The Berlin Wall fell 30 years ago, but new walls are going up everywhere




Tomorrow, remembrances will be held around the world to mark the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. The wall was a potent symbol of division. From 1961 to 1989 it split Berlin into East and West and represented two world views: state socialism in contrast to capitalism and liberal democracy. Its demise in November 1989 was meant to herald a new era of global integration and unity.

On this year’s anniversary of the fall of that infamous wall, South Africa will still be celebrating the country’s Rugby World Cup victory over England. #StrongerTogether trended on social media as the public supported the rugby team’s diversity. Nelson Mandela was released from prison in February 1990, a mere three months after the Berlin Wall came down.

The year 1989 was also a game-changer because the World Wide Web came into being. The wall and the web symbolically inaugurated the period of post-Cold War globalisation. American political scientist Francis Fukuyama famously asked whether we had reached the “end of history” — the point at which humanity would unite, once and for all, in the name of representative democracy, free markets and consumerist culture.

Neoliberal ideologies of free trade, privatisation, individual agency and market primacy, championed by international financial institutions such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, became dominant in most of the world. Despite China’s massacre of student protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989, many believed that Eastern-style state socialism and authoritarian communism were more or less dead. Globalisation theorists looked forward to a borderless world full of cosmopolitan, global citizens.

Yet, 30 years later, the world is experiencing a resurgence of border walls (United States President Donald Trump’s wall on the Mexican border and Israel’s wall in the West Bank), hardening borders (the United Kingdom’s attempt to Brexit from the European Union) and increasing levels of populist nationalism from Italy to Hungary, the UK to the US, Poland to Russia, India to Brazil.

In South Africa, violent xenophobia represents another type of reactionary border-thinking. The Freedom Charter and the preamble to the Constitution state boldly that South Africa belongs to all those who live in it. Yet there are escalating conflicts over citizenship and identity — over who belongs and who does not. South Africans claim to celebrate the diversity of the citizenry but many repudiate the right of migrants and refugees to reside within the country’s borders.

Too many South Africans refer to Africa as the place one goes to when crossing the country’s northern borders. Too many are heavily invested in the hard borders that divide “their” country from its neighbours. But it’s time to dismantle — or at least soften — these walls.

Most borders in Africa were not created by Africans. European powers arbitrarily partitioned the continent at the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885. They divided it among themselves to suit their own interests. Modern African states and the territorial borders inherited from colonialism remain in place well into the 21st century.

Boundary maintenance to avoid territorial disputes and conflicts among newly independent states was the policy of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) established in Addis Ababa in 1963. And even the creation of the African Union, which replaced the OAU in 2001, has not translated into freedom of movement across its countries.

The AU’s Agenda 2063 lists among its aspirations “a continent where the free movement of people, capital, goods and services will result in significant increases in trade and investments amongst African countries”, as well as “an African passport, issued by member states, capitalising on the global migration towards e-passports, and with the abolishment of visa requirements for all African citizens in all African countries by 2018”. But the Seychelles is still the only country in Africa to offer visa-free access to all Africans.

Africa would be stronger economically and politically if it became a federation or an arrangement similar to that of the EU. Yet, South African leaders do not seem to entertain this vision. In fact, many of them exploit divisions in South Africa between citizens and non-citizens for their own benefit. Xenophobia is often the handmaiden of populism and South African politicians are not exempt from the cynical use of antimigrant rhetoric to bolster their position.

But one reason for xenophobia being rampant in some sectors of South Africa is because of another type of border. We should not think about borders as beginning and ending with the national borders between nation states.

Extreme income inequality — still largely tracking along racial lines — forms hard borders between different parts of South Africa and even in the same city.

Violent xenophobia mostly happens in some of South Africa’s “cultural time zones”, where life resembles more that of slums in metropolises around the world than that of affluent suburbs just a few hundred metres up the road. Xenophobic attacks tend to happen in areas near hostels and informal settlements where people intimately share precarious lives and conditions of extreme poverty.

One might think of the distance between elite Dainfern and impoverished Diepsloot as a borderland and the road between Alexandra township and Sandton, one of the wealthiest cultural time zones in Africa, as a porous but nonetheless hard border.

South Africa is still a nation of walls and borders. Income inequality has created harder and harder borders between the haves and the have-nots. Wealthy suburbs are riven by booms, gates, electric fences and high walls that divide them from the world outside. Gated residential areas, townhouse complexes and estates surrounded by high-tech security are popular.

Even access to our virtual and cyber worlds is guarded by the walls of socioeconomic class. The digital divide, or what some even call digital apartheid, separates the rural from the urban and the rich from the poor.

Borders and walls are not God-given or natural. They are the result of social relations. They are a social construct. So when we think about what borders and walls we want, we should think about what kind of society we want.

When the momentary euphoria from the Bokke rugby victory fades, we should think about what walls, borders and border-thinking need to be eradicated in today’s South Africa.

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