Economic Watch

Is another “Berlin Wall” awaiting Africa and the world?

Berlin Wall coming down
Coming down.jpg

Africa, including South Africa, and the total global geopolitical stage was ideologically and politically profoundly affected by the fall of the Berlin Wall twenty five years ago. It seems a similar type of event now awaits the world.

The fall of the Berlin Wall, the most visible symbol of a failed ideology, was a monumental event and arguably the most defining image of the 20th century. While the Soviet Union’s final collapse only came two years later on Christmas Day 1991, the fall of the Berlin Wall more than any other single moment symbolises the end of the Cold War.

When East German border guards, under immense pressure from an agitated but jubilant crowd on 9 November 1989 opened the gates that have separated not only East and West Germans, but also two ideologies – communism and democracy – it proclaimed the victory of the latter over the former.

For decades – the Cold War lasted seventy years - Africa  had been one of the main combat zones between East and West. The two superpowers, the Soviet Union and the United States (US), used Africa as a battlefield for their proxy wars as part of a larger struggle for global supremacy between two opposing ideologies.

South Africa

The effects of the fall of the Berlin Wall which reverberated across the globe were also felt across the African continent including South Africa – a country then torn apart by the policy of Apartheid.

The iconic images of the Berlin Wall being taken down, brick by brick, and Nelson Mandela walking to freedom occurred within 90 days of one another. These were two defining events that would change the political landscape in South Africa forever.

In South Africa a few enlightened politicians from the then ruling National Party and a handful of like-minded securocrats recognised that the collapse of communism, graphically symbolised by fall of the Berlin Wall, signalled the beginning of a new world order. A new order that would no longer tolerate a policy that was in essence anti-democratic and racist.

The disintegration of communism and the end to the Cold War deprived the white minority government in South African of the ace it had always played to retain Western support – its commitment to fight communist expansionism in Southern Africa.

It also offered an opportunity to set the country off on a new course.

With the West applying pressure on the South African Government to introduce meaningful political change and buckling under economic sanctions, President FW de Klerk understood that only a negotiated settlement and full political participation by all South Africans would release the intense pressure.

On the flip side the collapse of communism and the break-up of the Soviet Union were equally traumatic if not catastrophic for the ANC as the main South African liberation movement.

The loss of their main sponsor was devastating to the ANC’s armed struggle. As one commentator remarks, ”The ANC military option lost whatever teeth it might have had.”

Facing the strongest, best organised military force in Africa, the ANC had no hope of victory on the battlefield. With the loss of its main supplier for military training and weapons the little impact the ANC’s armed struggle might have had, disappeared.

For the ANC the reality check brought a similar message – a negotiated settlement was the only peaceful solution for a country heading for civil war.

The fall of the Berlin Wall, unintentionally, played a defining role in the South African “miracle” – the peaceful transition to a full democracy with all South Africans on 24 April 1994 for their first fully representative government.

The rest of Africa

The fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of communism also boosted democratisation across much of the African continent.

African dictators and governments with socialist-leaning policies supported by the Soviet Union lost that patronage and started either to change into less authoritarian systems, embraced multi-partyism, or were vanquished.

The same fate befell dictators supported by the West and the US in particular. Before, the battle for ideological supremacy delivered blind support to disagreeable but well-disposed dictators such as the kleptocratic Mobutu Sese Seko of Democratic Republic of Congo (then Zaire). With the communist threat gone, support for his corrupt regime quickly dried up and he was deposed seven years later.

The democratisation of Africa also allowed capitalism to take root – not always for the best as attested by the fact that the gap between rich and poor keeps widening.

After the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union disintegrated, African states which were economically allied to the Soviets had to forge closer economic ties with the West.

The drastic economic reforms coming with this process often mostly benefited the wealthier and well-connected Africans and their Western partners, opening the door to the large-scale corruption as seen across the African continent today.

Financial trouble

The Berlin Wall came down at the end of the 1980’s – a decade which many describe as the pinnacle of capitalism. Communist and socialist-inclined states found it almost impossible to resist the allure of the capitalist system at its peak.

But over the last few years the tide has turned and, as recently argued, capitalism increasingly looks terminally ill. And in another article Fazila Farouk of the South African Civil Society Information Service poses the question: 25 Years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Is the World about to Change Course on Capitalism's Triumph over Communism?

Farouk comes to the conclusion that: “Today, more than two decades later, in this era of financial crisis and a time of unwarranted inequality, it feels as if the world, much like an oversized tanker out in the middle of the ocean, is turning slowly again and adjusting course for another direction.

“From Europe to South America to Africa, there is a resurgence of interest and growing support for alternatives to the consumer-driven egoism of capitalism. In 1989, communism collapsed with the fall of the Berlin Wall. Twenty-five years later, capitalism too, seems to have run its course. The world is undoubtedly on the cusp of change.”

If the fall of the Berlin Wall was sudden and unexpected, the writing was already on the wall for those willing to read. Twenty five years after the fall of the Berlin Wall the writing is on the wall once again, not ideologically this time, but economically.

What are the chances that Wall Street, the most visible symbol of a financial system in trouble, might come tumbling down?

by Garth Cilliers

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