Around the world people celebrated the 20th anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall. It symbolised the end of the Cold War and signified the start of a new world order. The single most important question –how did it affect Africa? – is only addressed by a few newspapers in South Africa. However, the question seems more relevant today with public and political debate on nationalisation and demands for a developmental state model.

News coverage

The celebration in Berlin on the evening of 9 November was covered by most South African national newspapers, radio and television stations. The most prominent photographs showed fireworks over the Brandenburger Gate and the falling domino’s symbolising the fall of the Wall.

The news coverage focused on the political leaders present, commemorated their role in the events twenty years ago and briefly explained the historical context and social events that eventually caused the down fall.

Some correspondents included impressions of bystanders and Beeld took its readers down memory lane with a feature by correspondent Leopold Scholtz who was send to Berlin twenty years ago to cover the events . Unfortunately, the article didn’t go beyond the personal impressions of a correspondent present at a political earth quake. It made an interesting read but it was a chance missed to give context to the events.

A large infographic in a Beeld article a few days prior to the celebration included pictures the security structures on the eastern side of the Wall . It also presented the readers with statistics on the number of structures and people wounded and killed in the twenty eight years that Berlin was divided. This is valuable background information, but overall Beeld coverage lacks analyses.

The Sowetan took a different and very creative approach to explain the events to their public. On their children’s feature page – “Learn the News” the cartoon explained what the Berlin Wall was all about and even mentioned that after the fall “things started to change in Africa” . The worksheet, that is also a part of Learn the News, dealt with conflict and focused on the walls that we build between each other. It is almost a pity this appeared on a children’s feature page, as these events and their consequences are equally unfamiliar to adults.

Remarkably , The Star referred to a current debate in South Africa by mentioning the ‘shoot-to-kill’ orders of East German border guards . However, this is rather problematic as the circumstances in Germany in those days can by no means be compared to the current situation in South Africa. It paints an image of “war in the streets” and adds to the perception that there is crisis with police encouraged to “shoot to Kill” in South Africa.  The Times also chose a photograph of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and US Secretary Hillary Clinton, in Berlin, together with an image of a visitor placing flowers at a memorial of the Berlin Wall, for inclusion in their 10-in-Ten page.

Context and Analyses

In the days prior to the celebration several news papers printed background articles, mostly by expert guest writers. The Mail & Guardian issued “Cracking Walls”, an eight page special by the German Goethe-Institut in South Africa . Most articles focused on the main topic of the events organised by the Goethe-Institut, drawing parallels between the Wall in Germany and walls in present day Johannesburg. A quote by Andreas Tenzer in the opening article summarised the main objective of the activities in saying “The strongest bridges are built from the bricks of fallen walls.” An article by Barbara Holtmann, an expert from the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR),  addressed security through spatial planning and creating safe public places. Other articles focused on the mental walls in the minds of people that isolate citizens from each other. Journalists in The Star, Sunday Independent, and Sunday Times, also often announced the events at the Goethe-Insitut.
Analyses and comments in several weekly newspapers painted a rather diverse picture. Some experts highlighted the economic implications, others took a more political or historical approach. British historian Eric Hobsbawn, in his comment in the Mail & Guardian, analysed not only the economic consequences of the end of the communist system but also explained the rise of the ‘tiger economies’ and the recent global financial crisis that signified the short comings of a purely capitalist system . He argued that the “purpose of an economy is not profit but the wellbeing of all people”. By taking the debate away from the classic opposition between communism and capitalism he probably made the most valuable contribution of all to the debate on South Africa’s economic and political future.

The editor of Sunday Times, Mondli Makhanya, remembered the reaction, twenty years ago, of himself and his comrades, when they witnessed “with horror” the collapse of the socialist Utopia . Instead of merely going down memory lane, he cleverly combined the loss of social values of the communist system with the continuation of the authoritarian political style of the liberation movement. “We adopted some of the worst manifestation of godless capitalism and some of the worst tenets of Stalinism,” Makhanya argued, in an attempt to explain corruption and greed that is “eating away our democratic dream.”

An even more in-depth understanding of what role Berlin has played in African history is provided in an article by Adekeye Adebajo, executive director of the Centre for Conflict Resolution. In a remarkable analysis, Adebajo took his readers back 125 years to the Conference of Berlin, where artificial African nation-states were created to serve the imperialist world powers of that time . He continued to draw historical parallels between Africa and Berlin, pointing out that the erection of the Berlin Wall in 1961 coincided with the march for independence in Africa. The fall of the Wall in 1989 eventually caused the marginalisation of Africa. In his analysis, Adebajo answered more than just the question of what the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 meant for Africa, but commented “Berlin is a metaphor for Africa’s colonial and post-colonial experiences.”

Carien J. Touwen
Media Researcher
The following media are reviewed in the compilation of this report: Business Day, City Press, Daily Sun, Mail & Guardian, Sowetan, Sunday Independent, Sunday Sun, Sunday Times, The Citizen, and The Star and The Times, and Weekender.