Südafrika / Geschichte der Außenpolitik der DDR und der BRD

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Schleicher, Dr. Hans-Georg:

‘Where do you stand on South Africa?’ – The crucial question of Africa politics of the two German states

Beitrag auf einer internationalen Konferenz “The role of German-southern African church relations during the 1930s, World War Two and the apartheid era”, Wuppertal 11.-13.März 2014

Quelle: Autor

The crucial question, “die Gretchenfrage” of Africa politics of the two German states “Where do you stand on South Africa?“ made this issue a battleground of inter-German rivalry and cold war confrontation.

The Africa politics of the two German states reflected the progressing division of Germany after the Second World War and the deep entrenchment of the two Germanys in the East-West conflict. In Africa the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) could rely on existing economic and other traditional ties with African territories as well as on the cooperation of major colonial powers. In East Germany such ties and relations didn’t exist due to radical social and economic changes after 1945. The German Democratic Republic (GDR) had to start from scratch developing contacts with Africa and experienced a hostile environment in the colonial territories.

West Germany did not only accept the German inheritance of economic relations with South Africa but also shared ideological and political aversions of South Africa against communism, and partly also against nationalist and anti-colonial ambitions, which were seen closely connected. Namibia under South African rule was of specific significance, being a former German colony with a considerable German minority. South Africa’s mineral wealth played a role, but this and other geopolitical considerations were over emphasized.

This strategic importance of South Africa was underlined in the West as well as in the East. East German considerations included the “revolutionary potential” of an economically and socially relatively developed South Africa. The GDR regarded the struggle against colonialism, racism and apartheid as part of the worldwide confrontation between imperialism and left-wing forces, which included socialist countries and the national liberation movement. The struggle against apartheid was seen as a major battleground of this conflict.

Accordingly both German states largely determined their political and economic interests in Africa by cold war and bloc alliances. Western countries with economic interests in South Africa were reluctant to recognise the legitimacy of the liberation struggle, not at all providing support to liberation movements, which were perceived as being ‘communist controlled’. They considered South Africa an anti-communist bulwark, guaranteeing pro-Western stability in the region. The perceived threat of communism resulted in the typical cold war depiction of the liberation movements. The close co-operation of the ANC with the South African Communist Party aggravated that view.

Economic relations between West Germany and South Africa developed rapidly and included trade as well as substantial German investments. Bonn’s proclaimed policy aims of peace and human rights were contradicted by the long-term economic co-operation with South Africa. West Germany did not use its economic power and political instruments in order to help overcome apartheid. Bonn announced a policy of peace and dialogue” for Southern Africa, but refused to recognise the liberation movements and rejected political and economic pressure against South Africa. In the view of liberation organisations and many of their African friends the frontline situation seemed obvious: West Germany was siding with the South African regime and Portuguese colonialism, and the GDR supported the liberation struggle. The West German policy dominated by a cold war perspective didn’t change substantially under successive governments. This is also true for the active role of the FRG within the Western Contact Group on Namibia.

The overall importance of the Deutschlandpolitik in both Germanys determinated the inter-German rivalry in Africa. Bonn’s Africa politics was strongly influenced by the Hallstein doctrine, which aimed at isolating the GDR internationally. On the other side African decolonisation seemed to offer the GDR a chance to break up such international blockade. West German propaganda highlighted the “communist dictatorship with wall and barbed wire” in East Germany. The GDR countered attacking West Germany for its support for Portuguese and French colonial wars and for its ‘military and nuclear collaboration’ with Pretoria. Their denunciation of West German economic interests in southern Africa and connections with white minority regimes was supposed to support the liberation movements, but served at the same time their own inter-German policy interests. The South African liberation movement welcomed any help to isolate the apartheid regime. ‘West German neo-colonialism’ was a much-debated issue.

The GDR decision to terminate existing trade relations with South Africa in the early 1960s was a difficult one. Economically weak, hampered herself by Western embargo policies, sanctions against South Africa resulted in economic hardships for East Germany. It was a political decision, triggered by Western press reports and preceded by a ferocious internal debate. On the other hand solidarity with the national liberation struggle was a basic foreign policy principle and enshrined in the GDR constitution. It was strongly related to the history of the German labour movement. The old political elite in the GDR based it on their own experience dating from the struggle against fascism. The early solidarity with the South African people was rather altruistic at that time - a success of that struggle seemed vague.

Relations GDR - ANC were based on common ideological and political values. The GDR was one of the first states to offer assistance to the South African liberation movement. Among the Eastern Bloc countries the GDR was considered to be “in charge of Africa” (Max Sisulu). Representatives of liberation movements compared the frontline situation of East Germany with their own struggle. The GDR offered efficient support to liberation movements, focussing on training, material, social and medical assistance, propaganda and support for the armed struggle. Nevertheless despite close relations with ANC and SWAPO the GDR avoided to discuss internal problems of these organisations.

Cold war confrontation seriously influenced Africa politics of both Germanys. But it was also used to justify questionable political decisions like Western rejection of liberation movements or the East disregarding human rights violations inside SWAPO and ANC.

In both Germanys the South African issue had also domestic implications. In West Germany influential conservative forces exercised pressure to prevent political or economic sanctions against South Africa. This was flanked by a massive propaganda campaign of the Apartheid regime. It took courageous activists within academic and student as well as church circles to counter the official policy and manipulation by the mass media, at the same time supporting the forces of liberation. Structures of the anti-colonial and anti-Apartheid solidarity developed at grassroots level.

In the GDR solidarity was official government policy. But it reflected conflicts and structural deficits of the society. Solidarity was organised in a centralistic and administrative way, it was therefore rather efficient, but at the same time it limited grassroots initiatives. The idea of solidarity, being popular among the GDR population, did not result in grassroots movements. GDR support for the right to self-determination of oppressed people conflicted with the lack of democracy in the own country - undoubtedly the major weakness of GDR solidarity. For instance church-related anti-apartheid groups didn’t find it easy to value their own principles. Comparing the positions of the two Germanys vis-à-vis colonialism and apartheid, and a sense of being on the right side of the international barrier, many GDR citizens identified with their government’s policy in this regard. To those who were aware of the gap between the GDR's international claim and the realities of life at home, the official presentation of solidarity arguably had no great appeal. But the solidarity movement despite flaws and restrictions was a genuine popular movement. Overall support for and involvement with the liberation struggle in Southern Africa has left a legacy with the East German population.

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