Tag Archives: South Africa

Journalist Stephan Faris: Modern border regimes are apartheid

Border controls that prevent innocent foreigners from travelling peacefully are in every meaningful way identical to laws enshrining racial segregation and apartheid. Both aim to exclude people from peaceful participation in civilised society, not because of anything they have done wrong, but purely because of a circumstance of birth that they had no choice over.

Open borders advocates have long compared the modern border regime to apartheid and other forms of racial segregation. But American journalist Stephan Faris has done us one better: in his brief book Homelands: The Case for Open Immigration last year, he outlined exactly why and how we shouldn’t let artificially-drawn borders delude us into thinking our immigration laws don’t somehow constitute an arbitrary form of discrimination comparable to apartheid. Stephan was recently gracious enough to spare some time for an email interview with us, which we’ll be publishing next week.

In the mean time, I’d strongly urge you to head over to Amazon and buy the book; it’s currently listed for under 3 US dollars, and is only thirty pages. I finished the book in one sitting, and felt I got far more than my money’s worth. The intro blurb from the publisher:

As a child, Stephan Faris nearly failed to qualify for any country’s passport. Now, in a story that moves from South Africa to Italy to the United States, he looks at the arbitrariness of nationality. Framed by Faris’s meeting with a young orphan as a reporter in Liberia and their reencounter years later in Minnesota, Homelands makes the case for a complete rethinking of immigration policy. In a world where we’ve globalized capital, culture, and communications, are restrictions on the movement of people still morally tenable?

I’d say the book delivers on these claims. But rather than take my word for it, why not preview an excerpt and judge for yourself? Deca, the publisher of Homelands, has allowed us to publish an edited excerpt of the book — one that doesn’t give you the full colour of Stephan’s stories or arguments, but should whet your appetite for the full-length item:

After some 250 years of nationalism, the segregation of the world’s population into separate countries seems as natural as the division of the globe into continents. So it’s important to remember that restricting immigration is a political choice, one whose burden is carried largely by the less fortunate.

Joseph Carens, the philosopher, is right to describe nationality as a birthright reminiscent of medieval feudalism. But as I discovered during my time in Africa, you needn’t go back as far as the Middle Ages to find an unsettling analog to our closed borders. If I’ve come to the conclusion that our immigration policies are one of the great moral challenges of our time, it’s in part because they very much resemble one of the most clear-cut acts of injustice in recent history: an attempt by South Africa’s apartheid regime to preserve racial privileges in the face of worldwide opposition.

Apartheid was clearly becoming untenable, but they couldn’t contemplate giving up white privilege. So they settled on a different solution, one that would abolish overt discrimination but still allow them to retain their grip on social, economic, and political power: a partition of South Africa modeled explicitly on existing national borders, with the nation divided into rich and poor countries.

South Africa had already set aside land for the native population. Thirteen percent of the country was designated as native reserves, known as “homelands,” where black Africans had to live unless they could prove they were working for a white employer. Movement in and out of these homelands was restricted. The Pass Laws required nonwhite citizens to carry “passbooks” with their name, address, and photograph or risk imprisonment and expulsion back to the reserves. It didn’t seem like a big leap to go from “homelands” and “passbooks” to “countries” and “passports.”

The idea didn’t seem as crazy then as it might today. In the period after World War II, new countries were erupting out of disintegrating colonial empires all over the globe. The border between India, Pakistan, and what would later become Bangladesh wasn’t drawn until 1947, when a British administrator was given five weeks to decide where the division would run. All across Africa, new nations were hoisting new flags: Ghana in 1957, Guinea the year after. By 1960, the continent had seen the creation of sixteen new independent states, from Somalia to Senegal, from Mali to Madagascar.

At the same time, all around South Africa, new nations were coming into being. The Republic of Botswana, just to the north, elected its first government in 1966. Swaziland, in the east, declared independence from the United Kingdom in 1968. Most remarkable of all was the transformation of the British Protectorate of Basutoland, a tiny landlocked colony completely surrounded by South Africa. In 1966, it pulled down the Union Jack and joined the roster of nations as the Kingdom of Lesotho.

If such a miniscule patch of land could stand alone as an independent country, why not the 13 percent of South African territory set aside as native reserves? “The dream was: how do you get rid of the immorality of apartheid?” said [former South African Minister Roelof Frederik] Botha. “How do you get rid of the reprehensible suppression and racial discrimination? If a sufficient number of black people in their homelands—exactly like Swaziland, like Basutoland, like Botswana—if they could also become independent, then maybe the whites might not feel that much threatened anymore by the overwhelming majority of black people. And apartheid, in its nefarious sense, in its reprehensible sense, could be dismantled.”

“So the idea took root,” he said. “Let us make these nations independent. They can have their own parliaments, their own governments, their own courts, their own judges. Each one must have a capital and a parliament and a president and a prime minister and a cabinet. They will be sovereign, and they will be independent. And then you would have a sort of equality, a constellation of southern African states.”

Blacks could have their independence. But when they came to where the work was, they would have to do so as immigrants. “The problem was reality,” said Botha. “It did not resolve the issue of racial discrimination. So the dream was turned into a nightmare. It was a dream that was not based on reality.”

To be sure, there are differences between the global system of immigration restrictions and South Africa’s attempt to entrench white privilege through the partitioning of its territory. But it should give us pause to think that when the architects of one of history’s most recognized evils set out to codify their system of injustice, they looked at our borders and passports and saw a lot to like. Intentions aside, the biggest difference between the two is that the South Africans wanted to draw the boundaries and assign the nationalities. We make do with the existing ones.

What’s most striking about the story of South African apartheid is how similar it is to our efforts to restrict immigration today. Numerically, the parallels could hardly be more perfect. In 1994, there were six times as many nonwhite South Africans as white South Africans, according to data compiled by Michael Clemens. Whites earned roughly eight times as much as their black or mixed-race peers. Today, there are roughly six times as many people living in low- and middle-income countries as there are in high-income countries. Residents of rich countries typically earn about seven times the average income of the rest of the world. If numbers are anything to go by, ending economic and geographic—not to mention political—segregation in South Africa was a bigger challenge than dropping barriers to immigration would be today.

There are endless practical objections to allowing people to move where they can best profit from their willingness to work. But there were practical objections to ending apartheid as well, and practical objections to ending slavery in the United States. Few would argue that the practical objections outweighed the moral imperatives.

Again, the full 30 pages are worth buying. I think Stephan very concisely sums up the fundamental moral case for open borders, and in a very compelling way. Check back next week for our interview with Stephan!

The image featured at the top of this post is of a man crawling naked through the South African border fence near Beitbridge, Zimbabwe, making his way to South Africa. Originally published in the Cape Times, it was taken by Henk Kruger in 2008, and won the runner-up prize for World Press Photo of the year.

Risking death to get into South Africa

The supposedly horrible socioeconomic consequences of South African apartheid’s abolition are sometimes used as a cautionary tale against open borders. But this story of Ethiopians and Somalians risking life and limb to get into South Africa serve as a potent example of how much people are willing to risk in search of a better life:

41 young Ethiopians suffocated to death inside an overcrowded van in Tanzania. With the aid of human traffickers, they had been hoping to start a new life in South Africa.

Some ended up paying with their lives, while those who survived will be deported back to their home country.

…Most refugees from Ethiopia and Somalia are economic refugees, says Getachew. But others flee also from war and political persecution. 32 year-old Mohad Abdul is among those who fled to South Africa because of violence in Somalia….Integration in South Africa was relatively easy for Abdul. He quickly obtained a residence and work permit. Today he is a businessman in Johannesburg and watches closely as more and more Somalis and Ethiopians flock into the country.

In no other country are there so many asylum applications. In 2011 alone, there were 100,000 applications. The authorities can scarcely keep up with processing them.

There is no accounting for such reckless risking of life without considering the place premium: the same person doing the same job in one country can earn dramatically more than he or she would in a different country. The Somalian fleeing lawlessness is almost certain to be more productive in any other society in the world, since that country will at least have a half-functioning legal system. It is not difficult to imagine that even countries in less anarchic states might not offer their citizens the institutions conducive to productivity and prosperity which do exist a country or two away.

The international wage discrimination created by closed borders is literally the worst that has ever been measured. That conclusion may sound shockingly strong, but when you consider that there are Indonesians who literally migrate to Australian jails (because to them it’s better to be in a jail in Australia than free in their homeland) or Afghans who risk being shot to death to get into Iran, what’s shocking is how blind we are to the suffering which closed borders create.

The image featured at the top of this post is of a mother with her child crawling under the South African fence bordering Zimbabwe, taken by Themba Hadebe for the Associated Press in 2010 and published in The Guardian.

Open borders, crime and targeting the natives: the case of South Africa

Two objections to open borders are that under open borders (1) recipient countries are likely to experience an increase in crime and (2) natives, since they are on average richer than the new comers, are likely to bear the full brunt of crime. The two objections are not necessarily related: one can think of a scenario whereby the crime rate falls following open borders but the residual crime is disproportionately borne by natives. This post does not confront the first objection, namely that open borders might lead to an increase in crime, because others on this site have done so. In addition, I have speculated in a previous post that the increase in crime that immediately followed the collapse of apartheid in South Africa (to all intents and purposes an “open borders event”) was due to the fact that background checks were never performed on the “new comers” to isolate those with criminal records. (In that post, I also noted that it was impossible to perform such checks in South Africa’s case without upsetting an already delicate situation). My intention in this post is to confront the second objection, namely that natives are likely to bear the brunt of any crime that takes place under open borders. I will do so by appealing to South Africa’s post apartheid experience.

The dominant narrative on South Africa is that crime increased and has continued to increase in the post apartheid period and whites have largely been the victims of the crime wave. I took on the first part of this narrative in this post and showed that it was largely false — homicide rates (the most reliable measure of crime) have been declining every year since 1995 (apartheid officially ended in 1994). As a matter of fact, homicide rates are 50% lower today than they were in 1995. The second part of the crime narrative has a common sense appeal: whites are disproportionately the victims of crime because the average white South African is many times richer than the average black South African making him/her an attractive target for criminals. Official confirmation of this narrative seemed to have arrived when in 2009 Canada’s Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) granted Brandon Huntley, a white South African living in Canada, refugee status on the basis that “[Huntley] would stand out like a ‘sore thumb’ due to his color in any part of [South Africa]”. Huntley “reported being the victim of several assaults by black South Africans. He alleged that those assaults were racially motivated, and stated that he did not seek police or state protection because the authorities [were] unwilling or unable to help white South Africans…The [IRB] found [Huntley] credible and accepted his evidence with regard to the attacks. One of [Huntley’s] witnesses, Ms. Kaplan, whose brother was victimized by black South Africans, also testified that the police [were] corrupt and [do] not help white South Africans, and that a genocide is occurring against white South Africans” (source). The ruling by the IRB sparked off a series of heated debates in South Africa with some seeing the decision as vindication of their long-held suspicions and others condemning it as unfounded. This prompted James Myburgh, the editor of Politicsweb, a popular local news and opinion website, to analyze several rounds of national victimization surveys whereupon he found that “whites were somewhat more likely to fall victim to crime than other race groups”. Myburgh’s conclusions were regarded as the final verdict on the matter by many since national victimization surveys were nationally representative and were conducted by Statistics South Africa, the Institute for Security Studies and the Human Sciences Research Council, bodies widely regarded as credible. The matter did not rest there, however. In December 2009, Gavin Silber and Nathan Geffen published an article in SA Crime Quarterly arguing that national victimization surveys (or NVSs) were not the best tool to use in answering the crime victimization question because they relied heavily on people’s opinions. Silber and Geffen advanced the following reasons [footnotes omitted]:

Firstly, the very concept of crime or criminality can be relatively subjective, as indeed is the case with ‘victimhood’. Some respondents to NVSs classify the threat of violence as a criminal act, while others might only classify its use as criminal. In addition, the distinction between perpetrator and victim can also be somewhat blurred in cases such as assault.

Secondly, there is strong evidence showing that reported victimization levels tend to increase with education, which is obviously (and particularly in South Africa) linked to income. A study in the United States showed that people with university degrees recalled three times as many assaults as those with a high school education. It is conceivable that over-exposure to a particular crime category amongst certain NVS respondents (in this case people with little education) may result in lesser infringements – such as assault – not qualifying as ‘criminal’. This has also been observed in studies illustrating how various developed cities/countries have produced higher victimization rates than poorer countries with higher levels of recorded crime.

Thirdly, reporting of property-related and violent crime tends to differ significantly, based on various circumstances. When a given sample is questioned on exposure to violent interpersonal crimes such as assault and sexual abuse (particularly when it involves a non-stranger), the results are likely to reflect a significant underreporting of actual exposure, due to a reluctance to report sexual abuse, child abuse, general assault and domestic violence.  Moreover, there might be differences in the way poor and relatively wealthy respondents perceive property-related crime. Relatively wealthy people have more items of value, and are able to afford insurance, which requires reporting such crimes to the authorities. This might mean they are more likely to be conscious of, or remember, thefts they have experienced in the period covered by the NVS.

They proposed an alternative method that looked at trends in deaths from non-natural causes, and in particular homicide rates. Such an approach yielded a different set of conclusions to those arrived at by Myburgh. For instance [footnotes omitted]:

In 2008/2009 18,148 people in South Africa were murdered. This amounts to 37.3 people per 100,000, or just under 50 per day. The evidence we have examined indicates that the victims are disproportionately african and coloured working class people.  We examined Statistics South Africa mortality data to determine the breakdown of murders by race. Our analysis is inconclusive but it indicates that victims are disproportionately africans and coloureds.

More compelling data come from the Medical Research Council (MRC). In an investigation into female homicide rates in South Africa in 2004, the MRC used national mortuary data to determine that 2.8 of every 100,000 white women die as a result of murder, whereas 8.9 africans and 18.3 coloureds meet the same fate. This shows that, at least for women, Myburgh is very likely wrong […] Black women are disproportionately murdered.

Another recent study by the Centre for The Study of Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR) analysed homicide rates in high-risk areas in Kwazulu-Natal, Western Cape, and Gauteng, using a representative sample of police dockets. Of the sample 85% of homicide victims were black, 9% were coloured, 5% asian and 1% of victims were white.

Silber and Geffen also looked at mortality reports produced by Statistics South Africa going all the way to the year 2000 and arrived at similar conclusions to those reported above.

So using an approach that counts the actual victims of crime shows that, contra Myburgh, the burden of crime in post-apartheid South Africa has largely been borne by the country’s non-white population.

The above notwithstanding, it is still quite possible that the homicide rate of whites has gone up since 1994 even though whites bear a lesser burden of crime when compared to other groups. Unfortunately, race specific homicide data were not collected prior to 1994 making it difficult for us to  work out and compare victimization rates for whites before and after apartheid. But the information that exists currently suggests that homicide rates for whites have come down or at the very least stayed the same since 1994. For instance, South Africa’s homicide rate began rising in the mid-1950s and continued on this upward trend, with an additional 5,000 homicides per decade, until 1994 (see the figure on page 10 of this document). And this happened during the period when the definition of South Africa excluded the homelands where most blacks (who were the majority of the population) lived suggesting that the increase in homicide rates over this period must have been largely borne by the citizens of South Africa as it was then defined. This piece of evidence coupled with the fact that homicides rates for the country as a whole have fallen by 50% after 1995 suggests that the homicide rate for whites must have declined alongside the country’s homicide rate or at the very least stayed the same since 1994.

Or perhaps certain types of victimization have increased since 1994 even though whites as a group are less vulnerable to crime when compared to whites before 1994 or when compared to other racial groups in contemporary South Africa. The typical case that is usually cited to illustrate this concern are the widely publicized attacks on white farmers. However, even here the current evidence seems to suggest that white South African farmers and their families are no more likely to fall victim to murder than the typical South African citizen. It is however important to point out that there is currently not a systematic and reliable way of collecting data on attacks on white farmers so the best analyses rely on data triangulations and assumptions implying that there is bound to be some dispersion in the conclusions. But be this as it may, all reasonable analysts of this story agree that there is currently no evidence to suggest that there is a genocide of white South African farmers, contrary to what some groups are claiming. Further, all experts agree that these attacks are not racially motivated nor do they have a political angle to them. According to a researcher who has had first-hand experience in investigating farm attacks, “most farm murders were criminal acts committed with a material motive behind them“.

What implications, if any, might this have for the open borders discussion since I have argued elsewhere that the fall of apartheid was an open borders event? Firstly, South Africa’s experience shows that crime rates do not necessarily rise following open borders — in South Africa’s case, the rate of crime has fallen in each year since 1995. And secondly, it is not clear-cut that the burden of crime will always be borne by natives following open borders — in South Africa’s case, and contrary to conventional wisdom, the victims of crime have overwhelmingly been the black (and to some extent, the coloured) population. In any case, open borders would present a way out for people such as Brandon Huntley who believed they were in danger of victimization. And under open borders, people like Huntley would not have to prove their case.

The specter of crime does not, in my mind, constitute sufficient grounds to overturn the presumption in favor of open borders — South Africa’s experience, with zero background checks, shows that crime is much more a concern for the new comers than it is for the natives. And I think it is possible to reduce the possibility of crime to a minimum by relying on background checks among other options. The alternative of consigning poor people to countries where they are perpetually the victims of crime, and to say nothing of poverty, is much worse.



Paul Kersey on immigration and multiethnic societies

Paul Kersey has a thought-provoking piece up at VDARE with some speculation about the potential consequences of expanded migration and/or legalization initiatives currently being mooted by US legislators and policy wonks. Kersey uses an interesting technique similar to something that has often cropped up in the posts and comments at this site (including, specifically, comments by BK): an analysis of the performance of multiethnic societies to inform the debate about the short-run and long-run consequences of open borders. While Kersey’s rhetorical style is perhaps more upfront and forthright than that employed by the typical sophisticated restrictionist, the style of argument he makes does appeal to a wide range of people.

Let me begin by noting what I like about Kersey’s approach. It seems to me that too often, discussions about the effects of policies are built on exceptionalist rhetoric that fails to learn from the experiences of other countries. For instance, discussions of affirmative action in one country often fail to consider evidence about affirmative action and similar policies employed in other countries. The same applies to discussions of the effects of the minimum wage, or of tax increases, or of conscription. The problem with ignoring other countries is that a single country usually doesn’t offer enough variation in its history to provide a lot of insight. Comparing across countries can help overcome this problem. There are a lot of caveats to be considered when doing inter-country comparisons, but it’s a tool that should be given a shot. This kind of analysis, incidentally, is one of the things that I admire Thomas Sowell for, even though I don’t often see eye to eye with Sowell’s moral outlook, empirical assertions, and rhetorical style (see here for my discussion of Sowell on migration and here for my personal views on Sowell’s output as a whole).

In addition to using an international perspective, it may also be important to extend the analysis beyond migration to other situations that might mimic the effects of migration. A common and plausible strand of thinking is that the performance of multiethnic societies compared to more homogeneous societies provides some insight into the effects open borders might have, in so far as open borders would make certain societies (the target countries of migration) more multiethnic. The use of these indirect proxies, weak and questionable though they may be from some perspectives, is better than just throwing up one’s hands or refusing to consider the question. Open borders is a radical proposal, and it behooves those discussing it to try their hardest to look at all the various things that could go right and wrong with open borders.

Based on the above, I was initially quite sympathetic to Paul Kersey’s attempt to figure out the impact of open borders by looking at two examples of racially and ethnically diverse societies that have been known to be ridden with conflict and problems — South Africa and Brazil. Clearly, my bottom line differs from Kersey’s, but I was hoping to gain some insight from Kersey’s piece on the matter. I was somewhat disappointed in this respect.

Kersey’s analysis of South Africa is similar to many other restrictionist analyses — South Africa ended apartheid, and look how bad things are in South Africa today. What does the evidence actually suggest? Grieve Chelwa did an excellent post on South Africa in the open borders debate. A very brief summary of his post: things were pretty bad and in many ways getting worse in the period 1980-1994 (prior to the end of apartheid), and things have generally been improving 1994-2008, though not very fast. But the improvement post-1994 is certainly quite impressive compared to the 1980-1994 performance. Within the 1994-2008 period, things have generally been better in the latter half of the period, and the poor performance in the beginning can be attributed to some bad leadership and statist economic policy. Grieve looks at poverty, inequality, unemployment, and crime. In the comments, BK brought up the decline in life expectancy, which is certainly one worrisome negative trend, and is mostly attributed to the HIV denialism of Thabo Mbeki. Clearly, there are no easy answers here, and South Africa is at best modestly encouraging and at worst modestly discouraging in terms of the case for open borders. With this background in mind, I thought Kersey might have some interesting insights to offer on the negative side of the ledger.

Kersey’s analysis of South Africa, however, involves block quoting the entirety of a sidebar (!) from a Daily Mail article about a rich guy shooting his girlfriend (it’s unclear whether the shooting was intentional or accidental). The sidebar laments South Africa’s high crime rate, and this is the main piece of evidence used by Kersey to conclude that apartheid was a failure. But as Grieve’s analysis showed, the rates for most violent crimes (including homicides, which have the most reliable data in general) has declined considerably since the end of apartheid, with the main exception to the trend being armed robberies (a quick-and-dirty version of the homicide data can be viewed here, but see the links in Grieve’s post for more). Probably, there are many interpretations of the statistics, but I’d have hoped that Kersey would not use a single-point-in-time number to draw conclusions about trends in post-apartheid South Africa.

I don’t really know enough (or in fact anything) about Brazil. Kersey’s analysis of Brazil looks potentially interesting, but I’d be loath to use it as an information source for reasons very similar to those that I elucidated for South Africa. I would strongly urge restrictionists like Kersey to perform deeper analyses of trends so that people on all sides of the debate have a better idea of the restrictionist end in the range of plausible conclusions one can draw from the data. By taking shortcuts and preferring sensation over substance, Kersey does both his own cause and the cause of truth a disservice.

South Africa in the open borders debate

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.