I have recurring nightmares of an incident that happened to me at a consulate a couple of years ago. (For my own safety, I won’t mention which country’s consulate.) This was my second visit to said country (the first one had been to a different part of it), and I was particularly excited to go, having only heard wonderful things and because I would meet new and old acquaintances at the meeting that was scheduled there. I had prepared all required documentation for my appointment at the consulate; I travel quite frequently and know the drill by now. I arrived. A very friendly looking lady welcomed me, and asked how she could help. I’m here for my visa application, I said. Great, show me your documents. I did. All was going swimmingly.

StampedThen she noted that the fees had increased. I don’t remember the exact amount – I’ve since tried to block it out – but it was somewhere around R900, plus R300 postage. I remarked on how expensive it is, simply to visit a country. She looked up blankly, her smile gone.
“You can be lucky we allow you at all.”

Those words still ring in my ears every time I have to apply for a visa, Schengen (to visit countries in the European Union) or otherwise. It is without exception a frightening experience (although, I must say, some consulates are better than others. Again, no names). Make no mistake, it is also expensive, not only in terms of money but also because many countries now require you to fly up to Pretoria once every five years to undertake a five-minute test (I live in Stellenbosch, which is close to Cape Town – about 1400 km from Pretoria). I’ve heard of a number of friends and colleagues that have decided to cancel their trips abroad when they realised the effort required to get what is essentially a sticker in a scrapbook. (It would be fascinating to get South Africa’s outgoing tourism numbers to see whether the imposition of these new rules have curtailed travel to those countries – dissertation topic anyone?)

Yet we – and the rest of the world – continue to find the system acceptable, even desirable. (Take for example our angst about Zimbabweans entering our country illegally, and the calls to better protect our borders.) We believe it is important to discriminate against people based on their nationality, on where they happened to have been born. Those fortunate to have been born in affluent countries have few restrictions on their movement; those born in the less well-off world are increasingly shackled to their roots.

This, to me at least, sounds a lot like a system we had in South Africa about a generation ago, a system which required certain groups in the country to carry a passbook (Wikipedia even calls it an ‘internal passport’). The passbook noted whether black South Africans requested permission to be in a certain area during a certain time, and whether that permission was granted or denied. It also explicitly asked for the reason of visit. To anyone who has ever filled in a Schengen visa application, this sounds eerily familiar.

You might say that there is a big difference between discrimination based on race and discrimination based on nationality. Surely countries must be able to fortify their borders, to keep out the unseemly, to protect their own economic interests against what would likely be a flood of economic migrants if immigration requirements were relaxed. Surely the survival of the self is salient – ‘our’ people, ‘our’ culture, ‘our’ language, ‘our’ religion. We see everywhere in Europe, even in mellow Denmark, Sweden and Norway (those bastions of equality), the rise of political movements that agitate for higher fences, stronger walls against the evil immigrants. And apartheid, the argument goes, was different: it was white South Africans that had taken the land of black South Africans and now required them to carry a pass to travel to what was essentially their own land.

I’m not sure it’s that different at all. The reasons the fathers of apartheid imposed these pass laws were also political: to protect the interests of their electorate, to protect ‘their’ culture, ‘their’ language, ‘their’ people against the encroachment of the ‘Black threat’ or ‘Commies’ or ‘liberals’, depending on the creativity of the leader. Make no mistake, black labour was important for the development of industrial South Africa, and white politicians were extremely aware of this. (So, too, in Europe.) But, these leaders argued, as long as these workers returned to ‘their’ people, ‘their’ areas after a few months of hard labour, then that would be the best for everyone involved. And, in any case, these areas were ‘their’ traditional areas. Here they were partly right, of course, but chose to ignore the fact that large parts of formerly black lands had been confiscated by whites two or three generations earlier. (Most of South Africa’s first land redistribution occurred in the nineteenth century. The new ownership was solidified by the 1913 Land Act.)

Yet, to return to the global comparison, the South African experience was not so unique: Texas belonged to Mexico until 1836, yet it is extremely difficult for Mexicans to enter the United States, legally or illegally. And then there are the many colonial experiences: the Scramble for Africa has turned into the Scorn of Africa. Ruled by Britain for 104 years, black South Africans now need to pay a tenth of their median annual income to just land at Heathrow airport (even if just for a connecting flight).

“You can be lucky we allow you at all.”

If apartheid was a crime against humanity – which I believe it was – then how do we justify global apartheid?