Fourteen years ago in May, Nelson Mandela assumed the presidency of a democratic South Africa, marking the formal end of the transition from Apartheid. But the shocking reports and images of the recent attacks against immigrants in many of South Africa’s main cities that have left about 50 dead-some of them burned alive-show that apartheid lives on: it is a global one, embedded in the very fabric of a world order predicated on nation-states.
While the factors leading to the xenophobic terror are complex, they are in significant part the result of the practices of the South African state and its creation of a deserving "us" and a threatening, foreign "them." Through its boundary fences and border patrols, arrests and deportations of unauthorized migrants, and the justifying rhetoric, South African officialdom has helped to create the very "problem" that the violent mobs seek to eliminate. As Paul Verryn, a Methodist bishop based in Johannesburg critical of South Africa’s leadership for not being more welcoming of migrants, asserted at the time of the pogroms, "The locals believe they are doing what the government is doing anyway, getting rid of the ‘illegals.’"
South Africa, however, is hardly alone in fomenting cruelty toward migrants; indeed, it does what all other nation-states do-especially the most powerful ones-to varying degrees. And just as in South Africa of old, where the state dictated where the majority of its inhabitants (black South Africans) could live and work, contemporary regulation of international mobility and residence results in systematic violence and dehumanization.
Here in the United States, the last several years have seen a huge increase in migrant imprisonment and detention, including of children with their parents; a steep rise in workplace raids; and massive growth of deportations of both legal and unauthorized residents. There has also been a dramatic expansion of boundary enforcement. As such, migrants must often literally risk their lives trying to enter the country clandestinely. The result is frequently death.
Such fatalities occur across the globe, but it is the boundaries between the so-called first and third worlds, the relatively rich and poor, secure and vulnerable, that are deadliest. In the U.S.-Mexico borderlands, approximately five thousand migrant bodies have been recovered since 1994 when the Clinton administration greatly intensified boundary policing. Similarly, along Europe’s perimeter many thousands have perished over the last decade trying to clandestinely enter its territory.
Apartheid might seem like an inappropriate term to describe the context in which such tragedies unfold given that there is no legally enshrined racial segregation between the so-called first and third worlds. Moreover, many third-world origin peoples have citizenship, or live and work in countries throughout the West.
Yet all nation-states, especially wealthy ones, regulate mobility and residence on, among other factors, the basis of geographic origins-one of the foundations of supposed racial distinctions-thus limiting the rights and protections afforded to migrants because of an essential characteristic over which they have no control. Similarly, Apartheid South Africa sought to both limit black mobility and make certain that there was a sufficient supply of black labor in nominally white areas, while denying those workers political rights and making their presence conditional and reversible.
"Black" and "white"-and other racial categories-are not first and foremost about distinctions of skin color or pigmentation or phenotype. As demonstrated by the historically shifting boundaries of whiteness in the United States, or by the recent wars in Northern Ireland, the former Yugoslavia, or Rwanda, what are effectively racial distinctions often exist between groups with no discernable physical differences. In this sense "race" is based on power-imbued differences related to notions of ancestry and geographic origins. Racism reflects and shapes who gets what, who call the shots. Mobility between countries-who has it and who doesn’t-is one of its most striking, world-wide manifestations.
That said, these differences in power on a global scale have unfolded in such a way that "white" and privilege have long been inextricably tied. Our world is thus one in which the few-the relatively rich and disproportionately white-are generally free to travel and live wherever they would like or have the means to access the resources they "need." Meanwhile the relatively poor and largely people of color are typically forced to subsist where there are not enough resources to provide sufficient livelihood or, in order to overcome their deprivation and insecurity, to risk their lives trying to overcome ever-stronger boundary controls put into place by rich countries that reject them. And if they succeed in migrating, they must endure all the indignities and hazards associated with being "illegal."
In a context of deep inequality between countries, national territorial divides have profound implications: which side of a boundary one is born on significantly determines the resources to which one has access, the amount of political power on the international stage one has, where one can go and under what conditions, and thus how one lives and dies.
This is the essence of racism, and the nation-state system as well, as it allows for double standards based on the assumption that some should have fewer rights because of where they’re from.
If such double-standards were undoubtedly wrong in Apartheid-era South Africa, shouldn’t they be equally wrong across the globe today-wherever they may take place and whatever the justifications?
Joseph Nevins, an associate professor of geography at Vassar College, is the author of the just-released book, Dying to Live: A Story of U.S. Immigration in an Age of Global Apartheid published by City Lights Books.