Citizen diplomat Robert Fuller (see IN CONTEXT #4, Autumn 1983) came back from a trip to South Africa with these observations.
SOUTH AFRICA IS A MIRROR to the world. About one-sixth of its people are white; the vast majority are black, "colored" (i.e. racially mixed), or Asian. And, as in the world, the non-white population is growing at a rate almost twice that of the white, so by the year 2020 whites will be outnumbered about ten to one. The South African whites live like their white brethren in the first world, the "North"; the non-whites live like their brethren in the third world, the "South."
White South Africans and "Northerners" alike claim that their higher standard of living has resulted from their entrepreneurial initiative, from risking their capital, and from creating jobs and wealth. Non-whites and "Southerners" account for the inequality quite differently; they view it as the result of unfair bargains forced upon them while at a power disadvantage: in a word, exploitation. Whatever its causes, an inequality that follows racial lines with remarkable fidelity worldwide is indisputable: the usually white Northerner is relatively rich and feels threatened with losing assets he has accumulated and now regards as rightfully his; the usually non-white Southerner is poor, and it is his daily income, his livelihood, even his survival, that is at stake.
The systematic state-sponsored policy of subordination and servitude through which this state of affairs is maintained in South Africa is apartheid. It is a form of slavery – state slavery – and while there are still a few paternalistic voices claiming that blacks require its continuance "for their own good," there are fewer and fewer – "Northerners" or "Southerners," whites or non-whites – who fail to see its exploitative nature.
South Africa restricts its black workers to "homelands" such as Bophuthatswana, KwaZulu, and Transkei; to "townships", like Soweto and Sharpeville; and to squatters’ camps like Crossroads – names that, worldwide, have become synonymous with injustice and exploitation. The townships are located just outside the white-owned cities, providing a commuting labor pool. To enter the urban centers of power and wealth such as Johannesburg, Capetown, and Durban, a worker’s passbook must be specifically stamped granting this permission. Only the worker’s labor is wanted, not his person or his family, which typically is kept beyond commuting range in his homeland. Subsistence wages ensure an uninterrupted supply of labor. The opportunity to participate in the civil affairs of the society for which they work is not extended to these commuters.
Like the South African whites, the peoples of the first world enjoy a relatively privileged standard of living which depends on the labor of workers, many of whom live in "townships" and more remote "homelands." Mexico is a "township" to the United States; similarly, Turkey and various north African countries serve Europe. The "homelands" serving the first world include remote third world countries, such as the Koreas, the Philippines, India, Kenya, Angola, Nigeria, Colombia, Cuba, Haiti, etc.; the list is long. They supply raw materials, make everything from clothes to cars, and assemble the latest electronic gadgets for the consumer societies of the North. People from these countries may be admitted as migrant or "guest" workers, but only when the work to be done requires their physical presence, as, for example, for domestic and farm work.
Some foreign workers bring their families, but often, they just send money home, and if they are lucky, visit their families once a year for a month at Christmas, like the black workers of South Africa. There is no job security. When recession and unemployment hit the host country, the guest workers are sent home. Unemployment is thus simply exported, along with the problems and costs that go with it. To cross a national border to the place of work, one must have a passport and, from the host country, a "green card," or identity card, granting permission to work and live under certain specified conditions. Visiting third world workers do not participate in the civil affairs of the first world nations in which they work. As in South Africa, their political rights are largely left behind in the land of their citizenship.
When the North requires labor-intensive work that can be done elsewhere, it farms it out to the South where labor is cheaper. Multinational corporations owned by Northerners operate factories in the third world that employ Southerners. Just as in South Africa, the argument can be made that such arrangements are surely advantageous to both parties, else there would be no bargain. It is also argued that if such employment opportunities were to disappear, there would be much suffering all around, especially on the part of the workers. Yes, trade – including that unique type of trade, labor for wages – is mutually advantageous; it is simply not necessarily equally advantageous. As a rule, equal economic bargains are struck only between peoples of equal political power. A typical North-South bargain takes the South from "0" to "2" and the North from "5" to "9". If the exchange ceases, the North loses; the South starves. That underlying asymmetry is why it was possible to strike the unequal bargain in the first place.
As old-fashioned slavery – in which one person could own another – became untenable in the mid- 19th century, state slavery developed and was practiced worldwide, under the name of colonialism. It was under the umbrella of colonialism that the great "rift valley" between the haves of the North and the have-nots of the South grew wide and deep. In what is surely one of the greatest developments of the 20th century, colonialism has been all but eliminated. Since the 1960s, the overt political control characteristic of the colonial empires has been supplanted by a diffuse and complex worldwide web of economic relationships presided over by private multinational and state-owned corporations, supported by national governments of both the West and East. Domestic politics in the former colonies, now sovereign states, is once again in the hands of locals. Nevertheless, the global rift between North and South continues to grow.
Apartheid is the last of the colonialisms. It is colonialism within one country. In a world in which colonialism has become unacceptable, apartheid is at last untenable. Were it not shielded from world pressures by the impregnable fortress of national sovereignty, it would have already gone the way of the other colonialisms. But sovereignty, the sacred cow of all political ideologies – whether of the North, South, East, or West – that protects good and evil alike, has held the world at bay long enough to permit South Africa to become, and hold before our eyes, a mirror.
The fashion in which apartheid is removed from the lexicon and the law in South Africa – whether by revolution from the bottom or by incremental dismantling from the top (an example of which is the recently announced repeal of the passbook laws) – holds a valuable and possibly prophetic lesson for the world. It may foretell the way in which the North and the South will deal with that great issue of the 21st century: the elimination of the less blatant, more subtle patterns of exploitation between first and third world nations and the rectification of those economic inequities that have resulted from centuries of past exploitation. The peoples of South Africa, black and white, have an opportunity to instruct the world in how to mend this rift. If they manage to create a society in which the distinctions of North and South are transcended, they will at once become both the first African people to enjoy a first world standard of living, and a case history and role model for a more equitable development of the world economy.
Is it not ironic that the Afrikaners, the very people who helped set in motion a century of decolonialization by challenging the British Empire in its heyday, are the last to confront this issue? Among the first to challenge colonialism, they are among the last to eliminate it from their own practice. Perhaps the last shall be first once again.
Shifting our perspective to the global level, we can reframe the South African problem as one which we all share. For we Northerners are all Afrikaners. This is not to deny that within many nations of the North there are the hungry and the homeless. Rather, it is to call attention to the fact that what appears in South Africa has a parallel at the global level between the nations of the North and those of the South. During the coming century, we Northerners shall all be following in the footsteps of white South Africans. Greatly outnumbered by the peoples of the South, we, like they, must dismantle the system of global apartheid, rectify the inequities created by it in the past, and extend full and equal participation in the administration of world affairs and the management of the earth’s resources to all the inhabitants of the planet. Our alternative is also theirs: to watch in fear and multiply our defenses as the wrath of the dispossessed and the disenfranchised rises.
As Adam Hochschild says, "South Africa should not be considered a pariah among nations, but rather a prism. It is the world economic order compressed into one country, the empire with no clothes." Could it be, at the end of the century, as it was at the beginning, that as South Africa goes, so goes the world? Many outside of South Africa favor the principle of one man, one vote, as applied to South Africa. Indeed, there would seem to be no alternative. But if it so clearly applies to that microcosm of the world, why not to the world as a whole? If political evolution in South Africa provides a foretaste of world developments, what exactly do we wish for South Africa? When it is our turn, what will we do?