[ uh-pahrt-hahyt, -heyt, uh-pahr-tahyt, -teyt ]
/ əˈpɑrt haɪt, -heɪt, əˈpɑr taɪt, -teɪt /
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(in the Republic of South Africa) a rigid former policy of segregating and economically and politically oppressing the nonwhite population.
any system or practice that separates people according to color, ethnicity, caste, etc.
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Origin of apartheid

1945–50; <Afrikaans, equivalent to apartapart + -heid-hood


an·ti·a·part·heid, noun, adjective
Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2022


What is Apartheid?

Apartheid refers to the system of racist segregation and political and economic oppression enacted and upheld by white people in South Africa to deny Black and other nonwhite people equal rights.

Apartheid became the official policy of South Africa in 1948 (though racist segregation policies had been employed before that). It was officially in place until the early 1990s, when it was begun to be dismantled after decades of resistance from Black and other nonwhite South Africans—notably Nelson Mandela and Steve Biko, among many others—and sanctions and pressure from the international community.

Apartheid, spelled with a capital A, is most commonly used to refer specifically to South African Apartheid. The lowercase form, apartheid, is used in a more general way to refer to any system that segregates people based on certain characteristics, such as skin color, ethnicity, or caste.

Where does apartheid come from?

The first records of the word apartheid in English come from the 1940s. It’s an Afrikaans word in which the suffix -heid means -hood, as in a state or condition. In this way, apartheid basically means “apartness” or “the state of being apart.” It can be interpreted as meaning “separation” or “segregation.”

Racist segregation policies had been used in South Africa since at least the early 1900s. In the years before the establishment of the white supremacist system that became known as Apartheid, white leaders had systematically denied voting rights to Black and other people of color, including indigenous Black South Africans and people with Indian and Pakistani heritage—the descendants of people brought to South Africa (often forcibly) to be enslaved or work as indentured laborers.

Apartheid is often said to have officially begun following the 1948 election win of the all-white National Party, whose members primarily consisted of the group known as Afrikaners (white South Africans of Dutch descent).

The party, which used the word apartheid as a campaign slogan, immediately began to enforce existing racist segregation policies and to implement new ones intended to consolidate the power of whites and limit the rights of nonwhites.

Apartheid operated by classifying people according to their skin color and tribe and then segregating them and denying certain rights according to that classification. The policy was meant to separate the white population from the nonwhite population and to further segregate and divide the nonwhite population.

Under Apartheid, many Black South African and other people of color were evicted from their land and forced to relocate to segregated reserves, after which white South Africans settled on their land or used it for farms, eventually gaining a large majority of the land (despite being a minority of the population). In 1959, the South African government introduced areas known as Bantustans or homelands, where Black people were forced to live according to their ethnic group. Under Apartheid, Bantu was the name used for all Black people (despite the fact that not all Black South Africans were members of the Bantu ethnic group). People considered to be of mixed race were labeled as Coloured and those of Indian and Pakistani descent were grouped into a category labeled Asian.

Apartheid involved economic, political, educational, and other forms of oppression that restricted or denied the access of nonwhite people to resources and power. People of color were required to use public facilities separate from those used by white people and to carry documents specifying whether they were allowed in certain areas. Laws made it illegal to marry or have children with a person classified as being of another race. The rights of people of color to unionize or participate in government were limited or denied. Certain groups were limited to certain jobs and were restricted from operating businesses in certain areas

The anti-Apartheid movement led by Black and other South Africans of color gained international attention in the wake of several events in the second half of the 20th century. In 1960, police violently suppressed protests in Sharpeville, shooting and killing 69 protesters and wounding many more. Later in the 1960s, Nelson Mandela and other anti-Apartheid activists were imprisoned, with Mandela being sentenced to life. In 1976, Black South Africans in Soweto protested the mandating of the Afrikaans language for Black schoolchildren. In 1977, activist and politician Steve Biko died from being tortured and beaten by police. In 1985, on the 25th anniversary of what became known as the Sharpeville Massacre, police opened fire on protesters in Langa, killing 35.

The explicitly racist policies of Apartheid South Africa drew international condemnation, and apartheid was officially declared as a crime under international law by the United Nations in 1973. The U.S. and the U.K. imposed economic sanctions on South Africa in 1985.

After decades of resistance and international pressure, the South African system of Apartheid started to be dismantled in the early 1990s. Mandela, a leader in the political party known as the African National Congress (ANC), which fought against Apartheid, was freed in 1990. Mandela worked with South African President F.W. de Klerk (whose government had begun to repeal many Apartheid policies) to draft a new constitution in 1993. Mandela succeeded de Klerk in 1994, becoming South Africa’s first Black president.

The new constitution provided new rights to Black South Africans and other people of color. However, the legacy of Apartheid and its unjust policies left a lasting impact on South African society, and citizens and activists continue to seek reforms and changes to improve equality and justice.

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What are some other forms related to apartheid?

What are some words that share a root or word element with apartheid

What are some words that often get used in discussing apartheid?

How else is apartheid used?

The word apartheid is sometimes applied to specific situations considered by some to produce systemic inequality or even literal segregation.

The word has been increasingly used by critics of the Israeli government to suggest that Israeli policies toward Palestinians are similar or identical to the kind of racist and ethnic segregation employed in the South African system of Apartheid, including in aspects like forcible removal from land, restriction of movement, and denial of rights and access to resources and political and economic power.

Application of the term to Israeli policies is controversial, with some arguing that use of the word apartheid is inaccurate or inappropriate.

Another recent use of the word apartheid is in the phrase vaccine apartheid, which is used in a critical way to refer to the unequal global distribution of and access to the COVID-19 vaccine. In this case, the word apartheid refers to the stockpiling of the vaccine supply by wealthy Western nations (often those with a white majority, like the U.S. and the U.K.), resulting in reduced access by poorer nations (often those in which a majority of the population are people of color). This marks a much more general use of the word apartheid that suggests a state of inequity or injustice rather than implying a system of physical segregation of people.

How is apartheid used in real life?

When spelled with a capital A, the word Apartheid most commonly refers to the official system of racist segregation in South African during the second half of the 20th century. The lowercase apartheid is used in more general ways to refer to situations in which people are segregated based on things like skin color and ethnicity, or systems that produce stark inequality or injustice.


How to use apartheid in a sentence

British Dictionary definitions for apartheid

/ (əˈpɑːthaɪt, -heɪt) /

(in South Africa) the official government policy of racial segregation; officially renounced in 1992

Word Origin for apartheid

C20: Afrikaans, from apart apart + -heid -hood
Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012

Cultural definitions for apartheid

[ (uh-pahr-teyet, uh-pahr-tayt) ]

The racist policy (see racism) of South Africa that long denied blacks and other nonwhites civic, social, and economic equality with whites. It was dismantled during the 1990s. (See Nelson Mandela.)

The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition Copyright © 2005 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.