The long shadow of apartheid

As Economist David Zetland states, “I’m a political-economist from California who now lives in Amsterdam.”

AB: I passed through Amsterdam a few times on my way to Germany. Not a huge fan of the airport. I wish I had the chance to explore the country a bit more like I did other parts of Europe. Not in the cards then.

David has an interesting commentary on race, separation, the history of discrimination, and the economic impact of it.

It is difficult to understand the impact of this when you are white. One time it became apparent when I was working on a scaffold twenty stories up. A new worker came through a window of the building to join the crew. Saw him and thought nothing of this black tuckpointer. Marty the foreman had a different thought view. His reaction? he called him everything under the sun. The new man left through the same window. I still remember his look from 1970.

The long shadow of apartheid,” The one-handed economist, David Zetland

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 melaninsubject 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 Tervor Noah herehere and here.