The significance of the fall of the Berlin wall

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“My understanding of the history of the Berlin Wall, the circumstances surrounding its historic breach on 9 November 1989 and its subsequent destruction by popular demand has fundamentally contributed to my own ideological metamorphosis. For me, the history of the Wall symbolises the truth that a free society, based on private ownership of the means of production, best delivers what people want.”

I first became aware of the existence of the Berlin Wall, without appreciating its political significance, soon after its construction in 1961. In the early 1960s I was cutting my political teeth, becoming aware of the forces that rule the world. The all-pervasive apartheid system that was in force at the time inevitably politicised many of us. Around this same period socialism seemed to offer an appealing solution to the prevailing state of affairs in my home country. The South African government displayed a systematic and deep-seated hatred of communism and this was manifest on an almost daily basis in propaganda generated by the communications network at the disposal of the various state organs. This anti-communist sentiment was echoed in the relatively free press, which was owned and run by whites. So for us blacks the equation was simple. The oppressors, who had inflicted so much suffering on our people, hated communism. So what the enemy hated had to be good for us, the oppressed people. After all, communism was about a classless society and how the people shared everything.

As I was maturing politically, I immersed myself in a thorough study of the philosophy of communism. Simultaneously, I began asking myself questions related to how communism worked in practice. I found it hard to come up with credible answers. And the lack of answers stimulated my curiosity. I learnt of the Berlin Wall, which had been built by the East German government to keep people living inside the workers’ paradise – communist East Germany – from fleeing to the capitalist West, which typified man’s exploitation of his fellow man. Before the construction of the wall in 1961, East Germany had experienced a dramatic loss of population to the West, including thousands of educated young people: a brain drain of major proportions. After the wall was built, with its guard towers, trenches and checkpoints, several thousand individuals risked death in their attempts to cross into West Berlin. I found it disturbing that the refugees were people from all walks of life: artists, scientists, students, and professionals among others. They seemed not to be deterred by the threat of death, as they sought to cross the wall in defiance of East German law.

I began to perceive the Berlin Wall as symptomatic of the merits or demerits of the two contrasting systems, capitalist democracy and communist dictatorship (‘the dictatorship of the proletariat’). After the Second World War, capitalist West Germany gradually grew into the second biggest economy in the world, while East Germany seemed stuck in the economic doldrums. West Germany was a free democratic country, while East Germany was clearly a police state. I cast my precocious mind on South Korea and North Korea. The same scenario was so patently obvious. As with Germany: the same people, same culture, same language, and relatives on both sides of the divide. But such glaring incompatibilities! No wonder – I realised – the desperate attempts of individuals to flee from the communist grip of the North to the capitalist democracy of the South needed closer study.

In Africa, most of the liberation movements, which sought to overthrow repressive European colonialism by force, embraced variations of communism or socialism. Once in power, and transformed into political parties, these movements implemented economic policies informed by a socialist perspective. It gradually became clear that these policies were very much to the detriment of the welfare of their people.

But for quite a while the vision of the nirvana that socialism would bring, along with an awareness of the manifest injustices of the colonial past (which were blamed largely upon capitalist interests), bought the system time and caused people to put up with the consequent suffering. The seductive vision of popular ownership of the means of production through the medium of the state appealed to many, and still does in some circles within South Africa.

It was only with experience that it became clear to me that the nationalisation of productive assets doesn’t actually mean that they are owned and controlled by either the proletariat or the people and operated for their collective benefit. They are owned, controlled and managed by the state, which in reality means the elites or elite factions which wield power and control the state. It gradually became apparent that, as with East Germany and North Korea and other countries of communist persuasion, the leadership of these African socialist states was the only class to derive any real benefits from the policies of collectivisation. As in the case of East Germany, it eventually transpired that attempts to impose communist systems in Africa were economically unsustainable, politically tyrannical and morally bankrupt.

As I began to subject the apartheid system to more careful scrutiny, it seemed to me that it was a system that had more in common with a communist state than with a free capitalist society. Apartheid controlled every facet of black people’s lives from the cradle to the grave. Among other things, consistent with the policy of racial segregation, it decreed where black people could be born, where they could live, where they could carry out limited subsistence trade with all sorts of restrictive conditions, it denied them property rights, mandated where they could get the legislatively prescribed form of education, where they could work and what form of work they could do, which hospitals and amenities they could use, how and when they could move from place to place and even where they could be buried. In fact, blacks were effectively nationalised by the apartheid government. Apartheid, a ubiquitous and omnipotent system, was, like its communist cousins, economically unsustainable, politically tyrannical and morally reprehensible; but, as with communism, the few who benefited vehemently rejected this characterisation of the system.

For me, then, the fall of the Berlin Wall brought home some very important truths: that people value freedom above all other ideologies; that the system that fails to acknowledge this definitive attribute of human nature will eventually succumb to pressure, however long that might take; that the system that operates on the basis of what human nature is and not what it ought to be will unleash the spirit of enterprise that runs across all cultures and all nations. This is encapsulated in the words of Svetlana Alliluyeva, Stalin’s daughter who said, “It is human nature that rules the world, not governments and regimes”.

Communism is corrosive of human freedom. In its zeal to redistribute resources, abolish private ownership of the means of production and re-engineer the structure of society, it necessarily resorts to the use of force. It subsequently denies individuals the freedom to act in their own best interests and it denies them the fruits of their own labour and initiative. It is not surprising therefore that communist leaders such as Stalin, Mao Ze Dong, Pol Pot, Eric Honecker, Nikolai Ceauscescu and many, many others were obliged to rely so much on coercion, violence and an apparatus of spies to maintain their regimes, in the process slaughtering millions of their own people. Lenin, using a now infamous metaphor, reminded his followers that an omelette cannot be made without breaking eggs.

My understanding of the history of the Berlin Wall, the circumstances surrounding its historic breach on 9 November 1989 and its subsequent destruction by popular demand has fundamentally contributed to my own ideological metamorphosis. For me, the history of the Wall symbolises the truth that a free society, based on private ownership of the means of production, best delivers what people want.

May I add that, for Africans, faced with a plethora of trade barriers and protectionist measures which impede the free flow of their products to Europe, it may seem that, while the Wall has gone, the fortress mentality still lives on in Europe in another guise. The Berlin Wall of tariff protection impedes the free flow of mainly agricultural, but also other African products, from reaching the European markets. That wall should also be broken down.

Temba A Nolutshungu is a director of the Free Market Foundation, South Africa, an affiliate of African Liberty. The views expressed in the article are his own.

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