Africa, Race, And The World Order

Global Apartheid

Certainly there is much that is new about the current moment in Africa, as elsewhere in the world. The end of the Cold War removed the primary strategic imperative for outside subsidies to African re- gimes. The AIDS pandemic, which in the 1980s was largely confined to central Africa, has swept through much of the continent, revers- ing previous advances in raising life expectancy. It now threatens almost every sector of economy and society. Few African cities now lack multiple internet cafes, and the growth of mobile phone use is the most rapid anywhere. Although the trend is less well studied than in the Caribbean or Latin America, the dispersion of new African immigrants throughout the world has made remittances a central feature of survival for many African communities and a major com- ponent of many national economies. Each of these trends, it could be argued, is a sign of deep structural change as well as a feature of the current moment.

Nevertheless, continuities with previous periods and reinforcement of long-established structures are equally striking. As recently summarized in an article analyzing the causes of increasing world inequality (Wade, 2004), the statistics on recent inequality trends are much disputed. Results vary widely with the measures and data used. But what evidence there is for structural advance in the global South comes almost entirely from trends in China and India. At a structural level, despite such blips as a modest increase in U. S. textile imports from several African countries as a result of tariff concessions in the U.S.-Africa Growth and Opportunity Act, the role of African countries in the world economy is still overwhelmingly that of suppliers of primary commodities, as has been the case since colonial conquest over a century ago. The dynamics of world markets are of course different for different commodities ranging from coffee and cotton to oil and gold. But not even South Africa has managed to find a sustainable strategy to emulate the East Asian competitive challenges to the established G-7 economic powers.

Despite multiple shifts in terminology and emphasis, moreover, neither reformist African governments nor stronger critics of the Washington Consensus among African activists and scholars have succeeded in altering the course of the international financial institutions that have insisted on putting macroeconomic adjustment and trade liberalization above all else. The World Bank and the IMF have indeed forfeited any credibility with both African and international civil society. But alternative agendas for “sustainable development” and “human development,” despite endorsement by multilateral agencies, global conferences, and even dissenting voices within the World Bank, have lost ground to market fundamentalism in practice.

While the first decades of African independence saw significant advances in health and education, subsequent decades have instead seen an overall pattern of decline. Disparities such as these were and are reinforced not only by economic structures such as commodity markets and the accumulation of capital controlled by the capitalist classes of rich countries, but also by continuities of political influence. The victories of greater autonomy won by anti-colonial struggles were eroded first by the Cold War and the continued influence of ex-colonial powers. Regardless of the political ideology of post-colonial leaders, the model of the colonial state remained the dominant guide to the exercise of power. And in response to the economic crises of the 1980s and the 1990s, African states lost more and more influence to the directing hand of the World Bank and clubs of creditors/donors.

While contemporary critics of globalization lament the loss of autonomy of national states, in Africa the empirical evidence for such an earlier golden age is weak indeed. Whether for the first wave of independent states in the 1960s, or for those winning power in the 1970s and 1980s after armed struggles, the period of hope and popular mobilization was quickly cut short. The entry of a free South Africa onto the African scene in the last decade has significantly changed the context for continental cooperation, and many see the African Union as an arena for both wider public debate and action on some of the continent’s crises. But whether one attributes Pretoria’s compromises to pragmatism or to class interests, it would be difficult to argue that the vision of African renaissance has won much leverage for Africa in institutions deciding global policies affecting the continent.

Debates on the causes of this reality, and on how to find a path ahead that avoids both Afro-pessimism and Afro-optimism, are complex. But surely it is necessary to go beyond national arenas or the failure of particular leaders and to include analysis of the lack of democracy in global institutions that have relatively more weight in Africa than almost anywhere else in the world. To counter growing global inequality requires state action on a scale equivalent to the global mechanisms that reinforce that inequality.

Multilateral institutions dealing with almost every conceivable issue have in fact proliferated in parallel with economic globalization. There has also been significant involvement by a burgeoning “international civil society,” ranging from nongovernmental organizations in the global North to activist groups in both North and South. The impact at the level of ideas has been significant. But it is also the case that the more influential the institution, the more likely its effective governance is effectively controlled by representatives of rich, predominantly white, countries.

Whether or not one uses the term “global apartheid” (Booker and Minter, 2001), any short-hand description of the global order at the dawn of the 21st century must somehow acknowledge the double standards implicit in an international system of global minority rule, based on the entrenched assumption that some human lives are more valuable than others based on the accident of place and race of birth. The tragedy of 9/11 and the war on Iraq is not only the direct damage inflicted by those events, but also the reinforcement given to diversion of attention from the global holocaust of the AIDS pandemic and parallel threats to human security.

It would be a mistake to see this tacit acceptance of the differential value of human life as simply a cultural or ideological epiphenomenon less worthy of analysis than the “hard” structures of global political economy, geostrategic competition, or preemptive militarism. Long-term rationality, even from the point of view of the more farsighted guardians of global capitalism, may dictate attention to the range of global crises that have their most severe impact in Africa (see, for example, the report of the World Commission on the Social Dimension of Globalization, at Seemingly race-neutral goals such as poverty alleviation and other noble objectives may win approval in conference after conference.

But just as national divisions are not only conceptual but embedded in laws distinguishing citizens and non-citizens, so the assumptions of racial and cultural hierarchy are embedded in the political discourse and practices that reinforce global apartheid.

Making “another world possible” requires analyses and strategies for political mobilization that do not evade this stubborn legacy from the past.


By: William Minter