The experience of post-apartheid South Africa is often used by supporters and opponents of open borders as evidence for their respective positions. Those in favor of open borders argue that the lifting of restrictions barring the free movement of black people improved the welfare of both whites and blacks. Restrictionists, on the other hand, argue that the welfare of whites and blacks has declined significantly since apartheid. For instance, the experience of South Africa after apartheid is used by both sides in the comments section to this post by Bryan Caplan that, in part, questions the importance of the political externalities argument against open borders. I intend to do two things in this post: (1) clarify what the consensus position is regarding the welfare of blacks and whites in post-apartheid South Africa and (2) draw out the implications of South Africa’s experience for the open borders discussion.
I. Post-apartheid welfare
So what has been happening to the welfare of blacks and whites since apartheid officially ended in 1994? To answer this question, I review trends in incomes, poverty, inequality, unemployment and crime since 1994.
From an aggregate point of view, the South African economy performed relatively well from 1994 to just before the financial crisis . For instance, the rate of growth in real GDP per capita was positive and significantly so for each year from 1994 to 2008 with the exception of 1998 (scroll to page 9 of this UN report). Leibbrandt and Levinsohn work out that real GDP per capita grew by 25% over this period, which coincidentally was the average growth rate for sub-Saharan Africa, excluding South Africa, over the same time period (I computed the latter statistic by using the World Bank’s databank tool available for free here – remember to use ‘constant prices’ rather than ‘current prices’ to calculate real, inflation-adjusted growth). For comparison, real GDP per capita declined by 15% over the period 1980 to 1994 (my own calculations using data from the World Bank’s databank tool that I link to above). Since GDP per capita might be too aggregated a measure (especially for a country like South Africa with distinct racial groups), Leibbrandt and Levinsohn, in the same paper, look at trends in actual incomes as reported by South African households and find that mean household incomes grew by 15% over the period*. In terms of racial breakdowns, the white population’s incomes grew the most at 28%, followed by blacks at 26%. Coloreds and asians saw their incomes grow by 8% and 5% respectively**. No such detailed study is available for household incomes before 1994 but the consensus is that the 1980s to early 1990s were dismal times economically. One might say that the 1980s are an unfair time period to compare South Africa’s later economic performance with because of the economic sanctions in place at the time. A detailed economic analysis, however, pointed to other structural factors, in addition to the sanctions, as being behind the economic malaise of the 80s and very early 90s.
Poverty and inequality
The consensus position is that poverty has declined across all racial groups since 1994. Leibbrandt, Wegner and Finn writing in 2011 have this to say [emphasis mine]:
The headcount ratio for two poverty lines is shown to have fallen over time, which is in line with a substantial literature (For example, Bhorat and van der Westhuizen (2009), van der Berg et al (2008)). As shown by Leibbrandt, Woolard, McEwen, Koep (2010) and Leibbrandt, Woolard, Finn, and Argent (2010) this decline in poverty is more pronounced if measures of poverty (such as the poverty gap ratio) that are sensitive to the depth of poverty are used. There is some contention over the timing of the poverty declines. For example, Hoogeveen and Özler (2006) seem to indicate an improvement in poverty levels only after 2000. However, there is no disagreement about the long‐run trend. In addition, as illustrated by Bhorat et al (2006) and Bhorat et al (2009) there is no such contention with regard to changes in non money‐metric well‐being. In all analyses, access to services, formal dwellings and private assets are shown to improve in the period from 1996 to 2001 and then on through to 2008.
Inequality on the other hand seems to have increased over all. The widely used Gini coefficient grew from 0.67 in 1993 to 0.70 in 2008 making the country one of the most unequal in the world. However, it does seem that within-racial group inequality has been driving the overall increase. In other words, inequality between racial groups (between, say, whites and blacks) is less a factor in explaining overall inequality than inequality within racial groups. As is the case in most countries, South Africa’s high inequality seems to be explained by educational differentials.
The consensus position is that the unemployment rate has been increasing since 1994. In 1995, the unemployment rate stood at about 15% whereas it currently stands at about 25%. A widely read study pointed to structural rigidities linked to poor labor market policies as being behind the persistence in unemployment post 1994. In the absence of such rigidities, the authors contend that the labor market would have adjusted to absorb some proportion of the large and unprecedented increase in labor supply that followed the fall of apartheid. Others, however, believe that unemployment had been trending upwards well before 1994 and the post 1994 labor policies adopted by the new African National Congress (ANC)-led government might have exacerbated the situation.
The one sore spot of post-apartheid South Africa seems to be the perceived increase in crime, especially violent crime. Crime began trending upwards as early as the 1980s with the trend line probably becoming steeper somewhere in the early to mid 1990s. Homicide rates which were as high as 65 per 100,000 population in 1995 reduced to half that figure by 2009. On the other hand, the rate of aggravated robberies increased significantly in the post-apartheid period. The Institute for Security Studies (ISS)‘ data shows that the rate of aggravated robberies increased from about 150 per 100,000 population in 1997 to just under 300 per 100,000 population in 2004 (an almost 100% increase!) although the rate of such robberies has recently began declining. The same data also show that the incidences of rape, car jacking and murder have been declining post 1994. It is quite likely that the story around aggravated robberies has been responsible for the high crime narrative in South Africa.
II. Implications for the open borders discussion
Reading the above set of facts, one gets the sense that life in post-apartheid South Africa has not been entirely good but neither has it been the horror story that some have made it out to be. Can one then draw some implications for open borders from South Africa’s experience during the transition from apartheid to democracy (to all intents and purposes an “open borders event”)?
a) Political Externalities
With the dissolution of apartheid institutions beginning in 1990, black africans were free to live and work anywhere in the new republic. Blacks were also conferred full citizenship rights implying that they could participate in the country’s democratic process. The fact that blacks were in the majority during the transition to democracy in 1994 probably meant that the median voter was black. Parties hoping for success at the polls had to appeal to the policy preferences of the median voter who likely preferred interventionist policies to right the wrongs of the past. This is probably one of the factors behind the ANC’s victory in 1994 and the statist policies that they later on put in place. Prima facie, it seems that political externalities might have been a factor in post-apartheid South Africa. Had the new “immigrants” been denied voting rights, then perhaps the country’s economic policies might have been less intrusive. If this line of thinking is correct, then an optimal approach to open borders might be to deny, at least at the outset, voting rights to new immigrants. On the other hand, the South African case is quite different to what is most likely to happen under global open borders. For one thing, the mass “South Africanisation” that followed the dismantling of apartheid was devoid of the “selection factor” that is likely to be important under a regime of open borders. Immigrants are likely to identify with the attributes of the destination polity (why go there in the first place?) thus making political externalities a matter of less concern.
b) Crime and other undesirable outcomes
It is quite clear that the rate of crime in the immediate aftermath of apartheid was historically high by South African standards (though important to point out that crime began rising in the 1980s). Since the crime trend line became steeper in the early to mid 1990s, it becomes tempting to conclude that the “new comers” brought the crime along with them. If this conclusion is true, then the implication is not that the new comers should not have come in the first place but that background checks were never performed on the new comers to isolate those who had a criminal record and/or were likely to perform crimes in the future. (Note that it was probably impossible to perform such checks in South Africa’s unique case without upsetting an already delicate situation). It is not clear, for instance, why the US or any other country that opens up its borders cannot perform such checks. Perhaps a policy of sudden open borders (such as happened in South Africa with an incoming population many multiples that of the home population) might place strains on the verification process. In which case a policy of gradual open borders with some learning happening along the way might be more optimal if the concerns around crime and other undesirable elements are important.
South Africa’s experience transitioning to democracy after apartheid holds some valuable lessons for the open borders discussion. I think using South Africa to completely write-off open borders is not the right lesson to draw from this story.
* The discrepancy is probably explained by the fact that GDP per capita is sensitive to outliers (a possibility given South Africa’s high income inequality) whereas the household income data is in natural logarithms to avoid the problem of outliers.
** South Africa is officially divided into four racial groups: blacks, whites, coloreds (people of mixed-race) and asians.