1989 and my memories of change

Humankind lingers unregenerately in Plato’s cave, still revelling, its age-old habit, in mere images of the truth – Susan Sontag

It is 1984. I pick this year because it is where my political memory begins. Every Sunday we say prayers for “people who live behind the iron curtain”. At the heart of our pious plea lies the fear that South Africa will eventually submit to the tyrannical order of Communism. It defines our society along with general theology, racism and a deeply-ingrained inferiority complex.

Somehow, over time, these 4 themes have become intertwined, because ideas get muddled when they are not subjected to scrutiny. Black people are Communists; Communists hate religion; religion is politics; politics are defined by one thing: our continued fight for survival in the face of a Socialist onslaught.

We do not understand the difference between Socialism and Communism. We do not see the irony in our economy’s dependence upon state enterprise, nor do we question the totalitarian character of the Apartheid police state which governs us: a state where questions are not tolerated, where news is not freely reported, where religion is formally taught in the classroom, where academics are spied upon and have their phones wiretapped to ensure they toe the party line, where homosexuality is taboo and where every aspect of how we live, who we relate to, where we may buy property and which jobs we may apply for is governed by some oppressive law.

Public Phone, Berlin Mitte.
Public Phone, Berlin Mitte.

The ideology of Apartheid reigns absolutely, and in the tradition of such grandiose ideas it primarily survives through polarization and vilification of the Other. And it finds international frontiers. A war is being fought in Angola against a coalition of local insurgents who are backed by Cuba and Russia. The story of this war is old, dating back to 1915 and the South African army’s invasion of German South-West Africa on behalf of the Allied forces, and a subsequent struggle over the region’s autonomy.

Even though the basis of the conflict is rooted in geopolitics and power vacuums created by the demise of Colonialism, it has attained, from the viewpoint of the Apartheid government, the status of an über war, striking at the very core of the totalitarian state’s belief in its divine right to survive; a state under siege, which in these dire circumstances is justified to undertake any action, to spend itself to the point of bankruptcy and sacrifice 18-year-old soldiers’ lives in support of its unquestioned and superior objectives.

Guard tower, Robin Island prison.
Guard tower, Robin Island prison.

Nelson Mandela, that Arch Communist, is locked up on Robin Island along with other black leaders, many of whom have obtained fine tertiary qualifications in spite of the socio-economic exclusion they have faced, but they are now branded as terrorists for daring to ask questions and for trying to change the politics of the status quo. They spend their days incarcerated on the island, losing their eyesight as a result of breaking rocks and mining limestone in the bright Capetonian sun.

But the tectonic plates of domestic and international politics are shifting, manifesting in Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika in the USSR, and in some botched attempts by the Apartheid government to create a three-tier, racially segregated political process to appease the growing discontent of the black majority in South Africa. By the mid-80s the South African government faces insolvency in the face of international sanctions, while the USSR is increasingly held together by nothing more than a thread of nostalgic ideology.

And so it happens that the fall of the Berlin wall on 9 November 1989 is soon followed by Nelson Mandela’s release on 11 February 1990. In my mind the two events are connected in more ways than is represented by their chronological proximity; the former represents an international coming of age, a global symbol of a change happening in tandem with my own country’s liberation and progress. Looking at the blurry images of people physically destroying the barrier which divided them for many decades, I am struck by the depth of the fallacy we’ve been sold; by the distrust and misconceptions created and maintained through lack of information; and by the extent to which these “poor people behind the iron curtain” appear to be just like us.

19 years later I am queuing outside a club just off Alexanderplatz, waiting to take a lift proceeding straight from the entrance hall of the 70s-looking, office-like lobby to a dance floor pumping with electro beats, beautiful German men and a futuristic light installation. I am here, ostensibly, to participate in the making of a documentary about life in Berlin on the back of Barack Obama’s recent speech in the Tiergarten, where he appeased Berliners with the phrase: “This city, of all cities, knows the dream of freedom”. Unfortunately my initial reaction to this liberation is concerned more with the city’s nightlife and underground than with its history and culture.

Yet it is impossible not to become absorbed in the exciting visual typography of these streets. There are the modern manifestations of urban art, graffiti, superbly individualistic statements of fashion, cutting-edge architecture, dilapidated squats occupied by penniless artists, lazy conversations and late-night coffee shops. And everywhere, the counterbalancing impressions created by creeping gentrification and the remaining scars of reunification.

Then there is the city gradually confronting its place in history. This transcends the recent past as embodied by the dissembling of the wall, and is represented by structures ranging from the imposing holocaust memorial to an obscurely intimate installation in the Tiergarten commemorating the Nazis’ persecution of gay people.

Gay memorial.
Gay memorial.

Official acknowledgement of more recent history is a different matter. It appears that in the euphoria of 1989, there was an initial ambivalence towards preserving the remains of the wall, so it is surprisingly hard to find concrete evidence of this erstwhile division. But I am told that locals are still easily able to identify a person as being from the East or West. And the various neighbourhoods have well-defined characteristics, amplified by historic and recent trends in immigration: It is not hard to tell the difference between Prenzlauerberg and Kreuzberg.

Is Berlin different from any other major city in this stratification? Probably not. It is, however, interesting to observe how some neighbourhoods develop along cultural lines even when there exists a certain laissez-faire attitude towards integration, multiculturalism and social engineering. I guess economics, rents, language issues and religion all have their role to play here. But in Berlin these divisions mostly appear to be docile in nature.

What is certain, is that this place represents unbounded opportunities for visual stimulation, a chance to experience vibrant street life whilst still having the opportunity to breathe, and a sense of beautiful incompleteness, of work still to be done, and of big ideas waiting to be conceived. Is this surprising, or is it to be expected of a city occupying such a prominent position in modern history?

My return is therefore inevitable. This time it is to celebrate a friend’s birthday, and to photograph the G20 protests, being held on the same weekend when world leaders meet to discuss the fallout from our debt-induced banking crisis. These demonstrations are of course taking place in various places across the globe, but the thought of being able to march alongside Berliners in the contemporary citadel of contrarianism and protest seems irresistible.

The crowd is as diverse as the procession is long.  There is a predominant sense of resolute, dignified disaffection, a sentiment occasionally interrupted by the clustered presence of darkly-clad and vocal anarchists who are closely monitored by police in riot gear. Grandmothers, postmen, redundant middle managers, factory workers and funky kids all march in a temporary unison, struggling to find a definitive creed.

“Death to capitalism”. “Where is my pension fund”. “I’ve worked for 30 years and I have nothing”. “Stop the senseless war”. “People are disconnected from politics”. Random chants which echo through the damp and chilly streets whilst cosy leaders confer in a protected and distant location.

G20 protestors
G20 protestors

I think of these ideas, muddled as they have become for lack of rigorous scrutiny. I consider our incarceration of “terrorists” without trial, our preoccupation with the cruel intentions of the Other, our inability to bury the damaging and all-pervasive influence of religion, and the new tyranny of unbridled consumption and debt.

And I sigh, frustrated by the limitation of these memories and images, apt as they are in their ability to provoke, but completely insufficient in their capability to explain and transform.