The unexpected fall of a wall

As the Cold War came to an end in Germany and Europe in 1989, a period of great upheaval was also beginning in Africa.

picture-alliance/dpa - Fall of the wall

Much of what happens today is already forgotten tomorrow. A glance at the daily newspapers confirms this rule again and again. But sometimes there are events that attract permanent attention and cause changes worldwide – not just for the country where they happen. One of these is the fall of the Berlin Wall. On the African continent the global events of 1989 led to historic upheavals, albeit to differing degrees and in some cases unpredictably, as shown by the examples of Rwanda and South Africa. In the early 1990s the central African country of Rwanda was praised as a model for the entire continent, as “Africa’s Switzerland”. At the same time there were many who predicted that Apartheid in South Africa would end in a bloodbath. A few years later, a genocide began in Rwanda with at least 800,000 deaths. That was in April 1994. In the same month, the first free elections in the history of South Africa were held, and Nelson Mandela subsequently rose to become one of the most important statesmen of the 20th century. And he achieved what seemed imposs­ible: the largely peaceful transition from the Apartheid state to a country with a democratic constitution.

The end of the Cold War, marked by the fall of the Berlin Wall, is often interpreted for Africa as the dawning of a period of independence and democracy. South Africa is the most important reference point in this interpretation. Nelson Mandela’s release from jail after 27 years of imprisonment made its mark worldwide and is regarded as a moment of global importance. This act marked a decisive step on the road to overcoming the racist regime in South Africa and took its rightful place among the great upheavals of glo­bal politics in those years.

There is a broad consensus among researchers that the fall of the Berlin Wall represented an important framework factor for the events in South Africa, but that it was by no means the only, or even the most important, factor in the dissol­ution of the Apartheid regime. However, there is no doubt that the fall of the Berlin Wall formed an important part of the context in the West’s recognition of the African National Congress (ANC), because during the Cold War the ANC had been regarded as a party that was closely affiliated with Moscow. This recognition was a key precondition for the end of Apartheid.

In the years after 1989, democratic reform processes got under way, not only in South Africa, ending long-established dictatorships and totalitarian regimes. With the end of the Cold War, the West had lost its strategic interest in supporting one-party systems like the sole-ruling Kenya African National Union, which had been regarded as an important bulwark against the Soviet-sponsored or at least quasi-socialist neighbours Ethiopia and Tanzania. Kenya’s President Arap Moi, until then a highly esteemed ally of the West, suddenly faced criticism for corruption and his brutal oppression of the opposition.

Political conditionality became the new buzz­word in development cooperation. From now on, financial support for Africa would be coupled with efforts towards democratisation and respect of human rights – an instrument which frequently remained blunt, however. The genocide in Rwanda stands for a different development in Africa after 1989. It can also be said to be linked, if not directly, to the fall of the Berlin Wall: the ethnicisation of collective identities and social conflicts, which unfolded a new dynamic, partly as a result of the introduction of multi-party systems.

In Rwanda the politicisation of ethnic affiliation culminated in one of the most horrific genocides of the 20th century. South Africa, by contrast, sought a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural identity after the end of Apartheid, recognising the country’s linguistic and cultural diver­sity as a “Rainbow Nation” – albeit with rather mixed success to date.

The transition to a democratic South Africa enjoyed 
a lot of support in Germany

Although the German political scene and the general public were largely preoc­cupied with themselves during the reunification years, the end of Apartheid and the creation of a “new South Africa” were followed very closely. Since the early 1970s, the anti-Apartheid movement had been one of the most visible of German solidarity movements. The transition to a democratic South Africa was therefore also celebrated as a victory by Germans. The Rainbow Nation project initially found enthusiastic support. Nelson Mandela was the object of unconditional admiration as an icon of anti-racism, and the establishment of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was at the centre of many debates in politics and the cultural sections of the press.

However, Mandela’s vision of a non-racist Rainbow Nation has been deadlocked for some time now. The South African economy is still characterised by inequality. Mass unemployment affects mainly the black population, who also suffer the most from crime and disease. Mandela’s decision to set up a Truth and Reconcili­ation Commission – to document the injustice of the humiliation and everyday violence of the Apartheid state without establishing a policy of state-sanctioned revenge – probably prevented a civil war. However, as time passed, many South 
Africans became deeply distrustful of the process of reconciliation with those who had benefited from Apartheid.

The less gloriously the Rainbow Nation presented itself, the less the former protagonists of the anti-Apartheid movement regarded the stages of social change in the “new South Africa” as a matter of ongoing solidarity requiring a redefinition of taking sides. Self-righteousness and self-satisfaction – so characteristic of parts of the solidarity movement due to their uncritical conviction that they were supporting something that was morally and politically right and therefore an 
unreservedly “good” thing – ultimately proved to be an unsuitable basis for pursuing the less pleasing developments 
after the end of Apartheid with the same commitment. It is therefore an essential task of the international community to accompany future developments with commitment and a sense of proportion. ▪

teaches African History at the 
Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin.