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An Expat in Africa's Reflections on the Fall of the Berlin Wall

"The end of the Cold War had considerable consequences for Africa. Many of the post-colonial African states who were courted by Washington and Moscow had to grow accustomed to the international indifference that followed the end of the superpower rivalry."

On 09 November 2019, many around the world were celebrating the thirtieth anniversary of the Berlin Wall which kept East and West Germany separate.

Dr Anja Hallacker, the Director of DAAD South Africa remembers that when the Wall fell, “Germans realised that separation is not good for humanity…we [as Germans] realised that people need freedom of movement”.

Dr Michael Müller, a consultant based in South Africa, says that as an East German “the fall of the Wall felt like a whole new world opened up…it felt as though we were finally in a world that we only saw on TV”.

It is important to remember what the fall of the Wall meant for the people who were living in a nation that was divided in two.

Beyond Germany’s borders, the Wall’s destruction symbolised the snuffing out of the Cold War’s dying breath. Democracy was to prevail and everyone in the world would enjoy the freedoms that liberalism brought with it.

The end of the Cold War had considerable consequences for Africa. Many of the post-colonial African states who were courted by Washington and Moscow had to grow accustomed to the international indifference that followed the end of the superpower rivalry.

Economic aid and modern weaponry became less readily available. Despotic rulers could no longer hold onto power by playing off Washington and Moscow against each other. Countries that were the sites of proxy wars between the West and the Soviets had to continue their battles in a significantly more beleaguered state.

In the South African context, the end of the Cold War removed the rooi gevaar (Communist threat). This played a part in the National Party (NP)-led apartheid government deciding to enter negotiations with the African National Congress (ANC) and other anti-apartheid organisations.

The negotiations culminated in the first democratic elections on 27 April 1994 which led to the ANC’s Nelson Mandela becoming South Africa’s first democratically elected president. For Hallacker, South Africa’s first democratic elections reminded her of the fall of the Berlin Wall because “people were brought back together without war”.

In the thirty years following the fall of the Berlin Wall, things are not quite as wonderful as what seemed to be on the horizon. 2016 was a turning point in the global geopolitical order. Britain’s decision to leave the European Union and Donald Trump’s ascendancy to the American presidency has represented the cementation of the rise of the populist right.

Hallacker notes that it “came as a surprise that this nationalism can rise again in Europe…Germany had always been clear about accepting as many refugees as possible”. She further noted that “migration is beneficial to Germany. In a context of an ageing and decreasing population, it serves our industrial and political interests to welcome migrants. Maybe that could have been better communicated to the sectors of the population who do not embrace migration”.

There remain lingering tensions between the eastern and western part of Germany that, in some ways, reflect the increasing gulfs that are reflected in the rise of right-wing populism. Müller notes that these anti-immigration sentiments are more prevalent in East Germany where “the East Germans…they wish things could go back to the way that they were. It is so stupid, man!”

As is the case in the rest of the world, right wing populism is strongest in the regions that feel as though that they have been left behind. Although liberalism emerged victorious at the end of the Cold War, many did not get to enjoy the spoils of the then-neoliberal global order.

The combination of austerity and paranoia has created a context in which divisions can fester and flourish.

Is there any hope amid all these challenges? Hallacker seems to think so. When asked why she left Germany to move to India and then South Africa, where she lives with her husband and daughter, she remarked that “I initially moved [from Germany] because I was curious about new contexts. When you travel, you learn to think differently, and you learn a lot about yourself and your limitations. It keeps you alive!”

Müller has lived in South Africa for more than twenty years and does not see himself returning to Germany as “people there [in Germany] do tend to take things for granted in a way that does not happen here [in South Africa]. Things seem possible here [in South Africa] in a way that they do not seem [to be] in Germany.”

When asked about the lessons that she wishes that her daughter could learn as a young German expat, Hallacker said that “[my daughter should learn] not to only focus on being German but on the [various] aspects of being a citizen of the world. She needs to focus on fulfilling the responsibilities tied to being a global citizen…because German identity is mixed with other cultures”.

What would that sense of global citizenship mean for South Africa and the sub-Saharan African region more broadly? We shall have to wait and see.

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