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09 November 2019 02:43

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The fall of the Berlin Wall 30 years ago still resonates across Africa

It wasn't until 1984—seven years after the original Star Wars hit theaters—that fans could purchase C-3POs, a puffed-wheat breakfast concoction that featured the golden droid on boxes. Why spend time and effort creating a new cereal mascot when they could effectively lease one with a built-in fan base? In September 1982, General Mills debuted a Strawberry Shortcake cereal, the first to be based on a licensed fictional character. Ralston Purina, a conglomerate that counted both breakfast cereal and dog food among its offerings, was faced with only minimal market share when compared to the "Big Two" titans: General Mills and Kellogg's. Because launching a brand-new cereal was such an expensive proposition—marketing costs could grow to $40 million during the first year alone—it made more sense for Ralston to capitalize on existing properties, where their expenditure might only be $10 to $12 million.

Ralston continued the tie-ins into the 1990s, with the Family Matters-endorsed Urkel-Os joining cereals based on The Addams Family, Batman Returns, and others, usually paying a 3 to 5 percent royalty on each box sold to the licensors. On Saturday, Germany will mark the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, a moment that came about when on Nov. 9, 1989, East German Politburo spokesman Günter Schabowski told a room full of reporters that the socialist nation's citizens could cross to the West using all border crossings, effective immediately. But in a way very different from the Cold War, Germany today is once again at the center of key global debates around migration, populism, the economic slowdown and climate change. At the same time, the southern state of Baden-Württemberg has found that economics — not politics — is the way to integrate migrants while also beating back xenophobic nationalism. "My life was not going to be defined by the political reality of a divided country or the echoes of the Cold War. I was to learn about the GDR from history books and the older generation's kitchen table anecdotes only — or at least so I thought." The "liberal idea" itself was declared dead by a former KGB officer who has been president of Russia for most of the past 20 years, Vladimir Putin--someone who called the end of the Soviet Union the 20th century's greatest tragedy, all the while trying to roll back freedom's gains in countries like Ukraine.

Then again, when I read about the fall of the Berlin Wall in high school, I never imagined that defending liberal democracy would be a core responsibility of my generation. Thirty years ago today the Berlin Wall fell, an epochal moment in international relations. Indeed, from the vantage point of 2019, it is sometimes necessary to look back and remember the huge wave of optimism that dawned with the wave of political change which swept the former Eastern Bloc, starting in Poland and Hungary, with experiments in power sharing, coming to a head with the opening of the Berlin Wall in November. This breathtaking period in international relations, after the decades long Soviet-US bipolar standoff, gave rise to optimistic hopes of how the post-Cold War world might be. While much has changed since the end of the Cold War, one constant is that the United States remains the most powerful country in the world – certainly in a military sense.

However, growing bilateral cooperation is possible if the two powers can increasingly cooperate on soft issues like climate change, and find effective ways of resolving harder power disagreements between them, including over territorial claims in the South China Sea. If this can happen, we may transition from the existing post-war multilateral system into a "multi-bilateral" order that would see a network of loosely coordinated bilateral and regional deals, in trade, security and other areas. Taken overall, while the full promise of the 1989 revolutions has not been fully realised, it is by no means inevitable that the international system will be defined going forward by US-China rivalry mimicking the Cold War. While the direction of bilateral relations with China could become a force for greater global tension, it also still has the capacity to evolve into a deeper strategic partnership helping drive a new era of global growth and stability. The way forward for Africa in the aftermath of the Cold War – the decades-long struggle for supremacy between communist Soviet Union and capitalist US – was uncertain. By the late 1980s, the increasing likelihood of liberation fueled South Africa's black majority's hopes for freedom. The end of the Cold War meant that Africa could assert itself.

The mandate of the OAU insofar as liberation was concerned was coming to an end because South Africa was about to become free. Delineating the impact that the end of the Cold War has had during the ensuing three decades is almost as difficult as speculating where Africa would be today had this not happened. But marking the end of the bipolar era does offer the chance to reflect on both the changes and continuities in African politics and global relations since 1989. But the political benefits to South Africa from the end of the Cold War were immediate and critical. The time had come to deal with the most basic demand for political rights and equality for all South Africans.

free battle

The second decade after the Cold War marked a flourishing of pan-Africanism. South Africa played a leading role in these efforts to build capacity and advance African agency and self-reliance across the continent and globally, with the strong support of then President Thabo Mbeki (1999-2008). The third post-1989 decade has been marked by many democratic setbacks, within and among African countries. But African countries are especially vulnerable to the negative political impact of new information technologies, especially social media. These new technologies are vital for Africa's political, economic and social well-being. By 2029 we could even decide that digitization lies at the heart of the fourth post-Cold War decade of struggle between democratic and autocratic politics in Africa.

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