How do we practice large-scale social engineering when, historically, most of it is evil?

There are many obvious candidates for most evil large scale social system of all time. Apartheid gets special interest for the endurance of its malevolence. I am interested in how to design social systems. Looking at oppressive designs is important for a few reasons. First, as a warning: it’s an awful fact that the most successful instances of social engineering are all clear examples of steps backwards in the betterment of humankind. Second, as reverse inspiration. Apartheid was a very clear set of rules, intentionally put together to make Africans second to those of European descent. Each rule contributed to that outcome. Some of those rules exist today in the US in weaker form, but they are hard to recognize as inherently oppressive until you see them highlighted as basic principles of the perfectly oppressive society. So what are those principles? And where did they come from?

I recently learned that intellectual architects of Apartheid in South Africa visited the American South for inspiration, which they tweaked with more lessons in subjugation from British Colonial rule. One historian described early 20th century South Africa and the USA as representing “the highest stage of white supremacy.”

But Apartheid wasn’t a copy/paste job. Afrikaners understood Apartheid as something that learned from the failures of Jim Crow as a system of segregation and control. US failures to prevent racial mixing inspired the South African system in which multiracial people are a third race, called Colored, which to this day is distinct from Black. The US model also inspired a political geography (the Homelands) that would keep Africans entirely outside of urbanized areas, except as laborers. The Africaner’s were able to go further as well. In order to undermine organizing and maintain control, they took measures to prevent communication between homelands (like by making a different language the “national” language of each fake nation). With black Africans divided between 9 (?) of these fake nations, the 5:1 minority of white people could ensure that they are not outnumbered by any one body. And the animosity that these artificial divisions created between black Africans 70 years ago persist today.

I don’t like “smoky shadow conspiracy / backroom deal” theories of political control, because I think a lot of systemic oppression happens in a decentralized way through perverse values. But some systems of oppression really are designed.


I got onto the question of US influence on Apartheid after hearing Trevor Noah’s autobiography. At one point he says that a commission that outlined Apartheid did a world tour of oppressive regimes and wrote a report of recommendations. I still haven’t found that list of countries (or the date of the trip, or the name of the report (Lagden Commission? Sauer Commission?), but I found other things: early (40 years prior) intellectual groundwork of Apartheid. Here are the sources I got my hands on for the specific question of foreign inspiration.


Rethinking the Rise and Fall of Apartheid: South Africa and World Politics
By Adrian Guelke
Racial segregation and the origins of apartheid in South Africa, 1919-36 / Saul Dubow
The highest stage of white supremacy : the origins of segregation in South Africa and the American South / John W. Cell