BOOK REVIEW

This is not a book, it’s a WARNING system!

While most South Africans will do almost anything to prevent the return of apartheid, few realise the system did not die, but was privatised. This is according to scholar and author Dr Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh, who, in his latest book, The New Apartheid, argues that among the country’s main problems at the moment is high-tech driven exclusion, which is having a detrimental impact on previously-disadvantaged communities. Mpofu-Walsh, who earned a Doctorate in International Relations from Oxford University, warns that new technology is among the factors promoting what he terms a “persistence of apartheid”. While this theme may sound familiar, the book’s focus and conclusions will surprise many readers. The old, tired notion that it is the so-called digital divide fostering inequality does not feature. Instead, the book suggests this is happening as a result of the technology driving the 4th Industrial Revolution. And in a world where human capacities are tied to market-driven technologies, the “commoditisation” of human advantage — made possible by such technology — will increase as power becomes more and more centralised. Mpofu-Walsh offers the gene-editing tool CRISPR (an acronym derived from the term “clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats”) as an example of a new technology that may maintain and exacerbate both old and new inequalities. While he acknowledges that gene editing and biohacking are still in their infancy, he warns that such technologies raise ethical questions linked to racial inequality. Since access to them is likely to be determined by market forces, the rich will be able to edit their genes, and so build in “natural’ advantages on top of their economic ones. The book doesn’t caution about future tech as much as current technologies. It sounds like a warning about AI and computer recognition software, such as that used by police authorities. The author argues that a new form of apartheid does not need a human operator because it is algorithmic in nature. All that is needed is a biased software code which ignores context to bring about devastating consequences for previously-disadvantaged communities. This is not just a printed book; it is a warning system about how a system of exclusion manifests itself in social space, wealth and law. Mpofu-Walsh concludes by highlighting his claim that apartheid continues in new and unsuspecting guises, despite democracy’s inception. His book also lays a foundation for those investigating what remains to be done in South Africa to address systemic inequality.

By Wesley Diphoko

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