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06 November 2009 

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Fall of Berlin Wall Had Impact on African Continent

05 November 2009

A 12 Nov 1989 file photo of Berliners celebrating on top of the wall as E. Germans flood through the dismantled Berlin Wall into West Berlin
Berliners celebrating on top of the wall as E. Germans flood through the dismantled Berlin Wall into West Berlin, 12 Nov 1989
Monday marks the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall that preceded the collapse of the Soviet Union two years later. The effects of the event were also felt on the African continent, which for decades had been one of the arenas for the conflict between East and West.

Analysts say the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 was primarily a symbolic event, but it marked the beginning of changes that would affect Africa and the developing world in many ways.

The deputy chairman of the South African Institute for International Affairs, Moeletsi Mbeki, says the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 ended the Cold War and East-West rivalries.

"Africa had been at the receiving end of the Cold War with great powers using Africa as a playground to fight its [their] proxy wars," he said.

Change of political climate

He says the ideological struggle for influence in Africa brought political assassinations and military coups. It contributed to the authoritarianism and political instability that characterized Africa's early years of independence.

Mbeki says the Cold War also prolonged the struggle against colonialism in southern Africa.

"After Second World War the original noises that came from the United States in particular were that it wanted the colonial system to come to an end," he said. "But once the Cold War started, the United States changed its position and supported the colonial powers in Africa. And it was the Soviet Union and its satellites that supported the struggle against colonialism."

He notes for example that East Germany provided military training and arms to liberation movements in southern Africa, whereas West Germany had built up extensive business ties in the region. As a result, some African leaders reacted with apprehension to the moves to reunite the two countries after the fall of the Berlin Wall.  

But he says the end of the Cold War, aided by rising public pressure in the West, boosted the negotiations to end the wars in Angola and Mozambique and the apartheid system in South Africa.


Mbeki concludes the collapse of the Soviet Union also boosted democratization across much of the continent.

"A number of dictators that had been supported by the Soviet Union lost their patronage and started either to change into less authoritarian systems or collapsed," he said.

Analysts say the demise of the Soviet Union encouraged democratization in many African countries, but say the extent of the reforms has varied.

An analyst with the Electoral Institute for Southern Africa, Ebrahim Fakir, says new forms of capitalism evolved that widened the gap between rich and poor.

"While 1989 may have signaled greater amounts of freedom, the inception of some kind of democratic regime, it also initiated greater amounts of inequalities, not just between states and regions of the world, but within states," he said.

He says the rise of capitalism mainly benefited the elites in Africa or their business partners in the West who were better prepared to take advantage of the opportunities it presented.

Hope and Distress

He says the fall of the Berlin Wall brought hope to some people, but also distressed others.

"There was lots of celebration of the political freedoms, even economic freedom, but for other people it was a breakdown of old certitudes, of relying on the state to provide, having some kind of social welfare net, basic as it was, that certitude was no longer there," said Fakir.

He adds rising technological advances and the advent of the Internet and electronic mail made businesses more efficient and communications more rapid. These may have even contributed to the demise of communism.

But he says African countries in many cases did not have the infrastructure, such as reliable electrical supplies, to take advantage of them. Fariq says the changes also affected African societies.

"It gave rise, particularly in the developing world, to greater amounts of conflict between tradition and modernity," he said. "The idea of the extended family becomes less important, the rise of the nuclear family, new social mores, ethics and so forth."

Analysts note that the demise of communism also left the world with a single dominant power, at least for a time. And this uni-polar world may have contributed to excesses such as those that led to the banking crisis that affected economies everywhere.

But they conclude that the emergence of regional powers, such as China, Brazil and India among others, could signal that current geo-strategic politics are also evolving.  

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