When the Berlin Wall came down, 25 years ago, I was in Lusaka, Zambia.
In those years, I was deeply involved with the work of Idasa and back-and-forth trips to meet the then exiled ANC were almost commonplace events in the life of the former think-tank.
There was always a lot of political talk during such visits, but on that particular occasion things were different: instead of staying at my usual haunt, the Intercontinental on Haile Selassie Street, I billeted with German friends in one of the city’s leafy suburbs where – if memory serves – the purple jacarandas and red flame trees were just off their early summer best.
Following the late-afternoon news on November 9 1989 that the Wall had been breached at Friedrichstraße, the evening turned to revelry.
Understandably, my hosts were animated: they talked about what the news from Berlin meant for that divided city and for the Cold War, which, until only a few hours earlier, had rent their country (and their families) asunder for the best part of 45 years. On their celebratory coat tails, I wondered what the Fall of the Wall could mean for South Africa and, indeed, Southern Africa.
The deep, deep talk of both danger and gratitude only ended when dawn’s first rays crossed a Central African sky and drove us to bed.
Although much was discussed that long night, I have always thought that not enough was made of the underlying developments that would help, less than three months later, to declare an end to the Cold War.
Instead of exploring the conceptual paradigm that had changed around us, our conversation had been arrested by the logic and the grammar of a way of thinking that was dying.
A reminder of these issues recently came back to me while reading Aziz Pahad’s recent book, Insurgent Diplomat. In his detailed account of the “pre-negotiations” to the talks that ended apartheid, Pahad points out that talks about the future of the country were very much on the agenda from the mid-1980s onwards. The most celebrated of these talks was the June 1987 meeting that was led by Idasa’s Frederik van Zyl Slabbert, which brought (mostly) Afrikaners together in Senegal with an ANC delegation led by Thabo Mbeki.
At the Johannesburg launch of his book, Pahad estimated that some 200 such interactions took place, including the meetings between Nelson Mandela and South Africa’s president at the time, PW Botha.
To get a true account of these, however, we will need to add the quite remarkable conversations that, at the time, also took place in the country between the United Democratic Front and various forms of white power.
But the conversational mood of those times was not only confined to South Africa: in other countries, too, talks between seemingly deep-seated old foes were under way.
Given this, why did so few recognise (or understand) that a form of deep, almost structural, change was afoot?
The answer to this question is well illustrated by a famous story about the diplomatic historian John Lewis Gaddis and the ending of the Cold War. In a frustrated moment at a conference during the mid-1980s, Gaddis challenged an audience – made up of senior army officers and diplomats – to “imagine that the Cold War had ended”.
This invitation was met by a long silence that was finally ended when an old and highly respected ambassador, rising from his seat, declared: “Professor Gaddis, such an idea has never occurred to me.”
The problem – to repeat the point – is that, captured by the everyday, we all too often fail to reflect on what is happening at a deeper level.
An equally pressing issue when change occurs, however, is an inability to fashion the next steps. Here, too, this 25th anniversary provides an opportunity to reflect on what happened to the world – and South Africa – after the Fall of the Wall.
Yet, although much talk at the time was of the settlement of disputes by jaw-jaw rather than war-war, militarised ways of thinking quickly reinserted themselves into everyday discourse.
As a result, the identification of new enemies appeared quickly in the space that was once exclusively reserved for the Soviet Union. An early target was the “Muslim world”, in the belief that the so-called free world faced – to use the revealing title of a book published in 1997 – “a clash of civilisations”.
Paralleling this, during the transition and into the early years of the “new” South Africa, the militarised discourse that had once convincingly demonised the ANC and communism was turned on a new assortment of “threats to the political order” – drugs, migrants and even, for a brief moment, HIV and Aids. It was this kind of thinking that fed into the fatal decision that renewing the military in South Africa was only possible through the arms deal.
But the lasting damage to any hope for a different kind of world after the end of the Cold War was delivered by the idea that “free market” economics had brought Soviet socialism to its knees – and that this lay behind the Fall of the Wall! The impetus to this idea was given by Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man.
Drawing on strands of utopian thinking, Fukuyama argued that the great conflicts of history were a thing of the past; in their place, capitalism in a productive partnership with representative democracy would temper the desires of humankind, thereby ending all future conflict.
This kind of thinking would become the template both for understanding international politics after the Cold War and for shaping the way in which all countries – including African ones – were to be democratically organised. Under the nonthreatening leadership of Nelson Mandela, post-apartheid South Africa quickly emerged as the poster child of what was sometimes called “the new paradigm”.
But, as has become increasingly clear in recent years, very little has been changed – let alone settled – in the years since the Berlin Wall crumbled. Violent conflict continues in many corners of the world and certainly a clash of heads – if not of civilisations – is underway between the West and the Muslim world, especially in the Middle East.
Deep questions are also being asked about democracy in many quarters of the globe – none more so than in the United States where the gridlock between the president and Congress seems destined to continue.
Most threatening of all, the gap between the rich and the poor continues to grow both within, and between, countries across the world.
So, what are the lessons to be drawn from these past 25 years?
The fall of the Berlin Wall certainly ended a peculiarly difficult moment in human affairs by terminating the dangerous divide that ran through the city of Berlin and, indeed, the world. This said, it certainly didn’t end history or bring about a more peaceful planet.
It should, however, prompt us to think more seriously about the deep structures that make the world at once dangerous and gratifying, and to see both the opportunities and limitations of change.
Peter Vale is professor of humanities at the University of Johannesburg and Nelson Mandela professor emeritus of politics at Rhodes University