Walls: Useful for some, divisive for others?

While some historical walls such as the Berlin Wall, an enduring symbol of the Cold War and built to stem mass migration into West Berlin, have been taken down, more walls still exist, or are in the early stages of being built. This includes, just to mention a few, the Peace wall, a barrier in Northern Ireland that aims since 1969 to curb violence between the Catholic and nationals in Belfast and Derry, and related places like the Mexico-United States barrier, preventing illegal crossing from Mexico into the United States of America (USA) and vice-versa, where new US-president Donald Trump aims to build a huge wall in the near future.

Visible Walls
Walls, in a literal meaning of the word are associated to continuous vertical bricks or stones with which its structure encloses an area of land, communicate matters of protection and privacy. They also can communicate politically to matters like societal stratification, segregation and conflicts. These are then linked to political walls and are influencing actions of governing policies and strategies, directly or indirectly impacting those being governed.

Invisible Walls
Despite these existing case studies denoting visible walls, in the current contemporary time walls are by far invisible. These are intangible walls embedded in societies and act as physical walls. They are obstacles that people experience and to a larger extend date back or are impacted by history, requiring holistic approaches to tackle them. These invisible walls are controversies like social injustices, prejudices, poverty, maladministration, discrimination and racism. I define “invisible walls” as uncertainties or difficulties that people face in different places which are unjust.

Questions / Fragen: Which walls do you know?/ Welche Mauern kennen Sie? and: Why is it necessary to still have the Berlin Wall as a memorial? / Warum ist es immer noch notwendig, die Berliner Mauer als Denkmal zu erhalten?

Walls in the South Africa

After 23 Years of Democracy
Born in 1991, I am a generation experiencing the aftermath of South Africa’s turbulent history, now 23 years after the end of Apartheid. Like many young South Africa’s, there are many societal problems that fail being addressed, affecting many of us. Firstly, the Apartheid regime, a system of institutional racial segregation and discrimination between 1948 and 1991 was a wall. Although not a physical one, this system made lives of black South Africans in the bottom line. That is, not being in favour of these people in daily interactions and engagements. Presently, as an invisible wall, the apartheid history communicates the stains left in black South African communities and lives, affecting the present generation and likely to affect the next coming one. My ethnographic analysis is that, the invisible matters [walls] yet visible when observing cultures, customs, habits and mutual differences are matters of an unrepresentative economy, gaps of equality, and persisting poverty.


Restorative, violent, sad and uplifting: Kliptown, an old district in Soweto and presently a slum were many live in poverty. Photo taken in 2014.

My Experience back Home
I grew up in Soweto (Southern Western Townships) in Johannesburg. This is a community which prides itself with the historical victory that took place but, where poverty is very visible. Although afforded with basic needs such as water, electricity, state provided healthcare and education; many citizens are facing social instabilities. My own personal experiences includes living with an employed mother of four, going beyond all odds to be admitted to purse my university studies and seeing majority voices still not heard. Invisible walls in the South African context which play huge roles in impacting lives of people include prejudices, inequality and poverty.

Inequality in South Africa, as an invisible wall manifests through socio-economic differences caused by race. Black South Africans are subject to not being part of shared wealth. For instances, the unequal income distribution, where the majority earn less, are striking reasons poverty will be long battle to win.

South Africa has built a set of liberties founded in it’s Constitution with sets of rights and duties for its citizens, also defining the structure of the government. Due to corruption and self interests, people are subject to prejudices. A relevant example of ongoing prejudices is when Penny Sparrow, a real estate agent called black South Africans “monkeys” after photos of New Year´s celebration on public beaches were published. This suggests that people in various societies still hold unfair opinions, which create continuous  assumptions that people of different races can still not be the same or are simply different. More cases such as homophobia and health prejudices such as HIV or AIDS are gradually there.

Linked to socio-economic instabilities, prejudices, discrimination, and social injustices, poverty is an invisible wall continuing to limit and sideline black South Africans from liberating themselves to opportunities such as quality education, health services and general resources. These factors communicate the unchanged state of living in South Africa and more importantly, that the voices of majority of people are still unheard.

Walls in Germany

Questions / Fragen: Who profits from building walls? / Wer profitiert davon, Mauern zu bauen? and: What are the positive aspects of walls? / Was sind die positiven Aspeke von Mauern? 

The Berlin Wall
Currently, I am living in Potsdam, Germany to do a one year federal voluntary service, volunteering at a Waldorf Kindergarten in Berlin. Before I left Johannesburg in September 2016, I have been learning German for 18 while working in education oriented non-governmental organisations as a primary school tutor, alongside pursuing both journalism and activism projects.

New Walls
Even though the Berlin Wall came down 28 years ago, remains of it can still be visited – there is for example the East Side Gallery, but also the Gedenkstätte Berliner Mauer. These remains of the physical wall, which actually had been around 160 km long, function today as reminders of the atrocities of history. They speak the past, wall as an outcome/product of opposing world views/political convictions (Soviet Union and GDR with communism on the one side, and French, British and US-American alliterate with capitalistic convictions on the other side) and the Cold War, the Soviet Union and GDR aiming to isolate themselves. Today the remains of the Berlin Wall are used as a historical symbol for tourists and its citizens to show how a whole country, a city, families and friends had been divided, creating an emphasis of a society being different.

Question / Frage: Why do people build walls? / Warum bauen Menschen Mauern? 

Even though the wall came down and even though there are reminders in a form of monuments, again walls are being built. But not only visible, physical walls are being build on the border of the European Union – but also countries within the EU isolating themselves from the rest of the union – also invisible walls are emerging, especially in the broader scheme of things, with communities confronted with day-to-day challenges, to what extend can walls be perceived as threatening or useful when social issues suggest that there are more invisible walls than physical walls?

Refugees: Us and Them
During 2015 Germany welcomed an approximated 1 million immigrants, accommodating above 400 000 Syrian refugees escaping from grave disaster, in dire need of humanitarian assistance. This was a gesture of sympathy. Following conflicting views about long term disadvantages of accommodating refugees or not to, these discussions created walls in the heads of some people. Citizens either argued to the interest or need support of not, drawing conclusions of intending to either sideline these masses and always categorising arguments as “us” and “them”. It is within these arguments that historical elements reflecting the Berlin Wall are still present in society and the minds of people. For instance, invisible walls also in minds of people led to the rise of new right-wing parties like Altenative für Deutschland (AfD). Influenced by the past, arguments in the German society and thoughts people generally have communicate historic fears such as losing their economic power, protecting their interests; property, jobs, and often being threatened the invasion of new inhabitants.

My Experience in Germany
In the last 5 months of my stay, I have been confronted with uninformed assumptions about Africa from people. At least, in a community where people have unlimited resources such the internet, one can take an advantage to develop balanced perceptions. Thoughts of people, still perceiving Africa in less open minded ways mainly highlights the unchanging mentalities of Africa as less changing and improving and associated to inferior. Without disputing arguments of Africa as a continent in need of help and and generally termed as poor, many people create walls of seeing blackness as taboo, living in intolerance, discriminating and segregating stratifying African people to certain levels.

Realities about Walls
Related to the African Diaspora, Germany and South Africa have created similar invisible walls in their respective contexts. For instance, the xenophobic attacks, which caused a number of deaths and physical war zones in South Africa against other African natives was driven by threats of immigrants as they argue, taking their employment, taking over and changing communities. While in Germany these arguments have also been in place, showing fears in people’s views and ideas, these are contemporary walls communicating the past and reinventing similar voices to when the Berlin Wall operated.

Realities about walls are not limited only to these arguments, but are often built on arguments of security, privacy and protection, property and laws. Both visible and invisible walls are capable of either taking others in or others out, suppressing freedoms of thought, expression, dreams and travelling, for example. At first sight, walls might seem to be  benefititng and useful for at least one of the involved parties. But looking more closely at the issue, it becomes clear that walls actually do not serve anyone.