Surveillance in South Africa: From Skin Branding to Digital Colonialism

The Cambridge Handbook of Race and Surveillance, Forthcoming

20 Pages Posted: 26 Oct 2020

See all articles by Michael Kwet

Michael Kwet

Yale University - Information Society Project

Date Written: September 2020

Abstract

South Africa’s long legacy of racism and colonial exploitation continues to echo throughout post-apartheid society. For centuries, European conquerors marshaled surveillance as a means to control the black population. This began with the requirements for passes to track and control the movements, settlements, and labor of Africans. Over time, surveillance technologies evolved alongside complex shifts in power, culture, and the political economy.

This Chapter explores the evolution of surveillance regimes in South Africa. The first surveillance system in South Africa used paper passes to police slave movements and enforce labor contracts. To make the system more robust, various white authorities marked the skin of workers and livestock with symbols registered in paper databases. At the beginning of the twentieth century, fingerprinting was introduced in some areas to simplify and improve the passes. Under apartheid, the National Party aimed to streamline a national, all-seeing surveillance system. They imported computers to impose a regime of fixed race classification and keep detailed records about the African population. The legal apparatus of race-based surveillance was finally abolished during the transition to democracy. However, today a regime of Big Data, artificial intelligence, and centralized cloud computing has ushered in a new era of mass surveillance in South Africa.

South Africa’s surveillance regimes were always devised in collaboration with foreign colonizers, imperialists, intellectuals, and profit-seeking capitalists. In each era, the United States increased its participation. During the period of settler conquest, the US had a modest presence in Southern Africa. With the onset of the minerals revolution, US power expanded, and American capitalists and engineers with business interests in the mines pushed for an improved pass system to police African workers. Under apartheid, US corporations supplied the computer technology essential to apartheid governance and business enterprise. Finally, during the latter years of post-apartheid, Silicon Valley corporations, together with US surveillance agencies, began imposing surveillance capitalism on South African society. A new form of domination, digital colonialism, has emerged, vesting the United States with unprecedented control over South African affairs. To counter the force of digital colonialism, a new movement may emerge to push to redesign the digital ecosystem as a socialist commons based on open technology, socialist legal solutions, bottom-up democracy, and Internet decentralization.

Note: Final version will be published in the Cambridge Handbook of Race and Surveillance, forthcoming, 2021, edited by Jeffrey Vagle and Michael Kwet.

Suggested Citation

Kwet, Michael, Surveillance in South Africa: From Skin Branding to Digital Colonialism (September 2020). The Cambridge Handbook of Race and Surveillance, Forthcoming, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3677168 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3677168

Michael Kwet (Contact Author)

Yale University - Information Society Project ( email )

P.O. Box 208215
New Haven, CT 06520-8215
United States

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