South Africa's hated K-word Kafir: Nelson Mandela has called for its removal as an insult from the vocabulary of apartheid and colonialism. But others argue that its use on gravestones is historic and should be preserved.

Sun Journal

January 20, 1998|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

PILGRIM'S REST, South Africa -- The weathered gravestone of Fred J. Sanders, who died at age 24 in this old gold-mining town 120 years ago, is the unlikely focus of a dilemma facing the new South Africa: What to do with hundreds of offensive and insensitive monuments from the colonial and apartheid eras?

The epitaph on Sanders' headstone, in the weed-covered hillside cemetery here, states that on Aug. 27, 1878, he was "shot in a skirmish with kafirs."

So offensive is the word "kafir" today that the Mpumalanga provincial branch of the ruling African National Congress wants the stone removed. But the National Monuments Council, viewing it as a symbol of the nation's turbulent past, has voted to leave it alone.

In a land covered with memorials to foreign dominance and white supremacy, it is a controversy with national echoes.

Black and white communicants of the Anglican diocese of Grahamstown, the old British garrison in the Eastern Cape, spent five years pondering five plaques -- none of them national monuments -- in the Cathedral of St. Michael and St. George that contained, in a variant spelling, the word "kaffir."

Clergy and congregation -- descendants of old foes -- pondered whether to remove the plaques, place them in less visible positions or erase the offensive wording. There was agreement on only two points: The plaques should not be destroyed and the status quo could not be continued because it was potentially too "explosive."

The compromise, reached last year, was that the offensive words would be covered with marble.

"It is not an ideal situation as far as many people in the parish are concerned," says the Rev. Dinga Mpunzi, explaining that many parishioners favored removing the plaques to a museum but no museum was prepared to take them.

"Covering something when you know what is behind that, it really doesn't help that much," he says.

Sanders' gravestone in Pilgrim's Rest, near the western border of Kruger National Park, became the focus of attention after local ANC politicians wrote to the National Monuments Council demanding that the stone be removed. The stone is not itself a national monument, but the cemetery in which it lies is.

"Obviously the people are not happy about that inscription," says Jackson Mthembu, spokesman for the provincial ANC. "The president himself has said that words like 'kafir' should not be tolerated in our new democracy. We want it removed. 'Kafir' is not acceptable to a majority of people in this country."

The ANC, he says, would ask the monuments council to reconsider its decision. If it refused, the party would appeal to the minister of arts, who has budgetary authority over the autonomous council. If that failed, the matter would be taken to Parliament. "We don't think the Parliament of South Africa can uphold that ruling of the council," says Thembu.

Initially, the National Monuments Council was of two minds. Its executive committee recommended removing the stone, but a majority of the 12 members of the council decided that it was not its role to "sanitize" history. The Sanders gravestone and other potentially offensive monuments, they agreed, should not be held to a redefinition of political correctness that comes with black rule.

"We simply accepted that they were declared [monuments] at the time, and that we can't go back and undeclare them," says John Milton, chairman of the National Monuments Council.

"In the case of those that have offensive inscriptions by reason of reference to race and so on, again, we can't rewrite history. And tampering with the gravestone -- if you change the wording of it -- you are in a sense desecrating it."

"Our approach," he says, "should be to try and put these things in context and try to explain them in a sympathetic way, but we should not interfere with decisions already made."

When the word "kafir" was engraved on Sanders' headstone, Milton says, it did not have the insulting meaning it carries today. It was simply a general reference to the indigenous peoples.

The council today has two black members, an Indian, a Malay and eight white members. When most of the historic monuments were declared, it was an all-white group.

To try to offset reaction to its decision to endorse the old monuments, the council has ordered its offices in the nation's nine provinces to identify local places of spiritual, historical and cultural significance that might be declared national monuments.

"We felt as a group there had been too much of an emphasis on Euro-centric monuments in the sense of buildings that had been constructed by European settlers," says Milton. "By that sort of focus one tended to exclude the other population groups who didn't have that sort of culture of long-term buildings."

Among the sites already recommended as new national monuments by the council are:

Modimolle Mountain in the Northern Province, which the Venda people believe is a dwelling place for their ancestral spirits.

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