Global Apartheid and the era of climate breakdown

Warning: currently only in draft form, suggested revisions welcome.

Not long ago, I read an article which suggested target-setting for net zero on the basis of pragmatism is inappropriate because, just like ending the slave trade, climate change is about righting injustice, not about altering focus.

In the case of slavery and apartheid – whether it be the transatlantic slave trade, the Civil Rights struggle in America, or apartheid in South Africa, it seems obvious that ‘justice delayed is justice denied‘.

I wish to argue that in comparing the abolition movement with pursuit of climate action the author of the article I read was making a much more apt comparison than he realised: climate breakdown is part of a present-day slave trade which takes the form of global apartheid.

I will define apartheid and demonstrate its characteristics with reference to South African apartheid, show how the current global North-South divide also fits the characteristics of apartheid, and then say how we should understand this system in the wake of climate breakdown while also making the case that the two are one and the same.

Defining apartheid

Apartheid is a legal edifice that constructs and enforces the supremacy of one racial group over another. The most well-known system of apartheid is the extensive apartheid system which existed in South Africa from 1948 to 1994.

Apartheid connects to slavery because it is the subjugation of a group of people. While individuals may not be ‘owned’ by others, the people group as a whole is secondary to another and this is the basis of their enslavement.

I will characterise systems of apartheid as (1) being built on the foundation of racial inequality (2) for the control and exploitation of labour, and (3) enforced coercively through militarised apparatus.

These characteristics were evident under South African apartheid:

(1) Apartheid was built on the foundation of racial inequality. It used nativist logic, which roots people in particular geographical places they are imagined naturally to belong. This justified black people being sent to live in so-called ‘independent homelands’ which were impoverished by design. Inferiority operated along racial lines.

(2) Apartheid was a system of exploitative labour. The state created a bureaucratic system of identity documentation and mobility controls called pass laws designed to enable and allocate migrant labour. While black people were able to work in white areas, they had no political rights in these spaces. White people benefited twice over: exploiting the labour of black people and allowing them no political recourse to end these forms of exploitation.

(3) This system of apartheid required expensive militarised security apparatus to enforce it. This was evident in the Sharpeville massacre and its aftermath.

Global apartheid

Countries across the global north criminalise the mobility of people from the global south. This enables them to control and exploit labour, and it is a system enforced through militarised borders.

This means the characteristics of apartheid are now present on a global level:

(1) Built on the foundation of racial inequality

Global apartheid between the North and South operates along racial lines. Broadly speaking, if you are white, it is likely your passport will function to restrict your mobility to a much lesser extent than if you are not.

Passports themselves are a relatively recent invention – the first ones were only created in 1914 – and they act to designate those who belong and identify those who don’t.

Passports are tied to nationalist ideology, which implicitly relies on nativism. People are tied to specific geographical places through linking cultural/racial identity with nation-state membership or citizenship (Mexicans belong in Mexico, the Japanese in Japan etc.). This link is the basis for the idea of immigration control: nativist logic makes mobility seem threatening to the consolidation of a national identity, it only works on the premise of racial inequality.

Importantly, white settler colonial states (US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the colonizing states of Europe, the new nation of Israel) have consolidated national identity by ‘racialising’ citizenship. In the US the very first legislation defining qualifications for citizenship (the Naturalization Act, 1790) restricted citizenship to free whites whose mobility into the US was unconstrained. The policy required the government to create rules to define who could qualify as white. It also then used this racial criteria to determine political enfranchisement. The law remained until 1952.

(2) For the control and exploitation of labour

Although we have freedom of movement for capital, we do not have freedom of movement for people.

This means the products of people’s labour often never benefit the people who laboured over them.

It means British oil companies like Tullow Oil – whose AGM I attended last month – create profit for their (white) board members and shareholders and while not benefiting the land and (black) labour they own, control and exploit in the Global South.

This engenders an asymmetry between the Global North and South.

Those in the Global North can intervene in the Global South through military interventions/IMF austerity regimes/land acquisition by logging corporations/labour exploitation/freedom of movement. Many of these actions are taken with the justification of protecting the sovereignty/cultural heritage/political integrity etc. of the Global North.

In contrast, not only can those in the Global South not intervene in the Global North, they are robbed of their own sovereignty/cultural heritage/political integrity.

Just like in South Africa, when people from the Global South are allowed to work in the Global North, they have no political rights in these spaces. Like whites in South Africa, the Global North benefits twice over: exploiting the labour of the Global South while allowing these people no political recourse to end these forms of exploitation.

This happens both on an individual level (e.g. highly restrictive work visas and guest worker programmes with no avenues to citizenship or rights to family life and which aim to dis-empower workers) and at an international level (e.g. if we render the IMF’s voting allocations in per capita terms, and average them in terms of the global North-South divide, a Southerner’s vote is worth 1/8th of a Northerner’s vote).  

(3) Enforced coercively through militarised apparatus

This system depends on the militarised policing of borders.

Countries in the Global North are eager to keep refugees far away from their borders because persecuted people who make it across the border of the EU or the US have a legal right to apply for asylum.

This means that the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, also known as Frontex, has an aspiration to ensure that potential asylum seekers never make it to the border of EU countries.

As a result, the border EU countries are now funding militias in Libya, Turkey, Morocco, Senegal, Sudan, and the Ukraine to interrupt migrants who are trying to make their way north and put them into migrant holding facilities. In the Mediterranean, Frontex has been deflecting migrant boats into the most dangerous sea crossings (with the logic that if it’s more dangerous people will be unlikely to try to make the crossing).

I suggest we should be very concerned by this! Funding militias and putting people who are legally seeking refuge into danger is unacceptable. Just like Australia funding the holding of migrants in offshore islands, this form of policing operates outside of regulatory control which offers countries on whose behalf migrants are being detained deniability about human rights abuses that may be taking place.

Not only are forms of militarised policing extremely expensive, detention centres etc. are often privately run. This means there are companies profiteering on the incarceration of people seeking refuge.

In an age of Climate Breakdown

In an age of climate breakdown, more people in areas of environmental degradation will face crop failure, water scarcity, flooding and other forms of natural disaster. These areas are disproportionately in the Global South.

However, these people will not be able to move to safety. They can either apply for asylum in another country (which means they relinquish political and civil rights, and risk detention, incarceration and deportation while claims are reviewed by authorities) live in a refugee camp (which means they relinquish right of mobility, right to work outside the camp, and accept the denial of rights to self-determination and political participation in the camp itself) or stay confined in an insecure region.

Will the present system be able to recognise and accommodate increased numbers of climate refugees? Or will the Global North accelerate and advance the militarisation of borders and create ever more hostile immigration systems?

Recently, Mozambique took on further debt via the IMF to cover the costs of the recent flooding, a humanitarian disaster. I fear this gives us the answer.

I expect that in the coming years, we will see a pattern repeating. Rather than the international community acting to protect its most vulnerable citizens, inequality will become more entrenched as the countries least-equipped and least-responsible for the consequences of climate breakdown are made to face the burden of it.

Global Apartheid and Climate Breakdown: one and the same?

The Global North’s exploitation and intervention in the Global South is one of the main factors in climate breakdown. The Global North is not only responsible for the extraction of fossil fuels but also for the use of fossil fuels to enable the overconsumption and waste of people in the Global North.

In this sense global apartheid and climate breakdown are inextricable. The system of global apartheid is the means through which the Global North has achieved the economic growth rates it has; via the exploitation of the labour and land of the Global South.

Intervention, extraction, exploitation are the first half of the system where militarisation, incarceration and enforcement are the second.

Global apartheid, which means people in the Global South broadly face either exploitation or incarceration, is the second part, while climate breakdown is the result of the first.

A question of justice

We are at a critical juncture. Our global systems are justified according to their profitability, but this profit is – and really always has been – unsustainable.

The inequality which has resulted makes our response at this point harder. The beneficiaries of our current systems have more leverage, and will try to maintain ‘business as usual’ (as citizens of the Global North, this includes us). This will potentially continue until another critical point: when the costs of upholding the coercive aspects of the present system becomes too great (just like with the ending of SA apartheid). Unfortunately the geopolitics and potential conflicts that could be caused by climate breakdown this century make this a real possibility.

This brings us to the other possibility and a more hopeful ending. We happen to be alive at a point in time that could prove transformational. We have a unique opportunity – to act to end global apartheid while working to protect the most vulnerable people from the effects of climate breakdown; reforming our global systems on just and sustainable principles.

If we do this now, instead of unpredictable, forced and reactive change, we could see planned and principled change which makes the century ahead of us better than we can currently dare to hope.


  1. Very thoughtful article. I particularly noted the disenfranchisement of immigrants.

    On a parallel note, Jean-François Mouhot is an environmental historian whose PhD thesis was on the parallels between slavery and climate change. You may search the web for “jean francois mouhot climate change slavery” — or email him directly.

    Liked by 1 person

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