x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Post-apartheid wall comes tumbling down

Twenty years after the Berlin Wall fell, Germany's ambassador strikes the first blow to demolish the barriers dividing South Africa's communities.

People walk into Goethe Institute in Johannesburg, South Africa, after the part of the wall around the institution was torn down in commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the demolition of the Berlin Wall.
People walk into Goethe Institute in Johannesburg, South Africa, after the part of the wall around the institution was torn down in commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the demolition of the Berlin Wall.

JOHANNESBURG // Germany's ambassador to South Africa, Dieter Haller, is more used to a desk and dealing with the minutiae of international relations than a demolition site. But on Monday night he swapped his office chair for the cab of an excavator to take on the wall surrounding the Goethe Institute, the German cultural centre in Johannesburg. The vehicle's scoop strained against the brickwork for a few seconds, the energy being expended momentarily lifting the machine off its front wheels, until the cement gave way and a section crashed to the ground.

Exactly two decades to the day after the Berlin Wall came down, the Goethe Institute barrier showed much less resistance than had the white concrete in Europe, and within minutes, nearly 20 metres of the wall surrounding the complex was reduced to distinctly unTeutonic piles of bricks littering the pavement. "It's a wonderful feeling," Mr Haller said. "It's like 20 years ago. We want to signal to our South African friends that we don't need the wall."

In the 15 years since the fall of apartheid, South Africa has put up its own physical walls. The residents of wealthy suburbs - and increasingly, in poorer townships - surround their properties with high barriers, usually topped with electric fences, as crime has spiralled and fear has rocketed even higher. It is a phenomenon that both reflects and reinforces a mindset of division, expressing itself in an urban landscape that long-term visitors soon become used to, only to be shocked when they return to Europe, North America or Australia to realise they can see houses.

While much of the Goethe Institute's wall will be demolished, it will be replaced with increased lighting, guards and security doors on the building itself, which will be directly accessible from the street. "A world without walls is perhaps a safer world," Mr Haller said. "We are not only talking about the visible walls, but also the invisible walls which separate people in different societies and different regions."

The project has captured the imagination of Johannesburg's residents, and hundreds of them turned out to watch. Among them was Moswetsa Molotsi, a veteran of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the ANC's armed wing, who was in Germany undergoing political training in the city of Magdeburg - he had already taken courses in guerrilla warfare in Angola - in the run-up to the Berlin Wall's coming down. He does not have a wall around his house in Emfuleni, south of the city, and said they "divide society".

"People have adopted that mentality of erecting walls now," he said. "That's terrible; it is creating that situation, that attitude of isolation, you don't know your neighbour, front, back or opposite." But the fall of the Berlin Wall left him with mixed feelings at the time - the Communist regimes of Eastern Europe were actively assisting the ANC in its struggle against apartheid, and with the possible consequences unclear, he and his detachment were hastily evacuated days before the Wall came down.

"Our instructors were very edgy," he said. "They didn't want to cause confusion in the ranks. It was difficult to understand. We were told it was because of western infiltration. "We felt strongly allied to the Communist state at that time, which was prepared to help us fight apartheid. But we said if the German people will accept that, then we accept it, though it was hard for us." Nonetheless the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe was a key factor in the coming of democracy to South Africa. As the Cold War's proxy conflicts in Africa came to an end, the apartheid regime's fear of a Communist takeover - one of its driving motivations against majority rule - dissipated in turn. Nelson Mandela was freed from 27 years in prison only three months after the tumultuous events in Berlin, paving the way for free elections four years later.

But in a parallel with the difficulties Germany has had with reunification and the enduring differences between the western and eastern parts of the country, South Africa remains even more divided. "We started to build walls in Johannesburg when the symbolic wall of apartheid came down and the wealthy were no longer protected from those who are not wealthy by the Group Areas Act [key apartheid legislation that reserved different areas for different races]," said Barbara Holtmann, the head of crime prevention studies for South Africa's Council for Scientific and Industrial Research.

"It's a very sad thing that we have developed this fortress mentality. If we hadn't started building walls 20 years ago in Johannesburg and we had built houses with the bricks instead we would not need to build walls today." Walls make residents less safe, she argued, as they create an incentive for violence with criminals needing a householder's help to enter a property, rather than merely burgling it.

"People have turned leafy suburban roads into dark alleyways where people can't see in or out and that puts people at greater risk," she said. Maybe it is time, she said, "to contemplate life without these walls, to start developing relationships with each other rather than continuing with the exclusion that we learned through apartheid". She lives in Parktown, not far from the Goethe Institute, and does not have a wall around her house, instead using a paling fence for protection, topped with electric cabling.

"It's a tragedy of our society that people make the assumption that it's only by locking ourselves away that you can be safe," Ms Holtmann said. But she declined to say how many times she had been robbed. sberger@thenational.ae