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SINCE last week apartheid has beome an historical allusion. As words go, its active life has been short. Its first parliamentary use, according to Louis Louw, the former political reporter for Die Burger, was in 1944, when Prime Minister D F Malan declared his government's aim was 'to ensure the safety of the white race and of Christian civilisation by the honest maintenance of the principles of apartheid and guardianship'.

Why did English-speakers use the Afrikaans word, itself a fairly recent coinage, when there was an accurate English one, segregation, which they had found good enough till then? It sounded like a classic case of self-deception: segregation, like separation, implies a measure of coercion, whereas apartheid simply means 'apartness', which could, of course, be voluntary. So the voice of the weasel was heard in the land.

But a later premier, Dr Hendrik Verwoerd, spoke openly of segregation, and used the seemingly more benevolent apartheid only because total separation was for obvious reasons impracticable. National Party leaders in those days appear to have used segregation, separation and apartheid more or less indiscriminately. Louis Louw thought it was the rest of the English-speaking world that gave apartheid its general currency: it sounded 'foreign and ominous, something so bad that there was no word at all in English for it'.

Anyway, the nature of what liberal South Africans called 'the lie in the soul' was evident whatever the name, and apartheid soon became an uglier word than segregation had ever been. By 1961, the South African Broadcasting Corporation had decided that it would never, except when quoting, use apartheid, but would call it 'separate development', thus sinking deeper into the Orwellian mire.

will no doubt soon be heard as a metaphor for various kinds of separation or division, trivial or otherwise, but it would be nice to think, if only for the sake of South African history, that its use were reserved for real instances of injustice and oppression.