Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Apartheid’s Global Face: From South Africa to the United States

by Joseph Nevins

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, has asserted, “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.

Our world is one in which 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 world 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 Dying to Live: A Story of U.S. Immigration in an Age of Global Apartheid (City Lights Books).

Thursday, May 08, 2008

My thoughts after volunteering at Tent City

Today I volunteered to help set up tent city at it's new location. tent city is an organized homeless encampment that travels around mostly to churches (you can read more here: It was set-up day, so we spent a lot of time working with others hauling stuff like pallets, plywood, tents and boxes. A lot of people helped; some were
residents of tent city and some were volunteers. Yes, you could recognize some as either residents or volunteers but for many it was really unclear. Some people were from churches, some from the synagogue, some were not native English speakers, some were young and others very old. We were all just people working hard together. You would hear these conversations
happening where a resident realized they were talking to someone who was a volunteer. I heard several people say thank you, but then the conversation would move. I was talking to someone who I thought was a volunteer and turned out he was a resident. It didn't matter. What mattered was that we were working together. There was lots of moving heavy stuff, unstable footing, nails and commotion. What mattered was the person holding the other end of the wood was being careful and that you were working together to share the load. I've set up for big projects, done the heavy lifting and many other projects over the years and this was the nicest bunch of people I've ever worked with. Yes, some people talked more then worked. Yes some
people didn't always get what they were supposed to do, but that was accepted. There was no anger or ego. There was patience with the confusion. There was a very clear, strong desire to make sure everyone was safe and protected. Everyone was watching out for everyone else. There was no "us" and "them".

It was cold out and we worked hard. At lunch time we sat on crates, tent city furniture, and ate sack lunches which contained peanut sandwiches. We all appreciated those sandwiches. We appreciated we had a crate to sit on and the chance to rest for a moment. We wished it was warmer. All the dividing lines vanished that simply. I was probably one of the grubbier
people there. I didn't really know how to socialize with anyone. I know that some thought I was a resident. It shows you how misleading our stereotypes can be. I was probably one of the smallest people there. People tried to make sure I wasn't give too much to carry, but they quickly accepted my strength and attitude. I was appreciated because I could work hard. A few
times someone asked to help carry something. Instead of getting wrapped up in pride and wanting to prove I could work as hard as the big men, I saw that these were people who wanted to help. Some of them couldn't carry much themselves, but they wanted to know that they had contributed. I probably have more serious mental health issues then many of the residents. I think one of the values of my struggles is I know I could have easily been in need of Tent City if things had gone slightly differently. I wish more often in the world, we could all be forced to work and sit as people together in the same situation.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Burma Blogging Day

Free Burma!

Thursday, August 16, 2007

CARE & Food Aid

Not something you hear much about: the use of American subsidized farm products in food aid & how it can cause harm to the very people it's claiming to help. The non-profit CARE just recently decided they will no longer accept federal financing of this kind--about time to put the impoverished first! Read it here.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

A soldier's account of why he took a stand against the Iraqi war. From Sniper to War Resister: My Journey.

Friday, August 03, 2007

The People of Iraq

Today in Baghdad at least 76 people were killed in car bombs. Sometimes with all the horrific attacks that rip a part bodies and bloody the streets, we forget about the daily suffering that have nothing to do with a spectacular explosion. We forget about the young children who can’t focus in school because they fear they might die. Many don’t go to school at all, the roads are to dangerous.

We forget about the little girl who looks up at her penniless father and asks her baba for bread. We forget about the hundreds of thousands of women who are now widows and are forced to find a way to feed their family. We forget about the day when the four-year-old who grew up in this war can’t get a job as an adult because it was to dangerous to go to school. We forget that not everything is Sunni vs. Shiite, Sunni vs. Sunni, Shiite vs. Shiite or Kurd vs Arab. We forget that not everything is about Al Qaida, a group that only formed in Iraq after the 2003 invasion and according to some reports is only responsible for 15 percent of the violence in Iraq. We forget that it’s not just about U.S. government catch phrases like, “democracy is hard,” or “If we don’t fight them here, they will follow us home.” We forget that this is more than labels, this is people.

Read the rest of the article here.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

What "These People" Contribute Remains America's Saving Grace
Great article about immigrants in the U.S.