By Jaydon Farao
When I was 10, I got into the habit of eavesdropping on adult conversations. A perilous and thrilling endeavour. It was around this age when I first heard the word I wasn’t supposed to hear. A relative had uttered it with a casualness of a Sunday afternoon stroll. The context of the conversation eludes my memory, but the word’s pronouncement remains indelible.
They said k*ffir.
The way in which the word strolled from their mouth, briefly sitting on their lips, only to rush out and permeate the innocence of my ears, was horrifying. The word had immense weight, leaving me unable to discard it from memory. A dark mould capitalising on my infantile consciousness. I stared into the hateful home the word had just left, into the moving mouth continuing its momentum without stammering. I stood there in silence. There were other mouths there besides mine.
No one said a word.
When South Africa “discarded” its chromatic scheme of classification and embraced one symbolic of a rainbow, the euphoria clouded judgement just long enough for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to complete its proceedings. All was meant to be well. Instead, the Republic still sat with the foundations of its transgenerational trauma, racism and white supremacy; the destructive factors that led to my encounter with the K-word. Racial hatred often follows demographic patterns. This time, it did not. It came from a so-called coloured person. This is no surprise to many South Africans. Anti-black rhetoric is rife within the coloured community, clearly signally the success of the Apartheid state’s goal; to divide on the grounds of race. One only needs to sit around the dinner table on holidays, as politics inevitably veers in, to experience the racism infested within the coloured community.
I began grappling with these thoughts as I entered adulthood, while simultaneously entering my racial identity crisis. I fleshed out what it means to live in a city as racially segregated as Cape Town, trying to dismantle the social and spatial obstructions that remain strongly built by Apartheid. Some of those structures affording me opportunities while concurrently obstructing my dignity.
I was privileged enough to visit the UK on an exchange programme when I was in grade 10. It was my first trip outside the African continent. It would also be my first confrontation to questions of my identity regarding my race. I was sitting alone one day, in the cafeteria at lunch time and had reluctantly welcomed a fellow student, a Connor-type, when he asked to join. The conversation had begun with pleasantries and continued with my rehearsed responses flowing freely. It took a turn just as I had exhausted my script.
“What are you exactly? Are you white? Black?” Connor ambushed into the territory he was obviously preparing for. I entertained this as a genuine inquest while he glared at my low-fade haircut, perplexed by my light skin tone. I explained how race had been defined under the Apartheid government and the box I need to tick when filling out any application. Connor sat back and took a moment to finish chewing his food. Eventually, he unleashed his actual reason for sitting directly across from me.
“What’s a k*ffir?”
I stopped drinking my water, and slowly set my glass on the table. shocked at the ease with which the word had crossed continents to fall upon my ears. I begged his pardon, attempting to imagine he had said something else.
He repeated his question.
I paused once more. Still naïvely assuming his innocence, I explained the vulgarity of that word. Contextualising the similarities and differences with the N-word. Attempting to bridge the gap in his ignorance. He sat there, I thought, digesting the painful thing he had said. I imagined he would be ready to apologise and that we would fetch our dessert before continuing down another path of conversation. I was a fool though, because he knew the meaning of the word before we had sat down. He wanted me to explain its power and its painful history, so that he could say, “Cheers k*ffir,” as he got up to leave the dining hall. Leaving me to hear it once more, sitting with my empty plate, my embarrassment, and my shame.
In that moment, in which I felt incredibly lonely, I picked up my tray, dropped it off, and walked to my room. Smiling to anyone I recognised, hiding what I had experienced. Exceptional othering of intense indignity. I was left to navigate the reception of that hatred knowing that in South Africa, people who looked and sounded like me were using that exact word to denigrate and direct hatred towards Black people. My dignity was stripped that afternoon, but coloured people back home were still acting as agents of white supremacy, forcing Biko to roll in his grave while Verwoerd rejoiced in his. How was I supposed to position myself on the receiving end of that word, when people who resemble me have used it? This dichotomy poses a challenge to reconcile and exhibit my Blackness with the ever-present racial rift that exists in this country. I am not supposed to hear the K-word, but I do. It has travelled oceans and generations to the delight of white supremacists and it disheartens me.
Much of my anger and shame concerning the K-word is rooted in my acknowledgement of the power of words and language. A power which has been capitalised by many malevolent individuals in history. It has presented itself on all spectrums of hate. “Those people”, “them”, “illegal aliens”. A masterstroke of othering. This kind of language does not develop spontaneously, so in trying to understand the power of a word, one can often look towards its roots. The K-word has Arabic origins but was stolen by Europeans to describe indigenous people of South Africa. A descriptive word, with existing derogatory undertones. Its path towards violence in this country was carefully constructed. During Apartheid it put on its cloak and strutted on the racist landscape it was free to inhabit, with the campaign slogan of the National Party in 1948 being, “Die k*ffir op sy plek.” In 1976 the word became unlawful in South Africa, but still very much in mainstream racism nationally. It would take 24 years before it was classified as hate speech, with the first conviction of a person using racist language, Vicki Momberg, occurring only in 2018. The incident was recorded. She had said the K-word 48 times (that we know of).
It took convicted racist Vicki Momberg saying that dehumanising word 48 times, on camera, to allow the extent of her actions to be reprimanded by law. This was not her first day at the K-word rodeo. She was fully aware of her power, despite her lawyers arguing her state of mind being out of the ordinary in that way that racists are usually presented. People who are under “stress” in vulnerable situations and just cannot help but blurt it out. The people making excuses for these racists have usually encountered such behaviour before and encouraged or ignored it. It may not have begun with extreme vulgarity, but it began somewhere. The way in which we criticise cultures. The way in which we other different people. This is how power develops. This is how white supremacy operates. So, when I hear that “word” being spoken around me or at me, I freeze. I am angry with myself because I haven’t done enough to combat it. This is part of why I despise that “word”. It reveals my complicity in its continuing legacy.
Part of the word’s power is silence. Silence from those who would never dream to say it, but upon hearing it, join it in its invisibility. This invisibility includes reactions to all expressions of hate, with or without vile words. We contribute to the everlasting breathe of racism if we are to disengage and detract. It’s a culture of silence that has grown from an irrational loyalty and fear of confrontation, and it aggregates our complicity. We need to categorically call out racism, to the extent of embarrassing its agents, in order to limit its relevance. It begins around the dinner table as you’re dishing up the main course, and that one uncle says something you’re not supposed to hear.