Borders and Bordered Ways of Seeing

Militarized Global Apartheid, by Catherine L. Besteman (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2020).

Reviewed by Georgina Ramsay, University of Delaware

In 2020 borders came for all of us. Many of us spent the better part of the year contained within our homes. Prevented from crossing the thresholds of places and spaces that made up our everyday lives in the halcyon days: airplanes and trains, concerts and events, routine appointments, gyms, the homes of our friends and family, our offices and classrooms. Decisions about whether to move across national, state, even neighborhood lines were suddenly weighted by government directives and personal anxieties. 

As I write in the Spring of 2021 from the United States, it is increasingly clear that—at least here, and for some—these containments are temporary. My social media feeds are filled with people excitedly anticipating the “return” of travel, the “opening up” of borders. Often, these are from anthropologists based in American institutions, eager to resume fieldwork in foreign countries. Meanwhile, many of our interlocutors in those countries we long to enter are prevented from accessing the very life-promoting medications that enable our free movement.

While the scale of this pandemic may be unprecedented, uneven mobility is not a new phenomenon. The pandemic brings into sharp relief the same privileges that enable researchers (and I include myself in this) to use their passport to study those whose mobility is constrained—often fatally—by systems of what Catherine Besteman refers to as “militarized global apartheid.” The mobility that so many of us look forward to, as Besteman shows with devastating clarity, is sustained by a normalized apartheid apparatus that includes militarized border technologies and personnel, racist biometric surveillance and tracking, spaces of containment, policies and politics that are actively hostile to migrants, all ultimately comprising a dual system that allows a privileged few to move relatively unchecked while the movements of the poor and often racialized majority are criminalized.

Militarized Global Apartheid details an increasingly totalizing system of controlled mobility, advanced through sophisticated technologies and militarized forms of containment, legitimated through white supremacist logics couched in politics and as policies, and reflective of longer histories of racialized partitioning. The title of the book is also its central argument: that we are living in a period of militarized global apartheid. Besteman makes this argument convincingly throughout, describing the various infrastructures of racialized separation that operate across global, regional, and local scales, and tracing how these produce new forms of empire in the 21st century. In particular, Besteman develops the term “security imperialism” to refer to the use of laws, policies, languages, and technologies of surveillance and securitization to justify and maintain projects that are in the interests of major world powers. From Besteman’s analysis, we see how modern imperialist projects and forms of sovereignty are being continuously expanded through the externalization of borders and more extensive internal policing.

Besteman is intentional and specific in her use of the term “apartheid.” It is not applied as a metaphor. Before setting out her case for seeing contemporary border regimes as a new apartheid, Besteman walks us through the historical origin of the term in South Africa’s system of racial segregation, explicitly in place from 1948 to 1990, and describes this system’s specific characteristics. The goal of apartheid in South Africa was not simply segregation and societal stratification, Besteman emphasizes, but “perfectly aligning race and class and creating a labor regime responsive to the specific needs of industrialized capitalism” (p. 14). The point was that one population would benefit economically from the exploitation of others, with this social order legitimated as “natural” through logics of white supremacy. From the “homeland” system—which exiled Black South Africans to remote, overcrowded geographical areas with few life-sustaining amenities—to the use of “passes” to regulate and manage the movements of Black and immigrant workers within white South African spaces, the apartheid system in South Africa functioned to produce a reserve of resource-starved laborers whose work benefited white South Africans. 

These essential characteristics of apartheid are paralleled in the border regimes of today, Besteman argues. Each chapter of Militarized Global Apartheid examines one element of the apartheid process. Besteman starts with the hegemonic logics of national identity in the first chapter, “Belonging,” and subsequent chapters trace the economic motivations behind systemic dispossession and expropriation (“Plunder”), the development of infrastructures of borders and holding facilities (“Containment”), the attempt to manage and control movement (“Labor”), and the mechanization of these interlocking processes under the heading “Militarization.” Indeed, it is this last element—militarization—that solidifies Besteman’s argument and differentiates it from other analyses of global relations through the lens of apartheid. Militarization is “the final pillar of apartheid” (p. 101) and is most evident in the material structures that reify these logics in technologies of surveillance, tracking, targeting, intervention, incarceration, expulsion, and extermination. Moreover, these techniques of bordering generate vast profits and political capital for those who promote them, making the politics and policing of “the border” into a “border industry.” Besteman links multi-billion dollar walls, electronic “smart” borders, drones that track and target migrant routes, patrols of paramilitary security forces that push migrants into more dangerous land and sea routes, and the punitive legal measures that are in place to deter citizens from aiding migrants through these journeys. Ultimately, all this produces a border between Global North and Global South that is intended to maintain the comfort and security of the former and that functions to separate and gate the one world from the other, limiting movement from South to North except under minimal and controlled circumstances. Techniques of war applied to a moving object: migrants. There are many casualties.  

The scale may be wider than in South Africa’s apartheid state, but the logics are the same: separation justified by racist ideas, enforced to extract labor from the poor for the benefit of an elite minority. Besteman’s aim here is not to propose that either the Global South or Global North are internally homogeneous, nor to imply that these political spheres are disarticulated from one another. Following Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Besteman characterizes the Global North as a set of nations—in North America, Western Europe, and parts of Asia, including Australia, New Zealand, the Gulf states, and Russia—as beneficiaries of “fragmented globality.” These are nations which, as a group, have benefited from a global labor market that is stratified along racial lines. Maintaining this stratification requires constant innovation in bordering techniques. 

But Militarized Global Apartheid does more than just describe the system and strategies that are in place to gate the North from the South. The concluding chapter of the book, “Futures,” charges us to recognize, and reckon with, the fundamentally unsustainable infrastructures of militarized global apartheid. Wanton capitalist accumulation, primarily to the benefit of the Global North, will continue to suffocate life in the Global South, compelling more migrants and more migration. Climate change will only exacerbate these processes. Besteman convincingly argues that these precarities will produce political struggles and, hopefully, the will to reorganize the globe around more equitable models of distribution. While recognizing the inevitability of global insecurity, Besteman sees the “insistent mobility” that these conditions produce in optimistic terms: as a catalyst towards societal transformation. 

It should be clear by now that Militarized Global Apartheid is not a standard ethnography. Besteman draws heavily on her long-term ethnographic engagements with people in the Somali diaspora, but this is not their story alone. Their experiences are one part of this violent interfacing between Global North and Global South that encompasses the entire globe. Besteman is explicit and purposeful about the scope of the book, emphasizing from the outset that the intention of Militarized Global Apartheid is to bring into view the making of a totalizing system of violence that operates at a global scale, not to dive into specific pieces of this system with nuance and ethnographic detail which is the usual purview of anthropological work (and it should be noted that other anthropologists have already produced excellent work which does just that). Besteman is open about the limitations of a theory intended to apply to a global scale, not least the necessary reduction of dividing a complex global system into poles of North and South. These limits are foregrounded in the introduction to Militarized Global Apartheid, with Besteman emphasizing that “emplacement matters. Modes of mobility matter. Context matters. History matters” (p. 20). 

But the broad scope of Militarized Global Apartheid is also a provocation to those of us who work with migrants and in other ways study these systems of mobility and containment. Building on Shahram Khosravi’s (2019) important critique of the anthropological gaze, which he argues reduces migrants to victims and demands voyeuristic entry into their experiences in a way that parallels the violations of the border interrogations they undergo, Besteman hones in on structures because, as it is becoming increasingly clear, it is these and not migrants or migration in themselves that are the problem. My hope,” Besteman writes, “is that by bringing the structures of imperialist oppression into relief, those of us committed to a saner, healthier, hopeful world in which people have the opportunities they need for fulfillment and joy can find targets to aim for and dismantle” (p. 20). Militarized Global Apartheid is not simply a description of violent border regimes, it is a challenge for all of us to reflect on our own relationship to them.

These are deep, disciplinary-level concerns, since the research routines that many now seek to resume also normalize forms of productivity that demand extractive forms of fieldwork, which often—still—seek to bring the “foreign” anthropologist into an encounter with the ethnographic “other.” Instead of reinforcing these, how can we use insights from our discipline to challenge normative systems of borders and managed mobilities? Militarized Global Apartheid gives us a blueprint for our own continued reflection on our discipline’s implication in structures of power and inequality, and offers a new way to think about ethnography and ethnographic theory beyond the “suffering slot,” towards new forms of collectivity.