Reclaiming the word “apartheid”

Nkululeko Nkosi

Reclaiming the word "apartheid"

For nearly a century, “apartheid,” an Afrikaans word meaning “separateness,” defined South Africa by instituting racial segregation as the foundation of our political system.

Photo credits: El C/Wikimedia /Public Domain

For our parents and grandparents, the apartheid years were the source of deep personal trauma. Their generations were compelled to live under that viciously discriminatory system. Those of us who have grown up in post-apartheid South Africa, can clearly sense this legacy of racism even today.Precisely because we South Africans know intimately what apartheid involved, we have a duty to question whether it is an appropriate term to be used in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Put simply, because nobody knows the pain of apartheid better than we do, we are able to guide the rest of the world on when to describe a situation using that term and when to avoid doing so.

Apartheid Revisited

Apartheid in South Africa involved the enshrining of racism as a system of laws and regulations. It was a legal means for the white minority, who made up less than 10 percent of the population, to stabilize their economic and political supremacy. At the same time, apartheid degraded both the identity and dignity of the black population: blacks and other non-white population groups were denied land, the right to vote, freedom of speech, and critically, the right to self-determination.

Because nobody knows the pain of apartheid better than we do, we are able to guide the rest of the world on when to describe a situation using that term

The roots of apartheid go back to 1913, when the Land Act was passed. This legislation, which came into being three years after Afrikaner and British colonists led the country to independence, forced the black majority to live in what were called “native reserve” areas.

Breaking the law
Breaking the law: a mixed couple in Johannesburg, circa 1949. Photo credit:

In 1948, in the wake of a world war that pushed South Africa into a grave economic crisis, the National Party won a general election – in which only white voters participated – with a pledge to formalize and deepen racial segregation. The word “apartheid” was introduced for the first time. The main architect of the system, future Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd, was candid that apartheid was designed to reinforce the country’s already dramatic racial inequalities. “What is the use of teaching the Bantu (black) child mathematics when it [sic] cannot use it in practice?” Verwoerd famously asked. “That is quite absurd. Education must train people in accordance with their opportunities in life, according to the sphere in which they live.” For Verwoerd and other racists, blacks belonged “naturally” at the bottom of the social pile.

Over the following decades, several major laws were passed that cemented apartheid’s grip on South Africa by preventing whites and blacks from living in the same areas and marrying each other. Among these laws were:

  • Population Registration Act (1950) – The basis of apartheid, this legislation classified South Africans into three separate and unequal racial groups: “whites,” “blacks,” and “coloreds.”
  • Group Areas Act (1950) – This legislation compelled blacks to live in separate areas from whites. Forcible removals of black people from areas designated for whites were legally permitted by the legislation.
  • Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act (1949) – This legislation banned marriages between people from different racial backgrounds.
  • Sexual Offenses Act (1957) – Extending the provisions of the 1949 ban on mixed marriages, this legislation prohibited sexual relations between whites and non-whites. Homosexuality was also prohibited.
  • Suppression of Communism Act (1950) – This legislation defined “communism” as any opposition to racial segregation. During the apartheid years, more than 1,000 anti- apartheid activists were “banned” by the courts, meaning they were not allowed to appear in public, publish articles, or travel.

These and similar laws demonstrated the tyrannical and evil nature of apartheid. Its primary aim was to establish white supremacy by denying fundamental human rights to non-whites. Power laid entirely in the hands of the white minority – there were no black parliamentarians and no black judges.

As a social system, apartheid was completely invasive, recognizing neither privacy nor individuality. Who one associated with, lived next door to, went to work with, became friends with, developed a loving relationship with – all this was determined by the apartheid laws, rather than personal preference. In that sense, apartheid can be interpreted as a form of totalitarianism.

What apartheid needed most from black people was their labor – as cheap as possible. In keeping with Verwoerd’s view that blacks were racially inferior to whites, an education policy was designed to prevent blacks from improving their lot. The Bantu Education Act (1953) forced black students to learn in Afrikaans, a language they did not speak or understand. The majority of black schools didn’t have plumbing or electricity. Indeed, the schools which black children attended educated them not to expect anything better.

Apartheid’s legacy: Soweto township today. Photo credit: Matt-80/CC BY 2.0

Of course, black people did not take this persecution lying down. There were many protests and uprisings against the injustice of the authorities, with the most significant occurring on June 16, 1976. On that day, thousands of school students in Soweto, a sprawling black township near Johannesburg, took to the streets to protest against the compulsory education in Afrikaans. The Soweto uprising, which claimed the lives of nearly 600 people and wounded more than 3,000 after the police shot demonstrators with live ammunition, sparked an uprising across the country that culminated in the dismantling of apartheid almost twenty years later.

Soweto Uprising 1976: 12 year-old Hector Pieterson was one of the first students killed in the 1976 Soweto rebellion. Photo credit: © Sam Nzima, 1976

With Soweto in flames, the apartheid regime ratcheted up the persecution, particularly against resistance publications like Drum Magazine and The Daily Dispatch, which were banned for exposing a cover-up in the murder case of anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko (the authorities had claimed that Biko committed suicide, but an investigation from a Daily Dispatch journalist found that Biko was actually murdered). The suppression of media freedom in South Africa was a deliberate attempt by the apartheid regime to not only hide the truth from its own subjects, but from the people of the world too.

Can Apartheid South Africa Be Compared with Israel?

The comparison between Israel and apartheid South Africa has been around for more than 50 years. Its originators were not black South Africans or even Palestinians, but the Soviet Union, which backed the Arab states against Israel for geopolitical reasons. That is why the 1975 UN General Assembly resolution equating Zionism with racism explicitly mentions apartheid South Africa in the same breath as Israel. Although this resolution was formally rescinded by the UN General Assembly in 1991, the comparison is still being made through events like the annual Israel Apartheid Week. We therefore need to establish whether it contains any truth.

Apartheid was about race, not religion or nationality. It is well known that the conflict between Israel and Palestine encompasses both religious and territorial disputes. In South Africa, the primary issue was race; specifically, the domination of one race over another.

In day-to-day discussions with ordinary Israeli citizens, I learned from Arabs and Jews, and I sensed their burning desire to live together as harmonious neighbors

By contrast, Arab citizens of Israel enjoy the same rights and freedoms as Jewish Israelis. On my last trip to Israel, I found that unlike apartheid South Africa, there is no deliberate effort by the government to segregate a specific group in Israel. In day-to-day discussions with ordinary Israeli citizens, I learned from Arabs and Jews, and I sensed their burning desire to live together as harmonious neighbors. In apartheid South Africa, Afrikaners disdained black South Africans, and these sentiments are still in evidence today.

Some argue that a comparison can be drawn between the territories controlled by the Palestinian Authority and the so-called bantustans in South Africa. The bantustans were “homelands” for blacks created by the apartheid regime, which then tried to fool the rest of the world into thinking that these poverty-stricken lands were independent states.

But the idea that the West Bank can be compared to the bantustans is absurd for many reasons. By the 1970s, around four million blacks were living in the bantustans, and the of the apartheid regime was to eventually deport the entire black population to these impoverished locations. Nothing remotely similar has ever been proposed by Israel, which has made clear that it does not want to rule over the Palestinians indefinitely.

Additionally, living conditions were much worse in the bantustans, one reason being that foreign governments refused to recognize them in any way, which meant that economic aid was withheld. Conversely, the Palestinian Authority is intended to become a sovereign state and has accordingly received billions of dollars in aid from international governments.

In Israel, unlike apartheid South Africa, the truth is not sup- pressed. The ability of the censored media to tell the whole world of what was happening in South Africa was vital to the liberation struggle. The apartheid regime’s response was to ban independent thinking and, of course, dissent. In Israel that is not the case. The rights of journalists and media outlets are protected by the law and courts. For example, in September 2014, Israel’s Supreme Court ruled that journalist Ilana Dayan was protected from libel claims by a former military officer, who objected to his portrayal in an investigative television program concerning the 2004 killing of a Palestinian girl near the Gaza border. In apartheid South Africa, there was no similar legal recourse for any journalist. Banning orders and other intimidation methods were embedded in the law and therefore final and legally enforceable.

In Israel, suffrage is universal. Unlike black people in apartheid South Africa, Arabs in Israel are entitled to vote in national elections, elect their own representatives, and have their interests represented in political deliberations. In 2015, the predominantly Arab party, the Joint List, won 15 parliamentary seats. This party is known to be one of the harshest critics of the Israeli government. The point here is that Israeli policy and law allow dissent and opposition without instilling fear of banishment or imprisonment. As already discussed, South African law under apartheid did not afford non-white South Africans the right to vote or have political representation. Unlike the bantustans, Palestinians have their own independent government which they themselves elect, whereas in apartheid South Africa, representatives for non-whites were appointed by, and accountable to, the central government in Pretoria. That was why one of the main slogans of the anti-apartheid resistance was “one person, one vote.”

Arabs in Israel enjoy more freedom than those living in Palestine, particularly in Gaza, where the Islamist Hamas movement rules by promoting fear

In apartheid South Africa, blacks could not even dream of equality. Apartheid was so petty. It was unimaginable that a black judge could preside over a matter involving a white man. Apartheid introduced laws and practices to ensure that non-white South Africans could not use the same amenities, such as buses, parks, bathrooms, and public benches. The apartheid government would not have allowed a person of color to hold any position of influence, while in Israel, Arabs are found in the highest ranks of political, civil, and even military life.

Paul Weinberg/CC BY – SA 3.0
South African protester
A South African protester makes her point at a rally in downtown Johannesburg. Photo credit: Africans for Peace

Israel protects both freedom and diversity. Arabs in Israel enjoy more freedom than those living in Palestine, particularly in Gaza, where the Islamist Hamas movement rules by promoting fear. The rights of women in Palestine are not respected, as was the case under apartheid, where a black woman could not own or administrate her own property without the patronage of a man. Under the apartheid regime, homosexuality was punishable by a jail sentence or a fine. Israel was one of the first countries to recognize the rights of the entire LGBT community.

Please – don’t steal the word “apartheid!” For black South Africans, apartheid was more than just systematic discrimination against our people. It was a project that aimed to rob a specific race of its history, culture, dignity, and humanity. Those who apply the term “apartheid” to the Israeli-Palestinian impasse are guilty of perpetuating that same theft, by denying the unique- ness of the racism and hatred that we faced, and which we have overcome with much blood and tears. While the challenges that face Israel and her neighbor Palestine may result in one group feeling dis- criminated against by the other, it is very different from the legally-blessed racism, based on the discredited idea of white supremacy, that once reigned in my country.

Women apartheid protest
Members of the Federation of South African Women to protest apartheid, 1955. credit: © UWC-Robben Island Mayibuye Archives


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