Germany, Mandela and the Cold War

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Hannah Cleaver - [email protected]
Germany, Mandela and the Cold War
Mandela meets Chancellor Helmut Kohl in Cape Town in 1995. Photo: DPA

As world leaders pay tribute to Nelson Mandela, many ignore how little their countries supported his struggle. Germany, as ever, has a particularly complex history as Gottfried Wellmer, an activist and researcher told The Local.


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


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