The capacity of postindependence African countries to chart their own course was heavily affected by the fact that neither political nor economic structures had yet broken free of the colonial legacies of authoritarian governance and economic dependence on export of primary commodities. Despite victories by prodemocracy forces in Africa over the past decade, including the demise of formal apartheid in South Africa, and despite modest recoveries in economic growth rates in recent years, AIDS struck a continent that was extraordinarily vulnerable.
Today's inequalities build on a foundation of the old inequalities of slavery and colonialism, plus the destructive aftermath of cold war crusades. Like apartheid in South Africa, global apartheid entrenches great disparities in wealth, living conditions, life expectancy and access to government institutions with effective power. It relies on the assumption that it is "natural" for different population groups to have different expectations of life. In apartheid South Africa, that was the rationale for differentiating everything according to race, from materials for housing to standards of education and healthcare. Globally it is now the rationalization used to defend the differential between Europe and Africa in funding for everything from peacekeeping to humanitarian assistance ($1.23 a day for European refugees, 11 cents a day for African refugees). As one relief worker said, "You must give European refugees used to cappuccino and CNN a higher standard of living to maintain the refugees' sense of dignity and stability."
Gradations of privilege according to group are closely linked to the possibility of crossing barriers from the "homelands" to the more privileged geographical areas. Like apartheid's influx control, the immigration barriers of developed countries do not succeed in stopping the flow despite raising the costs of enforcement. Moreover, the global governance regime that is assigned responsibility for maintaining the current economic order--as was the case with apartheid in its heyday--allocates key decisions to institutions resistant to democratic control: a global version of "white minority rule."
We are not the first to note the striking parallels between the world system and the old South Africa. Canada-based international relations scholar Gernot Kohler wrote a monograph on global apartheid in 1978 noting multiple parallels: "a white minority is dominant in the system, has a vastly higher standard of living than the multiracial majority, and is privileged in several other dimensions." British political scientist Titus Alexander elaborated the concept in his book Unraveling Global Apartheid in 1996, noting that "The G7 countries have 12 per cent of the world's population, but they use over 70 per cent of its resources in cash terms and dominate all major decision-making bodies." A sampling of others who have recently used the term includes South African President Thabo Mbeki, Cuban President Fidel Castro, Africanist scholar Ali Mazrui and human rights scholar Richard Falk.
Like these commentators, we do not suggest that the mechanisms of South African apartheid are precisely duplicated at the global level. But we do argue that the parallels are more than a casual turn of phrase.
To those who say that the current global political and economic orders have to do with more than race, we respond that while that is true, in fact the old apartheid was also not just "about race." It was also an extreme mode of controlling labor by managing differential access to territorial movement and political rights. Racial oppression makes exploitation easier to manage, while exploitation continues within as well as between racial groups. Others have noted that there is no single government or system of international governance that rules the global system as the former apartheid regime did South Africa. True, today's global institutions--from the WTO to the World Bank to various UN agencies--do fall short of a world government. And no racial distinctions appear in their constitutions. But their power over national governments in the global South is in many cases overwhelming. And representation and leadership within these bodies--particularly in the international financial institutions with the most power--do show a strong de facto correlation with race.
At the global level, control of the movement of labor by immigration laws, representation within global institutions and allocation of public investment are of course far more complex and differentiated than the apartheid system in South Africa (though it was also more complex than generally recognized). The resulting global inequality, however, is even starker than that within any country, including apartheid South Africa. A 1999 World Bank income inequality study by B. Milanovic estimates that the richest 1 percent of people in the world receive as much income as the poorest 57 percent. The study also estimates that more than three-quarters of the difference is accounted for by differences between countries, while the remainder is from inequalities within countries. Given such differences, the resemblance between apartheid's influx control and current efforts to stop the "illegal" flow of immigrants from South (and East) to North should be no surprise.