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I suspect that for many of my American, Palestinian, and Israeli peers, the word “apartheid” is relatively new to their lexicon. In recent weeks, I’ve seen it sprinkled frequently across organizations’ statements, Instagram story infographics, and powerful opinions I have edited for this very paper. But for other South Africans and me, that word has been inescapably familiar since birth.
Apartheid carries a different, considerable weight back home — and I wish more people respected that.
Mostly, I see people tossing around formal definitions of apartheid from institutions like the International Criminal Court, which talks of crimes against humanity “committed in the context of an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group or groups and committed with the intention of maintaining that regime.”
What a sad, sterile, scholarly, and outrageously inadequate definition.
In all my years being born and raised in South Africa, never once have I heard a South African describe Apartheid that way. Note, for starters, how I capitalize the “a” in Apartheid — because for my countrymen, “apartheid” is not some abstract concept to be defined by jargon in international humanitarian law. Ask a South African to define the word “apartheid,” and they’ll likely look at you funny — because Apartheid is not a word to be defined at all. Apartheid was a set of torturous lived events in history that still influence every aspect of millions of lives to this day.
Yes, Apartheid was “systemic oppression” of “one racial group by another,” but that description alone does not do it justice. Apartheid was one of dehumanization’s most aggressive manifestations. Apartheid was how people lived entire lives — or had them cut short — under all-consuming, unrelenting fear. Apartheid is why so many Black South Africans still live in poverty in the most economically inequitable country in the world. Apartheid was the chronic trauma inflicted upon multiple generations of a nation — generations of people still alive and well enough to tell stories of cruelty that will haunt many generations to come.
So, when I say the actions of the Israeli government and military are “not Apartheid,” I do not mean that the restricted civil rights and inhumane living conditions that Israel forces upon Palestinians are not terrifyingly reprehensible and oppressive. Nor do I mean that they don’t rise to the standard of that sterile legal definition — I believe there is a strong case for that.
I simply mean to say that Apartheid, to the people it has directly affected, refers to something quite distinct and I would like to give those events their own sanctified space in our language.
Carving out a space for significant events in language is not without precedent. One such example of particular relevance to Israel is the word “holocaust.” “Holocaust” — the uncapitalized version — has been a word with a meaning separate from the actions of Nazi Germany for centuries. However, in all likelihood, both of the times you just read the word holocaust, you instinctively thought of The Holocaust — intentionally so. We collectively use that word to refer to a particular set of genocidal events because they deserve that important spot in our history and discourse. We would not want to water down that unimaginable horror by referring to all somewhat analogous events in the same way.
Apartheid — an Afrikaans word entirely created to refer to the oppressive program of the white South African government — also deserves a particular space in our language and collective memory.
I do, however, have some reservations about restricting the use of “apartheid.” If the thought of Apartheid can strike enough fear into enough people that they feel compelled to better the lives of oppressed people in Palestine or elsewhere, part of me thinks, “Go ahead and scream it from the rooftops if you must!” Allow the term invented to describe my people’s struggle to continue liberating people wherever they are.
Omar Barghouti, co-founder of the Boycott, Divest, and Sanction movement in Palestine, has gone as far as to describe the South African anti-Apartheid struggle as “the most important factor that has affected the Palestinian BDS movement.” Hearing this, I cannot help but feel a touch of patriotic pride at my peoples’ actions being made into the playbook of how to powerfully and non-violently fight systemic oppression. It also affirms to me that activists fighting for Palestinians are using the term “apartheid” reverently and for all the right reasons.
But there’s another side of me that has seen the unwillingness of the Israeli government to budge on its actions and America’s unwillingness to budge on supporting it. This side of me knows how the American political media machine, big on marketing and catchphrases but short on nuance, treats evocative words like “apartheid” — without any of the reverence or respect they deserve.
Knowing those realities, I can’t help but feel that “apartheid” might just resonate as nothing more than an activist slogan in the minds of a critical mass of the public without having had any impact on the lives of Palestinians.
Tragically, I fear that an unintended consequence of calling Israel’s actions “apartheid” will be the memories of all the lives lost, bloodshed, and torment endured on South Africans’ long walk to freedom fading along with the slogan “Israeli Apartheid.” Unfortunately, this might already be the case.
The conditions under which Palestinians are being made to live make my heart heavy with grief and sorrow. But those conditions are not The Apartheid I grew up in the aftermath of — and I would hate to have that fall into obscurity.
Marcus B. Montague-Mfuni ’23, Crimson Diversity and Inclusivity Committee Chair and Associate Editorial editor, is a joint concentrator in Social Studies and African and African American Studies in Dunster House.
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