In an attempt to prevent an edit war over on Skeptics.SE, I'll defer to here.

Which is preferred - or are both correct?:

Was South Africa better run during apartheid?


Was South Africa better run during Apartheid?

Does apartheid refer to a government system like democracy (common noun) or does Apartheid refer to a specific government (proper noun)?

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5 Answers 5


I would not capitalize "apartheid". None of the dictionaries I have checked capitalize it as a headword (MW, AHD, Collins, Oxford).

Capitalization, like punctuation, is one of the less settled areas of English orthography. I somewhat doubt that there is any definite answer about whether it is "correct" or "incorrect" to capitalize this word, so I won't attempt to answer that part of the question.

The Google Ngram Viewer shows lowercase as more frequent than uppercase:

"apartheid" usually starts with a lowercase letter

This holds also for "during apartheid/Apartheid":

"during apartheid" is usually lowercased

The Oxford English Dictionary does not capitalize it as a headword, and only includes, as far as I can see, one quotation where it is capitalized in a non-sentence-initial position (it is also enclosed in quotation marks in this context):

1949   Manch. Guardian 13 July 4/6   Thus Dr. Malan's policy of ‘Apartheid’ for the non-Europeans, which is only the Dutch word for Field Marshal Smuts's policy of ‘segregation’, which in turn is only a pretty word for repression, is achieving a position of ‘Apartheid’, in the literal sense of isolation, for the nation as a whole.

Compared to this, the OED gives about 10 examples of lowercase apartheid from the late 1940s to the 1960s, which are mostly italicized.

There may be arguments for capitalizing the first letter (at least in some contexts), but the preferred usage seems to be to write "apartheid" with a lowercase letter.

  • Seeing as this is a South African word what the English would do is not all the pertinent, you should ask what the South African English is.
    – Neil Meyer
    Commented Nov 20, 2017 at 15:01
  • 7
    @NeilMeyer: I don't understand what you're saying in this comment--could you rephrase? I assume Oddthinking does not intend to write in South African English, so I don't think I agree with you. People writing about South Africa don't need to use South African English capitalization conventions (if those even are distinct from the capitalization conventions of other kinds of English).
    – herisson
    Commented Nov 20, 2017 at 15:03
  • 1
    I've always heard it preceded by the, as this ngram shows, and as a proper title, the the would be capitalized also, which ngram does not find at all. So, No capes!
    – Mazura
    Commented Nov 21, 2017 at 4:07
  • 4
    @Mazura Problem is that apartheid is an attributive noun in those examples. In other words it is appearing in phrases such as the apartheid era and so forth. The word the does not belong to the noun apartheid there. It applies to the whole noun phrase headed by era. Commented Nov 21, 2017 at 12:01

In the context you have, I would capitalize it, because it refers to a specific period in history.

However, if you were to use the word not as the name of a period, but to refer to the phenomenon, as in the sentences below, it shouldn’t be capitalized.

1. He hated apartheid as a policy.

2. A certain class reaped the benefits of apartheid without ever acknowledging them.

And even

3. South Africa wasn’t better run when apartheid was practiced.

See item 3.31 of the capitalization rules from the US government publishing office. Question 2 from here addresses both cases as does item 20 here.


If you’re using apartheid to denote an event, a period of time or era, then it makes sense to (https://www.grammarly.com/blog/capitalization-periods-and-events/). However, the only actual instances I’ve seen the word capitalized is at the beginning of the sentence.

If you’re using apartheid in the same way you would use the phrase “racial segregation”, then no. Although apartheid describes a specific system, it’s still a description.

I would argue both are correct in this instance because you’re referring to an event / period of time AND a specific system.

  • So what about in the context I mentioned? Which is it? Commented Nov 20, 2017 at 13:57
  • 1
    Updated my response. In short, I think both are valid. Commented Nov 20, 2017 at 14:15
  • 2
    Is there any particular reason to trust the Grammarly blog post? I haven't heard great things about their grammar checker, and I assume their blog is an even lower priority for them. The examples given there are "World War I", "the Middle Ages", "The McCarthy Era", "Roman Britain", and "the Roaring Twenties". It seems to me that "McCarthy" and "Roman Britain" would be capitalized anyways because they are proper nouns. So the main evidence for a capitalization rule for eras is "World War I", "the Middle Ages", and "the Roaring Twenties" (along with the word "Era" in "The McCarthy Era").
    – herisson
    Commented Nov 20, 2017 at 14:58
  • 1
    But according to the Google Ngram Viewer, "McCarthy era" is actually more common than "McCarthy Era". So that brings us down to "World War I", "the Middle Ages", and "the Roaring Twenties" as evidence for a rule of capitalizing the names of events, eras and periods of time.
    – herisson
    Commented Nov 20, 2017 at 14:59
  • 1
    No particular reason to trust them, but I think a more fitting example of this is “Holocaust”. It can be capitalized, right? Yes. It can refer to a specific thing. It’s also a historical event. Proper noun in that respect. Capitalization should happen. There’s also a common usage of the word. True, it is diminishing, but still “holocaust” can be used and be correct. The question for “apartheid” is whether this person is using it in a common way or in a “proper” (for lack of better word) way. It can be argued that it’s either or both in that sentence. Commented Nov 20, 2017 at 17:17

Since it hasn't been stated clearly by others (though some have alluded to it), I will offer a fairly "bright" (though still opinion-based) dividing line. Similar to "communist/Communist", the choice depends on whether you are referring to a concept or a specific state, party or institution.

Of course, deciding what is a concept and what is an "institution" is yet another argument.

  • What is being referred to in the example? Commented Nov 20, 2017 at 22:41
  • @Oddthinking - Without more context it's a tossup.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Nov 21, 2017 at 2:11

Personally, I would never capitalize apartheid. Deliberately, in order to emphasize the despise for this indisputably wrong idea. Contrary to what dictionaries advise, I would do exactly the same for nazism or stalinizm, unless somehow any of them is used in a clearly positive context (which I cannot really imagine). But this is my personal approach.

As for facts, I guess people confuse two things. Cambridge online dictionary says 'Nazism', but at the same time there's 'apartheid'. My conclusion would be that 'Nazism' was the official doctrine of the German state, while 'apartheid' was not in the case of the RSA (though it existed there in practice as part of the social system). In Germany, there was National Socialism (Nationalsozialismus), the National Socialist German Workers' Party (Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei or NSDAP), consequently there was Nazi Germany and Nazism. As far as I know, the term apartheid was never used in such a way. It's just a common term to describe the social system of racial segregation in the RSA (Afrikaans for "separateness", or "the state of being apart"). It's a concept, so no capitalization by rule.

  • 2
    I don't think your personal political opinions are relevant to the capitalisation. I don't like Keanu Reeves as an actor, but that doesn't mean I should edit his name in posts to be lower case. Commented Feb 16, 2019 at 14:27
  • Yes and no. Part of capitalization is actually done to express respect. Also, the language is a living thing, we're not slaves to the rules (at least not in such vague cases), we follow them, but we also create them. Why shouldn't I try to influence? Anyway, I hope the edit adds to the discussion.
    – shogun
    Commented Feb 16, 2019 at 14:38

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