I’m exploring the Thursday morning food market at the top of St George’s Mall in Cape Town, near the famous St George’s Cathedral where Desmond Tutu was once the bishop. There’s a very diverse range of prepared and cooked foods and food products representing many cultures and cuisines. A mixture of Xhosa, Afrikaans, San, Indian, Asian and many more crowd into the Earth Fair Food Market for biltong, samosas, sushi, fresh fruit and veg, and cut flowers. Near the end of the market, I encounter a large concrete block which doesn’t appear to be artwork and basically seems out of place. On closer inspection I’m amazed to discover that it’s a slab of the Berlin Wall.
It’s now 30 years this month since the Berlin Wall came down, having divided Germans since 1961 and having been the place where at least 140 of them lost their lives trying to escape to the West. As you might imagine, at over 180 kilometres long, there was a lot of concrete and it took a while to take down the large slabs, apart from the many smaller pieces chipped away initially as ordinary people took the initiative and started the demolition themselves. The significance of this event cannot be underestimated, and people soon realised that these fragments of freedom were both saleable and collectable and transcended the mere concrete to assume a metaphorical meaning.
This is why the slab of Berlin Wall was a gift to Nelson Mandela on a State visit to Berlin after he became President of post-apartheid South Africa and why it’s sitting where it is in Cape Town. It symbolises the breaking down of barriers and divisions in both societies and the end of oppression and authoritarianism. Having discovered this piece of the wall in St George’s Mall, the multicultural nature of the market seemed to take on new significance and represent more of a celebration of difference.
Wikipedia lists more than 38 locations around the world where you can find sections or pieces of the Berlin Wall on display. Everywhere from Bangladesh to Bulgaria, from Costa Rica to Canberra, and from Iceland to Israel, they are situated in museums, universities, parks and public squares, shopping centres, incorporated into art works, even as part of a urinal in Las Vegas. This doesn’t include the many thousands of people around the world who privately hold pieces of the wall. Some locations have been presented with sections of wall, many have bought them, and sections have even been sold through Sotheby’s Auction House. I suspect that in many of the locations, there is little meaning or significance to their bits of wall, rather they are just curiosities.
Sometime after encountering the slab of Berlin Wall in Cape Town I was in Tirana, the capital of Albania, and to my surprise, discovered another section of which I was unaware. That piece of wall in a park in the Blloku district of the capital is part of a memorial which also contains a small domed bunker and concrete pillars from one of the notorious labour camps where dissidents of Enver Hoxha’s dictatorial regime were imprisoned.
It sits at the entrance to what was an off-limits area where the Communist Party elite, including Hoxha, once resided. It was donated to Albania by the city of Berlin. Just like the section of the wall in Cape Town, this memorial is dedicated to those who didn’t make it out of the totalitarian regime, and like those who failed to get across the wall in Berlin, they also died without escaping an era of oppression. Enver Hoxha had isolated his country from even his Communist allies and had a paranoid fear that Albania would be invaded.
Believing that invasion was imminent and that a nuclear attack was very likely, Hoxha built thousands of bunkers all over the country – somewhere around 180,000, making sure that there was one for about every 11 Albanians. Some of the bunkers are disguised or hard to find, but many are evident as you travel around the country. Two of the biggest bunkers in the capital Tirana now function as museums and art installations, known as Bunk’Art. The bunker, the Berlin Wall and the pillars together are symbols and reminders of division and dictatorship.
The legacy of that era is still there today and Albania is still healing, just as is the case with South Africa and Germany. Many sections of the wall have been transplanted to locations all around Germany, but the scars and divisions linger. When I was in Germany for the Football World Cup in 2006, many Germans were excited and hopeful that the success of their national team was finally bringing the country together. Just for that reason I would have liked to see them win the World Cup that year.
I didn’t go looking for those sections of the Berlin Wall in Cape Town or Tirana but both symbolise an emergence from darkness in both the country of origin and the places to which the wall travelled.
The wall has even found its way to Australia. Although we were a long way away from Berlin when the wall went up, it captured our attention and our imaginations. Toni Fisher’s song West of the Wall reached number one on the Australian charts and stayed there for two weeks in 1962. That song was how I learnt about the Berlin Wall and I still find the lyrics strangely haunting. I first heard it as a youngster in Mr Brickwood’s grocery shop where it played often.
Mr Brickwood ran what was once called a mixed business, although we thought the reason for the name was because everything in the shop was mixed up and not even he could readily put his hand on a packet of Arrowroot biscuits or a tin of peas. Mr Brickwood was something of a social commentator and put charts and posters up in his shop covering current events. He patiently explained what the song was about and what the wall was about. We got a lot more than musk sticks and freckles in Mr Brickwood’s shop.
Today, in the Canberra suburb of Narrabundah outside the Harmonie German Club, there is a 3½ meter high, 3-tonne section of the wall, complete with graffiti. It was put there in 1992. No one knows exactly how it got there but the plaque tells why it’s there:
“This section of the Berlin Wall reminds us that no man made barrier can repress the spirit of freedom. May we all unite to live in harmony, ensuring peace for further generations.”
It now appears that this is not the only large section of the wall in Australia. On the day of the anniversary of the Berlin Wall coming down, The Sydney Morning Herald ran a story revealing that at least three pieces, including the one in Canberra, came to Australia at the same time. One has been found in a warehouse in Blacktown in Sydney; the location of the third remains a mystery. There are now plans for the one in the Blacktown warehouse to be erected as a memorial outside the Goethe Institute in Woollahra in Sydney.
As you travel around the world, keep an eye out for bits of the wall. Thirty years since it came down, it has a new significance. In many places and countries, freedom is once again fragmented. There are walls and barriers of one kind or another going up everywhere and the people who fled East Germany would probably not be welcome in today’s climate of opposition to refugees and asylum seekers. Rather than harmony and a spirit of freedom, many governments are isolating and dividing, and this makes the significance of the Berlin Wall more cogent than at any time since 1989. In 2019, those hearts are not necessarily free, west of the wall.