Here is an interesting question: why did apartheid come about in South Africa? The immediate response is simple—racism. Of course, discrimination under apartheid was based on race. But the situation becomes much more complex when economic factors are considered.

When Europeans arrived in South Africa, they found a land rich with precious minerals—gold, diamonds, emeralds, etc. They also found many indigenous peoples living with their own social structures and relying on subsistence economies. Unlike the colonists, they grew or gathered their own food, and did not use money, markets, or complicated systems of trade to make their living.

Well, those European businessmen really wanted those precious minerals, but when they offered to pay the indigenous people to work in the mines, they refused. They had no use for money.

The Europeans didn’t like this, and found a solution—they imposed a head tax. Everybody had to pay it just for being around (or suffer all kinds of nasty consequences) and the only place to earn money was in the mines.

So the men went off to the mines. This worked out great for the mine bosses, because the women and children could still subsist in the old-fashioned way. The miners only had to be paid enough to afford the tax, since their families’ needs were already taken care of. Since the colonists controlled the tax, they essentially had a captive (slave?) labour market.

Not only did this destroy families—the entire social structure, in fact—it had other consequences. As the reserves shrank and the indigenous population grew, the land ceased to be able to support them. Conditions were terrible, and people were moving all over in search of a reasonable place to live. Well, this was no good—the labour market was out of control, people were trespassing on colonial land, etc. So laws were imposed making it illegal for people of various backgrounds to move around. Apartheid. Racism was obviously a factor, but only in justifying exploitation caused by another serious vice: greed.

The world now consists of a multitude of nation-states, each with their own laws to control immigration and the treatment of labour. If people don’t like the situation where they are, they can find leaving very difficult—unless they are wealthy enough to attract the attention of foreign immigration officials and pay the legal fees.

Even within wealthy countries, many people must work long hours for nearly nothing, because it usually takes wealth they don’t have in order to invest, get an education, or pursue any other avenue that might improve their situation.

Yet multinational corporations can move wherever they want. They can shop for the lowest possible expense and the best possible return.

Wealth can move anywhere in the blink of an eye, but most people are unable to follow it. Consciously or not, the global capitalist economy tends towards a situation that looks a lot like a “weak” apartheid without the racism—a situation that, at the end of the day, essentially amounts to a kind of slavery.

But wait…that can’t be true. Everybody has freedom under the global economy, don’t they? Sure they do. If they can afford it.

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