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What I learnt about SA, in Berlin

Mar 16 2019 07:00
Lameez Omarjee

Neither of my parents were born when the Berlin wall went up in 1961, dividing the socialist East Germany and capitalist West Germany.

In 1989, when the wall eventually came down, my father was in his first year teaching and I was not yet born. When I ask him what it meant for the world, he recalls that the fight for power between the Soviet Union and the Western Allies was "all for nothing" and it destroyed people's lives in the process.

"It was like apartheid," he tells me.

I am fortunate to never have lived under segregation, so my father's comments were difficult to relate to. I grew up in a time when the department of education formally recognised and commended schools for being racially integrated. I have only known a world without racial segregation.

The battle of my generation is much different to that of our parents. We want economic freedom, inclusive growth and the gap between the rich and the poor to stop existing. There are days when I consider that what we are fighting for may not be realised in our lifetime, much like the freedom fighters before us who never lived to enjoy the right to vote in free and fair elections.

But recently I had the opportunity to go to Berlin, as a guest of SA Tourism for the Internationale Tourismus-Borse (ITB) world travel trade show. In the brief time I got to spend in the city, I found the remedy for my cynicism.

The Berlin Wall which was designed for division, is now the cornerstone of the city's touristic attraction.

Concrete slabs of the wall are strategically placed across the city, as a celebration of the unity that was realised once it came down. (You can take pictures next to them, which I did.)

If you want, you can even buy certified pieces of the wall at museums or from any curio shops. (I wasn't keen on buying rocks, to be honest).

Tourists flock to Checkpoint Charlie, which was the crossing point between East and West Germany. For a few euro, you can take a picture at the site with a guy dressed as a soldier. (I was counting my euros carefully and skipped that).

Tourists can take pictures at the historical cross
Tourists can take pictures at the historical crossing point between East and West Germany known as Checkpoint Charlie. (Photo: Lameez Omarjee)

Also, if you are prone to looking down when you walk, you can see stones placed to mark where the wall used to run. 

At one point we share a ride with a German staff member of SA Tourism. She recalls how Pink Floyd was one of the first artists who performed in unified Berlin, and that it was the best concert she had been to her whole life.

She also points out where the wall used to be and explains that the infrastructure we see currently was erected in the past 30 years. "All these buildings are new," she tells us.

Just 30 years and Germany managed to fix itself, I think to myself. It's not like Germany completely ignored the pain of the past either. The nation literally leveraged off the pain to build something better, the architects certainly made the scars look beautiful.

As SA approaches 25 years of democracy, I suppose it would be nice if we also had new buildings, efficient public transport and guys dressed like soldiers with whom we could take pictures.

But comparing the pace of recovery between the two countries would not be fair. Our battles are different - there are academic papers which unpack that.

I was inspired by something quite special - just under a kilometer from Checkpoint Charlie there is a sculpture which rests on concrete slabs, with the words "hope for those who hope" engraved on them. Perhaps this was the catalyst for Germany's recovery? 

Berlin is truly a story of hope. You can see it in its thriving business activity, the ongoing construction, and the convergence of the world's people.

SA is no different. The wall of racial segregation fell down many years ago. We have the evidence to continue hoping for the wall of economic segregation to come down too.

But sometimes these things need to be helped along so they can happen faster. Reports say that some Germans grabbed their own hammers to start breaking down the wall once travel bans between the east and west were lifted.

South African, grab your hammer - there is more freedom for us to realise. 

Lameez Omarjee is a senior financial reporter at Fin24. Views expressed are her own.

germany  |  south africa  |  berlin  |  apartheid


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