/ 13 November 2009

Down comes another German wall

There are just 41 shoot-to-kill days left until Christmas. And the countdown — doesn’t it seem to get earlier every year? — has begun, as petrified bank robbers take cover from one of the most ruthless gangs this country has ever known: the police.

Check the front page of Monday’s Sowetan if you think I’m exaggerating.

”Cele promises even harsher treatment for criminals who plan festive season heists,” it says. The photograph used to drive home this announcement shows officials removing the body of one of seven robbers shot dead last weekend at a cash depot in Polokwane. The robber is zipped up in a bag.

I’m not sure what is harsher than being dead. Getting stuck in the Big Brother house with Leonard Chuene? Offering Eskom to the winner of SA’s Got Talent? You’d have to ask the police commissioner what he had in mind.

In the meantime, a small window of opportunity for Johannesburg’s remaining robbers has opened up. On November 9 the Goethe-Institut on Jan Smuts Avenue knocked down its boundary wall to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, with a clever local twist. Suitable candidates to pop through this ”window” — a Johannesburg house without walls! — would be out-of-shape housebreakers with vertigo.

In 1989 the people of East Berlin wanted to be free of the fag end of communism that forced them to wear their curtains and hide behind them, often at the same time. Secret police were everywhere. They eavesdropped on innocent turnip dinners and followed, at a discreet jog, citizen drivers in their clapped-out Trabants, about which it was joked that the most valuable component part was the petrol.

In 2009 the people of Johannesburg want to be free of the fear of crime, if not crime itself. But the East German curtain model wouldn’t work here. To afford citizens proper protection, our drapes would need to be made of real iron and worn at all times, which would not be practical in an African climate.

Taking a step towards liberating us from the fear of fear itself required a bold gesture of bilateral neighbourliness from the Germans, born out of the rubble of their own apartheid.

It was in this spirit that the Goethe-Institut, came up with a very South African way to celebrate the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. As the Institut’s director, Katharina von Ruckteschell­Katte, told me the morning after the two-metre-high wall on the corner of Jan Smuts Avenue between Zoo Lake and Rosebank had been partially demolished: ”It’s a relief. We had wanted to do it for ages. Walls are not very helpful to cultural exchange.”

Yes, but are they very helpful to homeowners wishing to minimise the risk of getting shot in the middle of Isidingo?

The Goethe-Institut’s decision — and its response to this question — was not arrived at lightly. In 1999 the wall was raised by a metre for security reasons.

Von Ruckteschell-Katte admits that before talks about how to celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall started a year ago, ”it would have been very difficult to persuade anyone — especially from the German side — to do it”.

The Germans may have put their commitment to breaking down barriers where their bougainvillea is, but they were not blind to the dangers of having none at all.

For months stakeholders, security advisers and analysts were consulted about the risks. Even the neighbours — an elderly couple who were ”sceptical” at first but warmed to the idea — were canvassed.

Finally the bulldozer was ordered.

On Monday evening the wall tumbled with a satisfying crunch and a cloud of brick dust.

Helium balloons were released into the purple-tinged dusk. The operator of the bulldozer was cheered like a Milanese opera singer. Champagne was drunk.

Guests were invited to take the gap and enter the grounds through the hole in the wall. Burly volunteers hoisted the delicate, the elderly and the high-heeled across the uneven mound.

But by the next morning realpolitik had been restored. New security measures were already being installed: infrared beams, cameras and extra guard patrols.

”We would have this anywhere,” shrugged Ruckteschell-Katte before imparting more cheerful news.

The final phase of project Cracking Walls will see the bricks from the wall turned into garden paths, open to the street, which will be bathed in soft light (not searchlight). Landscaping should be completed in time for the 2010 World Cup kick-off.

I reckon the Germans, previous hosts of this, the greatest football tournament on earth, have done their bit. Now it’s up to Benni McCarthy to do his. He can’t keep going over the wall.