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August 29, 2004

Getting the Facts Right; or, Occam's Razor

It's a basic assumption among GNXP posters that the study of human biodiversity is an important contributing factor to the study of humanity in general. At the same time, though, it's important to keep in mind that human biodiversity isn't the only factor involved in the construction of early 21st century societies.

Take South Africa, for instance. The topic of South Africa has been frequently debated on GNXP. The main thing to remember about modern South Africa is that it's a fundamentally unequal society. Even a decade after South Africa's formally ended the policies of apartheid, many observers--for instance, Bryan Rostron in The New Statesman--have observed that South Africa remains a society where wealth and status continue to correlate strongly with the country's racial divisions:

In his book A History of Inequality in South Africa, the economist Sampie Terreblanche acknowledges the growth of a new "colour-blind" middle class, but argues that the country has simply shifted from race-based to class-based disparities.

South Africa's population of 45 million, he suggests, can be divided into three socio-economic classes of about 15 million each. The first group, an affluent middle class, comprises four million whites (that is, all but roughly 500,000 of South Africa's whites), along with 11 million blacks, Indians and mixed-race "coloureds". The second group is a struggling working class, mostly black. The bottom 15 million is almost entirely black: an underclass in dire poverty, property-less, mostly uneducated and still "voiceless, pathetically powerless" in Terreblanche's words.

According to the UN Development Program's 1994 report, South Africa's HDI was 0.650--for whites 0.878 and for blacks 0.462 (compared to 0.881 for American blacks and 0.986 for American whites). If white South Africa had been a separate country, it would have ranked 24th in the world in income per capita rankings, just below Italy and Spain and above Portugal in per capita income rankings (6500 US dollars at market exchange rates, 14920 US dollars at PPP). Black South Africa, in contrast would rank 123rd, below Botswana, Gabon, Swaziland, Lesotho, and Zimbabwe (670 US dollars at market exchange rates, 1710 US dollars at PPP).

The question that many at GNXP have asked is whether or not this remarkable division of South African society, strongly correlated with race, reflects innate differences between the different racial groups of South Africa. You can argue this, I suppose, if you wanted. I'd argue that history, though, is a much more potent explanatory force; indeed, history is so dominant a force that arguing in favour of lower or higher IQs for people of different races based on genetics is nonsensical.

Consider that South Africa compares in many ways to Russia, or even Brazil. These three countries both have middle-income economies marked by extreme inequality, while they have recently emerged to establish democratic regimes (with varying levels of success) and are currently coping with a wide array of social pathologies, including exceptionally high rates of violent crime, serious income inequality, and deteriorating health standards. All three countries are marked by very serious social divisions, by extreme inequalities of wealth and health and political power.

Take violence, for instance. South Africa has, unfortunately, one of the highest rates of violent crime in the world, ranking alongside (again) Russia and Brazil. Violence, though, has a long history in South Africa. Balicki's study of the Netsilik Eskimo and Chagnon's study of the Yanomamo, among many other anthropological studies, have demonstrated that not only are Iron Age cultures not natively peaceable, but that they are actually prone to exceptional levels of violence by the standards of early 21st century industrial and post-industrial societies, with pervasive assault and murder. In South Africa's case, the 19th century was particularly traumatic thanks to the mfecane, which radically transformed society in the modern Zulu homeland of KwaZulu-Natal by establishing the ancestral state to the modern-day Zulu monarchy. It also devastated African societies throughout the interior of the modern-day Republic of South Africa at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dead, sent sizable contingents of refugees at least as far as Zimbabwe (the Ndebele). Unsurprisingly, this degree of devastation allowed Afrikaner migrants armed with superior weapons technologies to enter the affected areas and create the Boer republics of Transvaal and Orange Free State.

Of course, the South African state under apartheid was quite willing to use violence in order to maintain the racial hierarchies. It's not many governments which manage to get their own agents listed in databases of serial killers like CrimeLibrary.com. (Wouter Basson, incidentally, was responsible for the murder through biological and chemical warfare of some two hundred prisoners.) Not everything was as spectacular as Basson's crimes, although the broad scope of the apartheid regime's destabilization campaigns--wars against the Lusophone Marxist states of Angola and Mozambique at the cost of hundreds of thousands of civilian dead, an ongoing campaign against the Namibians protesting their colonization, support of the Rhodesian dictatorship, terrorist campaigns waged against South African refugees in neighbouring countries--comes close in a different area.

The maintenance, at every level of society, of an intrusive police state which regulated what jobs people could perform, what people they could relate to socially, what ideologies they could profess, what places they could live--in short, which sought to determine for people their proper place in life--and felt entirely justified in using massive amounts of violence to make people obey, was quite an endeavour. That it also delegitimized the police as a legitimate force was another, secondary, consequence of note mainly now that the police is needed for non-repressive activities.

Differences essentially political have caused rapid divergences between closely related populations. In Weimar Germany, for instance, East Germany contained in Saxony and Berlin some of the most advanced industrial areas in Germany. In the 1930s, Estonian living standards were in advance of Finland's, and Czechoslovakia had a more sophisticated industrial economy than Austria. Poland, with a relatively buoyant economy and a not-inconsiderable military, was certainly on the same level as Spain, and arguably not much behind Italy. And now? How things have changed, for the worse. If politics in the form of prolonged and destructive Soviet occupation hadn't interfered, the economic gap between western and central Europe would be substantially smaller if it existed at all.

The grand scheme of apartheid made economic progress difficult to impossible for non-whites. These policies made it impossible for non-whites to enter modern society on equal terms. The 1913 Natives' Land Act, for instance, marked the first stage in a general dispossession of non-white lands. Residential segregation laws made it impossible for non-whites to securely own residential property:

District 6, established circa 1867 on the fringes of downtown Cape Town, was a community of character and characters. Bars and brothels competed for space with two-story homes and shops and theaters. Dance halls were packed on weekends, and the busy cobblestone streets were used as cricket grounds and soccer fields. A boisterous carnival snaked through the hilly streets to mark each new year.

By the 1950s, shortly before the removals began, "District 6 was an exuberant and vibrant place despite its deliberate neglect by the authorities," notes a display at Cape Town's District 6 museum. "It was a place of warmth and gaiety, struggle and sadness, of respectability and rascality, of despair and creativity. It hummed with a zest for life."

The passage of the 1959 Promotion of Bantu Self-Government Act not only created hierarchies of local governments for Blacks and assigned them specific national territories, but it artificially froze distinctions between groups, dividing the Sotho and Nguni groups into subtribes which could supposedly be better managed and were more natural. The Group Areas Act made it impossible for non-whites to access white-dominated segments of the economy (or vice versa).

Is anyone surprised that living standards and economic output are so poor for those South Africans who aren't white? The planners of grand apartheid could hardly have done a better job of wrecking the South Africa economy. Fortunately, things are changing.

What could have been? Well, the 1996 UN Human Development Report (drawing on 1993 data) gave South Africa a HDI ranking of 0.649, 100th place. Botswana scored 0.741, 71st place. Since then, the collapse in life expectancies caused by the HIV/AIDS epidemic has pushed HDI levels down for both countries, Botswana more than South Africa.

The Botswanan economic miracle is, admittedly, fragile, based on a single commodity, manifesting in a middle-income economy with sharp income inequality. Even so: If Botswana, with sparse human resources and a natural-resource bonanza of questionable value, was able in the space of a generation to match and exceed South African levels of human development, then what might a South Africa freed of apartheid have accomplished? Absent Communism, Czechoslovakia (or its components) would have remained in the top rank of European economies alongside Austria. Might not an apartheid-less South Africa have done a rather better job at catching up to the First World? In 1950, after all, South Africa was richer per capita than Portugal, Greece, Japan, and South Korea. Cutting out three-quarters and more of your population from any but the most menial segments of your economy is deadly.

Oh, thereís the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Itís worth noting that in the early 1990s, Thailand and South Africa were at roughly the same stages of the epidemic, driven in both countries by migrant labour and by heterosexual sex. Thailand had the benefit of abundant economic resources in the middle of a political structure which (particularly after 1992) was recognized as basically legitimate. South Africa did not. Had the transition from apartheid taken place a decade earlier, South Africa would at least have had the benefit of a legitimate government unconcerned with regime transition. Perhaps it might even have had the economic boom.

It comes down to Occam's razor, in the end. Could human biodiversity explain South Africa's difficult history? Perhaps. It's much simpler, though, to recognize that, in fact, South Africa's problems were produced by a racially-motivated pattern of systematic mismanagement that lasted for generations before its dissolution, not even having the courtesy to clean up its horrible messes for the post-apartheid regime.

Can human biodiversity explain the race-associated divergences in the South African economy? History--a simple legacy of consistent harsh neglect and oppression--does a much better job than the former. People shouldn't turn to race to explain purely cultural phenomena.

Posted by randymac at 08:50 PM