Get more Mail & Guardian
Subscribe or Login

All wall down

On November 9 1989 the Berlin Wall fell. People from East Berlin flocked to West Berlin, and were enthusiastically received and celebrated. Berlin was partying. It began on a cold November evening and went on all night.

Of course the Wall did not fall literally that day. Rather, the borders opened and passport and visa controls were soon abandoned in the face of enormous crowd pressure. But which symbol for freedom and unity is more appropriate than a fallen wall?

The Berlin Wall was both: it separated and it locked up. The East German people fought a peaceful revolution for freedom. By defeating the wall that locked them up, they at the same time overcame the separation between East and West. By doing so, unification of the two peoples was finally possible.

The fall of the wall in Berlin became a symbol of liberation from oppressive regimes and simultaneously an icon of unification of originally hostile powers. But the fall of the Berlin Wall was not only an icon for liberation and unification. It also triggered worldwide changes that destroyed old orders and created new connections and development. The world reorganised anew.

The walls also fell in South Africa. Three months after the opening of the borders between East and West Germany, Nelson Mandela was released from prison. Five years later the wall of apartheid fell. The first democratic elections took place in South Africa.

But the fall of the wall of apartheid did not only signify liberation. Just like the Berlin Wall it separated two parts of a nation. And, just like the fall of the Berlin Wall, the fall of the wall of apartheid made unification possible.

In 1999 — in the context of the commemoration of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of apartheid — Mandela said in an interview with Nadine Gordimer: ”Children are now growing up together. (…) They are not even aware that their colours are different. (…) The scenario is changing very rapidly. But that process is going to take some years for it to have an important effect in the task of nation building.”

Nelson Mandela did not encourage the establishment of a new state. Rather, he wanted a Rainbow Nation; a nation of unity of all people living in this beautiful country.

For Germany, the fall of the wall in Berlin is not only a date in history that should be remembered because it marked the start of a new era of the ”German Nation”. The fall of the wall is still happening for Germany. This is because it is still, in many minds and influences, just as before, the way people live together.

The walls of apartheid have demonstrated a similar development. Although the laws of separation have disappeared, much still lives on in the mind — and not only there. Each high, massive wall around a house or complex in South Africa is a sign of the continued existence of ”living apart” from one another. They are expressions for the fact that unification has not yet been achieved. The number of walls and their sizes have grown rapidly in recent years and it seems utopian to believe they will ever disappear again.

Because of these social, historical and cultural parallels, the fall of the Berlin Wall plays a special role for the Goethe-Institut of South Africa. For a German cultural institute, the main aim of which is to pursue intercultural dialogue with the host country, South Africa and to develop an integrated platform, it is essential that such a centre be open and transparent, that it appears inviting and provides a forum for exchange.

The fall of the Berlin Wall marked the occasion to start asking questions related to the cultural impact it had had, questions that were important for cultural exchange in the world and between various nations. It also provided a concrete occasion on which to reflect on the significance and effect of the massive brick wall surrounding the building of the Goethe-Institut.

It not only essentially hampers visual access to the building, it also appears dismissive, separating and is aesthetically dubious. To achieve our main objectives, we would like an architecture that is transparent, inviting and that appears integrated.

Many would say that a wall provides security and is therefore necessary. Is that really so? Does it really offer security? We have asked ourselves these questions and have posed them to our partners and we have come to the conclusion that walls merely suggest security in our minds but do not really guarantee security. We therefore believe that we can combine security in the public space — without walls.

Therefore the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of apartheid are real role models for the Goethe-Institut in Johannesburg. On November 9 2009 at 6pm the wall will fall.

”The strongest bridges are built from the bricks of fallen walls” (Andreas Tenzer) — this is precisely our goal.
Katharina von Ruckteschell is the director of the Goethe-Institut South Africa

Subscribe for R500/year

Thanks for enjoying the Mail & Guardian, we’re proud of our 36 year history, throughout which we have delivered to readers the most important, unbiased stories in South Africa. Good journalism costs, though, and right from our very first edition we’ve relied on reader subscriptions to protect our independence.

Digital subscribers get access to all of our award-winning journalism, including premium features, as well as exclusive events, newsletters, webinars and the cryptic crossword. Click here to find out how to join them and get a 57% discount in your first year.

Related stories


If you’re reading this, you clearly have great taste

If you haven’t already, you can subscribe to the Mail & Guardian for less than the cost of a cup of coffee a week, and get more great reads.

Already a subscriber? Sign in here


Subscribers only

‘The children cannot cope any more’: Suicide in Calvinia highlights...

How Covid-19 has intensified the physical and emotional burdens placed on children’s shoulders.

Capitec Bank flies high above Viceroy’s arrow

The bank took a knock after being labelled a loan shark by the short seller, but this has not stymied its growth

More top stories

Covid-19: No vaccine booster shots needed yet

Scientists agree it is important to get most of the population vaccinated before giving booster jabs

The convenient myth of an Africa spared from Covid-19

There are few, if any, studies to support Pfizer chief executive’s assertion that the global south would be more vaccine-hesitant than the north

Council wants Hawks, SIU probe into BAT’s Zimbabwe scandal

The cigarette maker has been accused of giving up to $500 000 in bribes and spying on competitors

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…