The long shadow of apartheid

Apartheid in Dutch/Afrikaans means “apartness,” and it was the (un)official  policy of the Whites ruling South Africa for most of the 20th century.

They were not alone in seeking to separate people by race or color.

Race is  a superficial concept [it’s melatonin melanin, subject to fads] that was invented to facilitate slave trade. The Portuguese Prince Henry the Navigator was a slave trader, and he paid an academic to justify his natural and moral right to ignore the differences among hundreds of African tribes, and group all these peoples into a “Black” race that deserved exploitation as a different species. (That’s “science” in the 15th century!) Listen to the “Seeing White podcast series” to learn more.

As you may know, Nazi Germany borrowed many ideas on racism, segregation and concentration camps from White Americans eager to take advantage of Non-Whites. The White rulers of South Africa also borrowed those ideas, but their British and Dutch ancestors were “inspiring” (in all the wrong ways) to Americans and Afrikaners, respectively. (Here’s a paper on the history of racism in S Africa.)

The meaning of “Africaner” has changed many times, but there’s a heavy overlap between racist rulers and people calling themselves “Africaners.”

So, that’s quite an introduction of a extremely complex topic, but what about Apartheid?

The short answer is that it was a legal system of separating “races” in terms of living, working, socializing, and other elements of normal life. People from different races were not allowed to date (let alone marry!), work as equals, go to the same schools, and so on. From what I understand, it was similar in the Jim Crow south, but reached deeper into people’s lives (southerners could move away; South Africans could not) for longer (apartheid ended in the early 1990s).

That long, cruel history matters today.

We visited Capetown and Johannesburg. In both places, people are no longer legally separated by race, but socio-economically separated by past definitions of race. You cannot just move house to a safer neighborhood to get a better job and send your kids to a better school if your parents were poor and uneducated. And you cannot get much help from the state to reduce these challenges when the state is run by a corrupt and incompetent African National Congress, and the rich are unwilling to contribute to a broken system that they are fighting to insulate themselves from. As a result, there is massive poverty and multiple development failures with respect to water, electricity, schools, health, safety, housing — pretty much anything you can imagine necessary to a good life.

A comment that sticks with me came from a White doctor: “You will enjoy the highest quality of life in the world, living in Cape Town — until you get beaten in front of your house.”

So it’s hard for many many people, and it will take decades to overthrow the ANC and build sound institutions. (The Comrades race shows that progress is possible.)

What I find interesting, given history, is how Namibians, which was colonized by S Africa for decades and also has a rich-White, poor-Black demographic reality, seem to get along better. I attribute that to their multi-decade struggle to free themselves from S. African rule. In an “us against them” contest, people on one side tend to forget their differences when facing a common enemy. (I have a paper on this dynamic!)

That was not the case in S Africa, where enemies (Whites favoring apartheid) not only live among them, but still control significant economic power. The ANC, by presenting themselves as liberators of non-Whites, have won consistent majorities in elections without showing any competence or hesitation in looting the state.

My one-handed conclusion is that apartheid left deep scars that will take decades of effort to convert into saamhorigheid (togetherness).

To get some US-centric views on S Africa, watch Trevor Noah here, here and here.

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Author: David Zetland

I'm a political-economist from California who now lives in Amsterdam.

5 thoughts on “The long shadow of apartheid”

  1. Anon wrote me:

    “I thought I should draw your attention (briefly) to Botswana’s colonial history…

    Botswana was never a colony, it was a British Protectorate and this basically came at the request of the Paramount Chiefs who wanted British protection from expansion in to their land of the Boers from the Northern Cape and the Transvaal and from the Germans in South West Africa. There was little development of the protectorate by the British but they did start the construction of Gaborone, the capital, and its associated infrastructure and, I think Selebi Phikwe, before independence in 1966.

    When I arrived there in 1976, 10 years after independence, it was still one of the 10 poorest nations in the world. The main towns had some sealed roads and other infrastructure, the road from Gaborone to Lobatse had been sealed and there was about 100km of the main Gaborone – Francistown road under construction. I think the Nata – Kasane road was also under construction but I may be wrong. Basically 90% or more of what you see in Botswana was built post independence and there was also huge investments in education and health.

    There are/were a lot of problems with the country but my points are that (a) there was no “recovery from colonialism” and (b) its post independence economic growth and development is unusual in the African context.”

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