeliever or non-Muslim. Over the centuries in South Africa, its usage changed, eventually becoming a racist term.

“The K-word here and the N-word in the States are essentially vehicles for expressing hate, a way of demeaning another person to make them less than what you are,” said Millard Arnold, 60, an American who has lived in South Africa for more than two decades and is a trustee of the Steve Biko Foundation, a community development organization. “In both societies, those two words resonate virtually the same way.”

If the offending South African word was widely used during apartheid, it is now taboo.

“While I was growing up, some books made reference to it, but it was always used in a historical context,” said Ramabina Mahapa, 24, a former president of the student council at the University of Cape Town, who grew up in a rural area. “Nobody has ever called me that.”

Last year, when the student council participated in a movement to remove a statue of the colonial-era businessman Cecil Rhodes from campus, Mahapa received racist emails calling him a monkey or baboon, but never this particular epithet, he said. That fact, to him, put the word in a different category.

Trevor Noah, the South African host of “The Daily Show,” tried to strip the word of its singular power in his 2012 stand-up show, “That’s Racist.” Like some black Americans who have tried to re-appropriate the N-word, Noah said he wanted to turn the South African equivalent into a positive term and even start a National Kaffir Day.

The attempt fizzled, an indication that South Africa was not ready for the word.

“I understood the attempt,” Kagiso Lediga, a prominent stand-up comedian, said in an interview. “It was well spirited, and it came from a good place, trying to make it into a good word. But leave it alone. That’s ground zero there in terms of words. That’s straight-up heavy radiation there.”

Do you ever witness news or have a story that should be featured on Pulse Ghana?
Submit your stories, pictures and videos to us now via WhatsApp: +233507713497, Social Media @pulseghana: #PulseEyewitness & DM or Email: eyewitness@pulse.com.gh.

Recommended Articles

Recommended Videos