• Germany's news in English

Germany, Mandela and the Cold War

Hannah Cleaver · 6 Dec 2013, 14:13

Published: 06 Dec 2013 14:13 GMT+01:00

Facebook Twitter Google+ reddit

South Africa has had to overcome a dark history and reinvent itself, much as Germany has been doing since 1945, and again in the past two decades.

As the central figure in this, Mandela is in danger of becoming a myth, a cartoon used and abused by those who want to promote a particular, simplified, story of what happened. He is in danger of becoming a figure like Bob Marley or John Lennon - used as shorthand for a simplistic message while the complexities of his work are erased.

South Africa was not freed at a stroke when Mandela was released from prison, nor when he was elected president. Wellmer warned that echoes of the Apartheid regime - and some of the people involved, remained in South Africa, while there still remains much work to be done to make the country fairer.

"There are long historic processes which take generations. As ideology changes it takes people a long time to overcome. Germany itself is of course a good example of that - even its processes are not complete,” said Wellmer.

"That struggle of overcoming these prison rooms of ideology, this was what Mandela started. But this is not the work of one individual, but of many, and it is a long process.

"There is a tendency to misuse Mandela, and it is a sorry state of affairs that he cannot defend himself against."

Germany, East and West, prisoners of the Cold War

The first thing to remember when assessing Germany's response to the South African Apartheid era and the fight to end it, is that East and West Germany were prisoners of the Cold War.

Until German reunification in 1990, both West (BRD) and East (GDR) Germany were in the deep shadows of the Iron Curtain. Regarding South Africa, this meant that in broad terms the BRD supported the Apartheid regime, while the GDR supported Mandela's rebels, the ANC and the black African trade unions.

Not only this - West German industry was on a mission to regain a positive image in the eyes of its own workforce and also internationally. It had squandered this reputation by supporting the war economy of the Third Reich and by asset-stripping industries and banks in occupied Europe and by the use of slave labour, Wellmer argued.

He said the Cold War offered industrial figures an opportunity to gain some honour - by rebuilding the country and economy and by being ultra-loyal to western interests. These tactics also happened to fit beautifully with their own economic interests.

And after the 1960 Sharpeville massacre, which prompted the flight of some investors from South Africa, German banks stepped in, willing to take the mild diplomatic heat in order to continue supporting an ally.

South Africa, a Western ally in Berlin Blockade

South Africa had been firmly on the side of the west during the early hours of the Cold War, said Wellmer. South African pilots had been sent to West Germany in 1948, taking part in the Berlin Air Lift, and South Africa had helped the Allies during the Korean War in the 1950s.

All of this placed South Africa firmly in the anti-Communist camp of the Cold War, giving the regime the ideological cover to portray the liberation movement as Communist - and therefore an enemy to the West.

And in Cold War symmetry, the East German government supported the South African opposition, giving military training to the guerrilla forces and for example, giving the ANC a printing office in East Berlin, said Wellmer.

Even after Mandela was released - by this time a popular hero the world over, the West German government kept its distance when he visited newly-unified Germany. "When Mandela came to Germany for the first time he wasn't even received by Helmut Kohl," said Wellmer.

"It was only when it was clear he was going to be elected that he was invited to make a speech to parliament," he said.

West German money invested in racist South Africa

The other aspect of support was West German money, which had been heavily invested in racist South Africa.

The Apartheid regime had bankrupted the country, and its economic situation became increasingly unstable during 1985-6 when the global UN-backed economic embargo began to have some effect, despite being weakened by opposition from the UK and West Germany.

While many other international banks withdrew, West German banks increased their involvement, pouring more money into the country to try to ensure they would get their money back, Wellmer said.

"They never considered the broad picture, of human rights or political sovereignty, they were simply following narrow capital self-interest," he said.

West German pressure groups were weak

West German anti-Apartheid groups that started up in 1974 had sprung from the anti-nuclear and peace movements and focused much of their efforts on West German military and nuclear cooperation with South Africa.

Germany's industry was particularly active in this, assiduously working the loopholes in the various military boycotts affecting South Africa, said Wellmer, which is why the West German anti-Apartheid groups called for a trade embargo to enforce the military one.

Much of the global support for anti-Apartheid movement was channelled through churches, but West Germany Protestant churches were paternalistic in their approach, and hesitant in their devotion to the cause, said Wellmer.

They were in ideological captivity in the West, Wellmer suggested, bound by their dependency on the western state for administration of the church tax. The German Protestants rejected a boycott, favouring instead dialogue.

They tapped German affiliate companies in South Africa as tools of this "civilizing mission", but the voluntary code of conduct agreed across Europe for firms active in South Africa to pay and treat their workers better, was often violated, without the offenders being punished.

Mandela concentrated on unity rather than economics

Mandela, who had once supported an armed liberation struggle, wanted to avoid a civil war after the first democratic elections in 1994. He saw as one of his main tasks to unite the people, to achieve political stability, rid the country of debts and establish the roots of a social democratic welfare state.

Measures such as the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions were significant, but Mandela had little influence over economic factors and the country adopted a neo-liberal economy, said Wellmer.

The new democratic South African of the early 1990s would have had the moral authority to try something different economically, but it did not.

Mandela was held back from economic policy by his fellow ANC leaders, many of whom had been in exile in the West and were under the influence of their ideas. It had become a movement led by aspiring bourgeoisie, Wellmer suggested

"Many new politicians have been enriching themselves while governing the country and people are starting to ask how they got into this mess," he said.

Socialism was dying when South Africa became democratic

The Freedom Charter, a document adopted by the fledgling African National Congress in 1955 as its statement of principles, includes a passage about the people sharing the country's wealth.

It says: "The national wealth of our country, the heritage of South Africans, shall be restored to the people; The mineral wealth beneath the soil, the Banks and monopoly industry shall be transferred to the ownership of the people as a whole; All other industry and trade shall be controlled to assist the well-being of the people; All people shall have equal rights to trade where they choose, to manufacture and to enter all trades, crafts and professions."

"But Mandela did not get to form much economic policy and in any case he saw his task as uniting a country that had been at war with itself for 40 years," said Wellmer. "He needed to help it move beyond racism. Not only that, but when they got into power socialism across the world was dying. There seemed to be no chance for any kind of socialism in South Africa."

The new South African government, and Mandela, discovered after being elected, to his great shock how deeply indebted the country was. He needed to make a deal with other economies in the face of these huge debts - many of which were to German banks and none of them were written off.

"The European Union for example was one of the major powers which helped South Africa into its new manacles of neo-liberal economic policies," said Wellmer.

READ MORE: Mandela's complex relationship with Germany

For more news from Germany, join us on Facebook and Twitter.

Hannah Cleaver (hannah.cleaver@thelocal.de)

Facebook Twitter Google+ reddit

Your comments about this article

Today's headlines
Creepy clown scare spreads to Germany
Two of the clowns were apparently equipped with chainsaws. Photo: Pedro Pardo / AFP file picture

Police said Friday five incidents involving so-called scary clowns had occurred in two north German town, including one assailant who hit a man with a baseball bat, amid fears that Halloween could spark a rash of similar attacks.

Student fined for spying on women via their webcams
Photo: DPA

Student from Munich fined €1,000 for spying on 32 different computers, using their webcams to take photographs, or record their keyboard history.

This is how much startup geeks earn in Germany
Photo: DPA

A comprehensive new survey of 143 startup founders shows how much you are likely to be earning at a German startup, from entry level all the way up to sitting on the board.

Man dies after beating for peeing near Freiburg church
The Johannes Church in Freiburg. Photo Jörgens Mi/Wikipedia

A middle-aged man from southern Germany has died after being attacked by a group of men who took umbrage with the fact he was urinating in the vicinity of a church.

The Local List
Seven German celebrities with uncanny doppelgängers
Former Berlin mayor Klaus Wowereit and actor Alec Baldwin. Photo: DPA; Gage Skidmore, Wikimedia Commons

Check out these seven look-a-likes of well known German figures - we admit that some are more tenuous than others...

Israel seeks to buy three new German submarines: report
A Dolphin class submarine. Photo: DPA

Israel is seeking to buy three more advanced submarines from Germany at a combined price of €1.2 billion, an Israeli newspaper reported Friday.

Here’s where people live the longest in Germany
Photo: DPA

Germans down south seem to know the secret to a long life.

More Germans identify as LGBT than in rest of Europe
Photo: DPA

The percentage of the German population which identifies as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender is higher than anywhere else in Europe, according to a new study.

'Reichsbürger' pair attack police in Saxony-Anhalt
File photo: DPA.

A "Reichsbürger" and his wife attacked police officers on Thursday, just a day after another Reichsbürger fatally shot an officer in Bavaria.

Five things not to miss at the Frankfurt Book Fair
Photo: DPA

From consulting a book doctor to immersing yourself in an author's world with the help of virtual reality, here are five things not to miss at this week's Frankfurt Book Fair, the world's largest publishing event.

Sponsored Article
How to vote absentee from abroad in the US elections
10 things you never knew about socialist East Germany
Sponsored Article
Last chance to vote absentee in the US elections
How Germans fell in love with America's favourite squash
How I ditched London for Berlin and became a published author
Sponsored Article
How to vote absentee from abroad in the US elections
12 clever German idioms that'll make you sound like a pro
23 fascinating facts you never knew about Berlin
9 unmissable events to check out in Germany this October
10 things you never knew about German reunification
10 things you're sure to notice after an Oktoberfest visit
Germany's 10 most Instagram-able places
15 pics that prove Germany is absolutely enchanting in autumn
10 German films you have to watch before you die
6 things about Munich that’ll stay with you forever
10 pieces of German slang you'll never learn in class
Ouch! Naked swimmer hospitalized after angler hooks his penis
Six reasons why Berlin is now known as 'the failed city'
15 tell-tale signs you’ll never quite master German
7 American habits that make Germans very, very uncomfortable
Story of a fugitive cow who outwitted police for weeks before capture
Eleven famous Germans with surnames that'll make your sides split
The best ways to get a visa as an American in Germany
jobs available
Toytown Germany
Germany's English-speaking crowd