The rise of machines and digital apartheid: Discrimination by algorithms a social weapon of destruction

We live not just in the physical world but also in the digital world. Fighting apartheid in the physical world is much easier than fighting it in the digital world. The reality is that we are still in a warped digital world that creates a false pretext of neutrality, writes Professor Tshilidzi Marwala.

Prof Marwala is the Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Johannesburg and the author of ‘Leadership Lessons From the Books I Have Read’. He recently penned an opinion piece published by Daily Maverick.

On 17 May 1989, my high school principal, Mr Muloiwa, walked into our classroom to make a special announcement. I had been selected by the Foundation of Education, Science and Technology, now the National Research Foundation, to represent South Africa in the London International Youth Science Fortnight.

Until then, I had spent my entire life within a 100km radius of home and could barely comprehend the excitement of a big city, let alone another country.

Then the story became complicated; I had to apply for a passport before I even had an ID. It emerged that I would have to go to the South African “embassy” in the “Republic of Venda” to apply for this passport. To place this into context, this is akin to an American person in America going to a South African embassy to apply for an American passport. That was the warped logic of apartheid.

I was not a citizen of South Africa but could only travel on a South African passport. The absurdity of these laws fuelled a very deliberate strategy of exclusion. The “Republic of Venda” was one of the 10 Bantustans created to effect the Group Areas Act, which stipulated that all black people should be placed in small enclaves comprising 13% of South Africa, according to their “tribes”.

This was essentially the industrialisation of tribalism, which was shaped and moulded by the thoughts of Hendrik Verwoerd. It amounted to an administrative device that effectively ensured the exclusion of black people from South Africa. Of the 10 Bantustans, Transkei, Bophuthatswana, Venda and Ciskei became independent.

For Venda, that day of “independence” was 13 September 1979. This was an ironic moment as this was Steve Biko week for those of us steeped in the black consciousness movement.

I am reminded of Franz Kafka’s story, The Metamorphosis. It begins: “When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.” We will never discover why this change took place. As readers, we see the character’s life stripped and transformed by an act of total absurdity.

The creation of what would become the so-called Republic of Venda was a bloody affair. Tsonga- and Sepedi-speaking people had to be moved out by trucks named after their number plates from the government garage, the “GGs”, and often by extreme force.

Sepedi speakers were taken to places such as Bandelierskop and Tsonga speakers to the Kruger National Park, to be eaten by mosquitoes and meet their fate in this malaria-infested area. Many were forced to leave their sisters in Venda, whose ethnicities had been transformed through marriages, highlighting just how manufactured and arbitrary the concept of apartheid or separate development was. The nonsensical and absurd architecture of apartheid seared the lives of our people, creating artificial barriers and rendering millions of people adrift in their own country.

Our histories are thus written with pain and blood. The state of our nation premised on inequality and differential rights was carved by the South African policy of apartheid. Apartheid can be defined in many ways, but officially, it was an institutionalised and legalised racial segregation system.

Nelson Mandela ended apartheid in 1994, so we were told. In the aftermath, there was profound euphoria across the country and a big party in the Union Building as a testament to the demise of apartheid. Not so, says Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh in his book The New Apartheid – in actuality, “apartheid did not die, but it was privatised”.

Beyond the accepted definition, apartheid can be understood as a weapon of social destruction, and if Mpofu-Walsh asserts that it did not die, we should take this very seriously. After the big party to inaugurate Madiba as the president of South Africa, I rushed to the Department of Home Affairs to apply for a South African ID. Alas! It was my Republic of Venda ID that was printed by the Madiba government. It made me wonder whether apartheid was really gone.

In his book, Mpofu-Walsh makes the compelling argument that apartheid did not go and is, in fact, everywhere. It is embedded in our laws, wealth, technology, and punishment, and these forces perpetuate it.

Because of its global nature, it is giving the idea of apartheid a global identity. Discrimination by algorithms knows no geographical boundaries.

For example, although the so-called Republic of Venda has supposedly been integrated into the Republic of South Africa, the concept of Bantustans still continues as gated communities and racially split cities in our urban areas with the black inner cities and white suburbs. These have not disappeared but are entrenched further by deep economic inequalities.

Furthermore, Mpofu-Walsh observes that our provinces, which in many ways have become incubators of maladministration, are new forms of Bantustans that have been created along ethnic lines rather than economic considerations. The unrest in July was perhaps the best personification of his argument. It exemplified just how rooted and structural South Africa’s challenges are and how for many, the ushering in of democracy has not brought transformation with it.

The long road to freedom has been littered with failures to address the real needs of our people. As we witnessed the uncontrolled violence and destruction with alarm, it was difficult not to remember the carnage in the years preceding 1994.

Karl Marx explained exploitation using the concept of the mode of production. Marx was a materialist and thought in economic terms. Another way of looking at this is to use the idea of the mode of oppression. In the slave society, the mode of oppression was slavery; in the feudal era, the mode of oppression was the landowners oppressing the serfs; in the capitalist state, it is the bourgeoisie exploiting the proletariat.

Following this logic, apartheid was just another mode of oppression. What Mpofu-Walsh writes in his book is that despite the fanfare of 1994, this mode of oppression did not die, but it mutated into another form. He argues that the shift of power from the state to private citizens who are often wealthy is a mutation mechanism. The danger with this new mutation is that it can do great damage because it is stealthy and continues to destroy while no one is watching.

Arguably the most intriguing aspect of Mpofu-Walsh’s book for me was the role of technology in this mutated apartheid. As we navigate an increasingly digital world and find ourselves confronted with the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), we must interrogate what legacies of apartheid persist. While we can organise protests and march to any premises we are not happy with, it becomes increasingly difficult to do so in digital spaces.

People today do not just live in the physical world but also live in the digital world. Fighting apartheid in the physical world is much easier than fighting it in the digital world. I am cognisant of the power of social media to fight serious matters. This too, is dependent on differentiated access to social media. The reality is that we are still in a warped digital world that creates a false pretext of neutrality.

Issues such as the face-recognition artificial intelligence (AI) system that discriminates against people of African descent are widely reported. The racial bias inherent in Google searches has received much attention. Technologies of the 4IR are decimating jobs and exacerbating inequality. This is because technology is mainly in private hands, but additionally, because technology is very global. It permeates our laws, spaces, society and economy.

Because of its global nature, it is giving the idea of apartheid a global identity. Discrimination by algorithms knows no geographical boundaries.

Given these issues, what is to be done to control the proliferation of the new apartheid? Put differently, how do we dismantle this social weapon of destruction?

First, we need to invest in education. Democracies only work if all the citizens are equally and equitably educated. Second, we need to actively align skills to the shifting requirements of society and our industries in order to deal with the increase in inequality and job losses resulting from technological advances. Third, we need to create ethical frameworks for technologies.

If we fail to address the vestiges of apartheid that continue to linger in the technological sphere, we risk descending further into a dark abyss of Kafkaesque proportions.

The views expressed in this article are that of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect that of the University of Johannesburg.

prof tshilidzi marwala
Professor Tshilidzi Marwala
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