The US-apartheid analogy

Today I’m going to write a column for Al-Hayat about how the Bush administration’s “campaign” for global democratization, and its claim to speak in the name of democracy worldwide, puts it in roughly the same position vis-a-vis the rest of the world that South Africa’s apartheid regime was vis-a-vis SA’s unfranchised non-White majority population.
This is another thread of the broad US-apartheid analogy that I’ve been thinking through over the past few months.
The GWOT/National Security Strategy similarity is another thread of it.
In both cases, too, we have the same phenomena of outright resource greed and a Biblically “justified” sense of entitlement…
Talking of the “democratization” campaign, I found a great quote in this column by the well-connected WaPo columnist David Ignatius today.
David was writing about some attempts at political “reform” being planned by Jordan’s decidedly non-constitutional but strongly US-backed monarch, King Abdullah II, these days.
He wrote:

    Abdullah has taken other steps to shake up Jordan over the past two months, including forming a new government in April in which reformists are more prominent, installing a new chief of the royal palace and replacing the director of public security. Because these moves followed a trip to Washington by the king in late March, the chattering classes in Amman have speculated that they resulted from U.S. pressure. But there’s little evidence of that. Indeed, when Abdullah explained his reform plans in a White House meeting in March, President Bush is said to have approved, but cautioned, “Take it easy.”

Oh, don’t you love that use of a passive verb: Bush “is said to have… cautioned”.
“Is said” by whom, David?
I’m assuming, either the “chattering classes” in Amman, or perhaps even the King himself.
But there, in a nutshell, is a good window into what is most likely really going on… Despite all the great rhetoric about supporting democratization worldwide, Prez Bush and his advisors possibly don’t really want to push it to the point that in Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia etc it might bring into power regimes that, for example, did not do abusive interrogations of individuals “rendered” to them by the US authorities, etc., etc…
And then, there’s Uzbekistan…

7 thoughts on “The US-apartheid analogy”

  1. I have to say I’m as dubious about the validity of the apartheid analogy with respect to the United States as I am when it’s applied to Israel. Apartheid was built on a very specific foundation – i.e., an ideology of racial supremacy and exclusivity – and while other forms of imperialism or colonialism may have overlapping characteristics, the forces that drive them aren’t the same.
    Some of the analogies you describe – e.g., outright resource greed and a Biblically “justified” sense of entitlement could be applied equally to the British, French or Soviet empires (at least if the mission civilisatrice or historical inevitability are substituted for the Bible). Each of these empires also made the claim to be speaking on behalf of civilization, enlightenment and/or democracy – quite a bit more so, in fact, than South Africa ever did. I think you’re conflating apartheid with colonialism in general, and possibly with imperialism in general, and that in doing so you’re using the term in a context where it doesn’t really apply.

  2. I agree with Jonathan that this analogy seems a bit far flung. However, I do think that Israel is quite analogous to South Africa, and I’m quite curios why Jonathan would take issue with that. I think you need to compare realities, and not just ideologies.
    But back to the point at hand, I guess I’m just sort of confused…What is the purpose of comparing the USA to apartheid era South Africa? Why is it necessary to equate America with some other rubric to establish that it is behaving chauvinistically? If we establish (hypothetically) that the analogy is valid, what deeper insight can we take away? Will we better understand the power structure in our country… in the world today? It just seems to forced or contrived for me.
    Helena, while your experience with and knowledge of apartheid systems may well help you to analyze and understand our contemporary phenomena, I believe that this is a personal, non-transferable insight.
    In terms of concrete detail (i.e. beyond the obvious fact of oppressive, self serving power [which is far from unique in history]), the two countries don’t match up. First and foremost America has such a larger impact on such further corners of the world than South Africa ever had. We have a military superstructure that is incomparable in history. Understanding the ideology at the top is another question, but beyond the basic knowledge that power tends to protect itself (and its base), our ideology has nothing to do with apartheid ideology.

  3. Rather than rehash all the reasons for distinguishing Israel from ZA (which I’m sure Helena is tired of hearing, because I’ve discussed the subject a number of times on this site), I’ll point you here and to the ensuing discussion thread.

  4. The interest of a comparison with SA appartheid is to offer a different perspective on the actual US politic : no one would defend the SA appartheid, so realizing that there are many similarities between the SA appartheid and the US should induce a serious reexamination of the US politic.
    That said, I don’t know enough about SA to tell whether the analogy is valid or not. It’s surely stimulating.
    I’ve no doubts however that the US is treating Iraq like the worst colonialists did. The main difference is that EU countries waged that kind of politic between the 1600 and 1950.. Since that, decolonization occurred. The UN was created in order to keep countries and states in peace, as long as they weren’t agressing others.
    With the IRaq invasion and despite all her talks of freedom and democracy, the US is leading the world backward to the times of colonization and wild capitalism.

  5. “Apartheid” has the same ring to it as “fascism” or “Hitler” in the USA, it seems. A bad thing, indeed. It is not treated as a concrete set of political circumstances, but as a label for something wicked, that can be conveniently redefined each time it is cashed.
    Before you start thinking I am criticising Helena, I’m not, although I don’t think she has elaborated the case very fully on this occasion. I hope she will do so another time, soon. She is well capable. It could help US citizens to understand “apartheid” better, and to understand themselves better too, I think.
    The old regime in SA did not only create “bantustans” inside its borders. It also sought by various means to externalise the idea to its neighbours, under the rubric of “a constellation of Southern African states”. The means it used for this purpose were diplomacy, manipulation of trade relations, dirty tricks, formal military attack, and outright terrorism.
    I was reminded of this when watching Paul Wolfowitz being interviewed by our own Amanda Strydom in Washington for SABC TV the other night. The world is one, he said. A constellation of states, I immediately thought. A unity to him. To everybody else, obviously, a world divided by him on sectarian or racial lines leaving one state enormously more powerful than any of the others.
    He even got quite emotional, saying how good it made him feel if he could “make a difference”. Pik Botha could not have said it better.
    And that’s only a start. South African history can serve you well as a miniature laboratory to study all the angles of the US imperialist polity today, and also to visualise its coming demise. The game’s up already, just as the old South African regime’s game was up by the 1970s, although it took another horrible couple of decades before it went out with a whimper.

  6. I am not going to comment on the theoretical issues about this, real as they are. I hope Helena and other commentators will soon elaborate them; I don’t feel up to it.
    Instead, I just want to say that when I had the privilege of doing some technical assistance training to “struggle” newspapers in South Africa in 1990, I found the country more like the United States culturally than anywhere I have ever been outside the US. Apartheid culture’s complete substitution of its own “reality” for any other perspective reminded me viscerally of my own country.

  7. Janinsanfran, I think you’ve caught the essense of it.
    I’d love to know what you would think of South Africa now, by comparison with 15 years ago.

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