“a” or “A” for Apartheid?

Up until I reached my mid twenties, I was always under the impression that the word “apartheid”, a term which is so integral to both South African history  and the world’s understanding of racial oppression, was written with a capital “A”. For me, it made sense to think of the term in this way.  As we learned during  childhood, when we encountered language and its intricacies for its first time, a capital letter carries with it a certain sense of personal, social and political prestige. It’s used to emphasize importance, magnitude, identity and belonging. We cannot, in essence, speak about an event such as the Holocaust without the presence of the capital “H”, an emphasis which goes beyond the necessity of grammar rules to draw our attention to the gravity of the Holocaust and its impact within public consciousness. Some literary critics have identified a non capitalized version of this term (holocaust) as one which draws attention to its impact on the private and personal sphere, as opposed to the public one which is associated with the capitalized Holocaust.  Conversely, during a speech made at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum on the Mall in Washington, African-American activist Khalid Muhammad, as cited by literary critic Walter Benn Michaels, spoke about the “black holocaust”, as opposed to the Jewish Holocaust. In this context, the absence of capitalization signifies Muhammad’s interpretation of alternative holocausts as being secondary and forgotten next to the Jewish Holocaust. Despite these two instances where the term “holocaust” enters Holocaust discourse, we predominantly understand and engage with this term in its capitalized modality.

Apartheid 1

When we speak of apartheid, however, the issue of capitalization versus non-capitalization is one which is distinctly more difficult, in fact problematic, to define. On a  recent visit to the Liliesleaf farm museum site, I found out that I was not the only one confused by the question of whether it’s “A” or “a” for apartheid. At the entrance of the museum site, sign boards which summarized the narrative of apartheid, were scattered with spellings which alternated between “apartheid” and “Apartheid”. It was as if whoever typed up the text for the signboards encountered the very same dilemma  that  I encounter every time I write “apartheid”, forsaking the capital  “A” for the sake of oddly implemented grammatical conventions. In a nutshell, this dilemma can be defined as follows: without the presence of the capital letter to emphasize its presence and meaning, how are we to interpret and respond to the word we call “apartheid”? The signboard typist (albeit subconsciously) seemed to keep reinserting “Apartheid” as opposed to “apartheid” in order to draw attention to the purpose and power it commands in the capitalized form. Yet, what kind of emotional pull or status does apartheid with a small “a” have? By virtue of the word itself, does it still stick out? Or does it blend into the non-capitalized “hes” and “shes” and “the”  words which lie beside it?

Because the word “apartheid” is pretty much a central focus in my study, I face these questions (read anxiety) every time my fingers encounter the keyboard. More than once I’ve found myself falling into the “trap” of capitalizing the “a” because the context I use the word in in each sentence I’ve written thus far has been so significant that the thought of it being washed away is (and I hate to sound dramatic here) unbearable. The word “apartheid” contains within it a multiple number of names and identities: Hendrik Verwoerd, Eugene De Kock, Nelson Mandela, Steve Biko and Joe Slovo. When I use the small “a”, it feels as if the word simply can’t contain these names and identities. It bursts under that amount of pressure. It needs to be capitalized, recognized and heard. Yet, as much as I want to defy grammatical conventions and restore its prominence, I’m pulled back by the confines of academic discourse which forces me to type “apartheid” once more.

The question for me is this: whether we perceive apartheid as an event or an ideology (the two seen to merge into one another when it comes to its present definition), doesn’t apartheid, much like the Holocaust, deserve its capital letter? Doesn’t it deserve not to be misread as a thing? And now I feel another sting as I write “apartheid” one more time.

Source for pic: http://www.sahistory.org.za/image/bury-apartheid-1980


One thought on ““a” or “A” for Apartheid?

  1. Personally, I’m pro-lower case. As you rightly noted, the upper case has an ability to monumentalise, which is why it will possibly feature more prominently in museum culture. Though while we understand it as a historical feature in South Africa, I wonder if the fundamental difference between Holocaust and apartheid lies in the reluctance to employ it as central to the processes of identity and belonging (as you state above).

    In South Africa, the temporal framework of the nation is highly teleological, which means that there isn’t much desire to build a collective identity around historical atrocities (or the past, generally). Hence, we were quickly moved into a post-apartheid space, and now even further still as the word post-transitional becomes more relevant to discuss national identity. So, the word apartheid is falling outside of the spectrum of self-description nowadays! On some level, I encourage this lack of sentimentality [I would possibly even flag this affect in your response :)] — it protects from the pitfalls of a ‘victim’ ideology and identity.

    This is also to say that apartheid isn’t a central feature to a SA identity as the Holocaust is, possibly, in relation to Jewish identity. The difference in this regard is understanding that a Jewish identity is a cultural one while a national identity is sociopolitical. Commonly, within the field of a cultural identity there is a unanimous perception of how to read the Holocaust (it is closer to being one ‘thing’). On the contrary, the interests of South African hybridity and democracy (various cultures) will be entirely sabotaged by thinking of apartheid in this manner. In SA we have the version of victim, perpetrator, activist, etc. to accommodate all at once … so the lower case also marks this plurality, I like to think.

    That being said, I understand your ethical reserve on this issue. Either end of the remember-forget spectrum can present certain dangers. Good luck with your research project!!

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