The fall of the Berlin Wall symbolised the end of one geopolitical divide. But now the world’s majority are enchained behind other exclusions
Twenty years ago citizens of the former German Democratic Republic began breaking down the Berlin Wall. This symbolic moment signalled the end of the East-West, geopolitical divide that had seemed to dominate the world from 1945.
It marked the end of the attempt to consolidate some kind of (alas, too often, perverted) state-centred socialism, first within a single country and then within a single bloc. According to the most triumphalist of neoliberals, the collapse of the wall also marked the end of any alternative to capitalism, indeed, the end of history itself.
The unravelling of the Soviet bloc had an impact on our country. The apartheid regime was in terminal crisis amid a sustained popular revolt that had rolled on for a decade and a half. Since the mid-1970s it had also progressively lost its ”wall” — the cordon sanitaire of white minority and colonial regimes to the north. In his February 1990 speech, announcing the unbanning of the ANC, the SACP and others, FW de Klerk explicitly cited the ”collapse of communism” as a motivating factor. It was now ”safe” for a besieged white minority regime to contemplate a begrudgingly negotiated path to democracy.
For its part the ANC-led liberation movement was also affected. In the 1960s and 1970s for the ANC (like many other progressive liberation movements) the existence of a seemingly powerful socialist counterbalance to the major Western powers had been a welcome reality. The apartheid regime was receiving major backing from the West. A 1969 United States national security study memorandum on Southern Africa stated, for instance, that: ”The whites [meaning also the Portuguese and Rhodesians] are here to stay and the only way that constructive change can come about is through them.”
It was not just the SACP but also the ANC that based calculations on the prospects for a meaningful liberation on the existence of a counter-balancing and supportive socialist bloc out there. By the late 1980s this reality had manifestly changed.
From the perspective of the ANC-led movement, therefore, the opening up of the South African negotiations process in the early 1990s was the consequence of a paradox. On the one hand there was a more favourable balance of domestic forces. On the other hand there was a considerably less favourable international balance of forces.
But what implications did this latter factor have for our medium-term strategic perspective beyond the democratic electoral breakthrough? On this there was no agreement within the movement. This lack of agreement had much to do with a widespread global illusion of the time.
It was an illusion shared and propagated by Mikhail Gorbachev, Bill Clinton and Thabo Mbeki alike. We were told we were embarking on a wonderful new world, free of impediments to unlimited global friendship and post-Cold War ”dividends”. A new global renaissance was upon us. The events in Eastern Europe and South Africa were held up as pre-eminent harbingers of this new dawn. It was as if the disappearance of the Soviet bloc somehow meant that the imperialist bloc had also gone into voluntary retirement.
Ten years ago, on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the collapse of the Berlin Wall, I participated in a South African-Eastern Europe academic seminar. My East European counterparts all delivered papers that measured progress in the former Soviet bloc by the degrees to which different societies had become Westernised. I couldn’t help noticing that their paradigm excluded that other geopolitical axis — North-South. Were large parts of the former Soviet bloc actually travelling westwards, I wondered, or were they being dismantled and squeezed further southwards (socioeconomically speaking, of course)?
That was 10 years ago. And now, looking back over the past 20 years, what do we see?
In 1989 the wall came tumbling down and, to paraphrase Jean-Jacques Rousseau, humanity was supposedly reborn free — and yet, today, 20 years later, everywhere the poor and marginalised majority in the world are enchained behind or beyond a variety of militarised walls and other exclusions.
Since the Berlin Wall came down Israel’s shameful ”apartheid” wall has gone up. It scythes its way through West Bank communities, cutting off Palestinians from work, olive groves and water resources.
There are also virtual walls, often no less murderous than their reinforced concrete cousins.
There is Fortress Europe’s attempt to establish a militarised zone from the Canary Islands through the Mediterranean to block illegal African immigration — what one academic describes as ”a Berlin Wall on water”. No one knows how many hundreds have drowned seeking to cross this wall.
But the wall to beat all walls in our present reality is surely the Mexico-US border, ”the most militarised border in the world between two countries not at war”, according to American sociologist Saskia Sassen. At the very moment the Berlin Wall was coming down, the US government was dramatically escalating its efforts to fortify its border with Central and South America. With 12 000 border patrol officers, the US Immigration Service is now the largest arms-bearing branch of the US government apart from the actual military. In 2005 alone almost 500 deaths among desperate but illegal crossers on the Mexico-US border were reported — far surpassing any annual death toll on the Berlin Wall (which is not, I stress, to condone the shoot-to-kill policy that prevailed there).
Notwithstanding the liberal emancipatory aspirations of the protesters in East Berlin, the real barriers that were knocked down in 1989 were the barriers to the further expansion of footloose financial capital. The accelerated globalisation of the 1990s was all about liberating capital — not labour, not human beings, not an increasingly plundered natural environment.
Militarised frontiers like those along the US-Mexican border (with many other realities, for example the gospel according to the World Trade Organisation) are designed to insulate the North from the crisis of under-development and environmental destruction in the South. It is a crisis that a North-led globalisation process has drastically deepened in the South in the past 20 years since the Berlin Wall tumbled down amid so many hopes — and illusions.
Jeremy Cronin is SACP deputy general secretary, an ANC national executive committee member and deputy minister of transport