Crushed wall opened the door to SA’s freedom

The fall of the Berlin Wall has come to symbolise the collapse of international communism and the end of the bipolar world. Perhaps, even more significantly, it signalled the failure of ideology and social engineering to provide workable solutions to the challenges of human societies.

The fall was above all a victory for freedom. The crowds who gathered day after day in Leipzig and in other German cities quietly and peacefully reasserted their right to personal liberty.

The constituent countries of the Soviet empire were able to assert their national independence — and in most cases quickly established constitutional democracies.

At the same time, people throughout the former Soviet empire were able to begin to exercise their right to economic freedom. After decades in the straitjacket of command economies, they were able finally to participate in the newly re-emergent markets.

What factors contributed to these momentous developments? It had become evident to any rational observer that free markets generated much greater wealth and higher standards of living than rigid command economies. Western Europe was demonstrably a better place in which to live than the drab and severely rationed East.

Instead of overtaking Americans in terms of prosperity, as Nikita Kruschev had promised in the late 1950s, Soviet citizens fell further and further behind in the consumer race. Ultimately, the Soviet Union did not have the resources to continue to compete in the arms race against the United States.

As with all collapsing empires, the main cause of the decline was simply that the leadership began to lose faith in the political mythology on which their state had been founded. It had become increasingly obvious to new generations of leaders that communism was not delivering the utopian paradise that had inspired their predecessors.

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 had dramatic repercussions for South Africa’s constitutional transformation. One of the South African government’s central political and strategic concerns before 1989 was the expansion of Soviet influence in Southern Africa and the influence of the South African Communist Party (SACP) within the ANC.

Former South African governments knew that the SACP proposed a two-phase revolution. During the first phase — national liberation — the ANC would be the vanguard party and would lead all forces opposed to apartheid to the goal of national liberation. During the second phase, the SACP would take over as the vanguard party and would lead the country to the establishment of a ”people’s democracy”.

Former National Party governments did not feel that they were under any moral obligation to accept a one-man, one-vote process that would quickly lead to the demise of democracy and the establishment of a totalitarian communist regime — as had already happened in a number of neighbouring states.

This was not a question of ”reds under beds”. The communist threat was very real.

The contest between the free world and the Soviet bloc was taking place through Third World liberation struggles. Throughout the 1980s South African Defence Force units were involved in direct conflict with Soviet and Cuban-led forces in southern Angola.

However, the tide was already turning: the following year the Soviet Union and Cuba agreed to withdraw Cuban forces from Angola as the precursor for the implementation of United Nations resolution 435 for the independence of Namibia. The negotiations with the Angolans and the Cubans, and the subsequent successful implementation of the UN independence plan during 1989, reassured the South African government that it could secure its core interests through negotiations with its opponents.

The collapse of the Soviet Union symbolised by the fall of the Berlin Wall removed one of the major obstacles to a negotiated settlement in South Africa: communism was in headlong disarray; the SACP was in shell-shocked retreat; and constitutional democracy and free market principles were triumphant.

Never again would the balance of forces be so favourable for an equitable negotiated settlement. The destruction of the Berlin Wall opened a window of opportunity through which we unhesitatingly jumped. During the following four years we were able to negotiate a model democratic Constitution that has served as the basis for 15 years of stability and growth — despite the many challenges that continue to confront us.

FW de Klerk was state president of South Africa from 1989 to 1994

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