Walls are a waste of time

Business Day - - OPINION -

Walls have al­ways been sym­bols as much as they have been phys­i­cal bar­ri­ers. In fact, as phys­i­cal bar­ri­ers, they have tended in the past to be in­ef­fec­tive. Per­haps the most ob­vi­ous ex­am­ple is the Great Wall of China, which stretches in its modern ver­sion about 6,000km. It went through var­i­ous in­car­na­tions but was much en­hanced by the Ming Dy­nasty be­tween the 14th and the 17th cen­tury. It was de­signed to pro­tect against raids and in­va­sion from no­madic groups from the Eurasian steppes. Ul­ti­mately, it was ren­dered in­ef­fec­tive not by con­struc­tion fail­ure but by in­ter­nal in­sur­rec­tion, when a peas­ant re­volt up­ended the Ming dy­nasty and al­lied it­self to Manchurian forces then out­side the wall. Since the suc­ceed­ing Qing em­pire in­cluded much of In­ner Mon­go­lia, the wall be­came ir­rel­e­vant.

The Ber­lin Wall was an­other fa­mous wall that di­vided not only Ber­lin but the east of Ger­many from the west of the coun­try. As it be­came in­creas­ingly ob­vi­ous that eco­nomic prospects were bet­ter in the west, the com­mu­nist gov­ern­ment of the east es­tab­lished the bar­rier. It too col­lapsed not from in­va­sion from the out­side, but be­cause of pres­sure from the in­side.

In the modern day, pop­u­la­tions of the world nat­u­rally try to even out eco­nomic dis­par­ity by do­ing the ob­vi­ous: phys­i­cally mov­ing to a place with bet­ter prospects. In­creased mo­bil­ity, bet­ter in­for­ma­tion flow and a more poly­glot global pop­u­la­tion sup­ports this trend. The con­se­quences for the re­cip­i­ent coun­tries are com­pli­cated, touch­ing ev­ery­thing from na­tional pride to eco­nomic fac­tors. These great pop­u­lar migrations are pro­duc­ing po­lit­i­cal pres­sures, most vis­i­ble in the US.

US Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump has ini­ti­ated a shut­down of parts of the fed­eral gov­ern­ment in or­der to try to force his op­po­nents in the Demo­cratic Party to fund the build­ing of a 3,000km bar­rier. The Democrats, hav­ing newly won con­trol of the lower House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives, are not hav­ing any of it. The stand-off cul­mi­nated on Wed­nes­day in Trump walk­ing out of a meet­ing with the Demo­cratic lead­er­ship aimed at try­ing to ne­go­ti­ate a res­o­lu­tion to the dis­pute and re­open the closed parts of the gov­ern­ment be­fore state em­ploy­ees go un­paid on Fri­day.

In this po­lit­i­cal bat­tle, much de­pends on who gets the blame, or most of the blame, for the stand-off. In past stand-offs be­tween con­gres­sional lead­ers and the pres­i­dent, the pres­i­dent has usu­ally won. But in this case, Trump ap­pears to be los­ing the bat­tle of pop­u­lar sup­port, with the most re­cent poll find­ing 51% of adults be­liev­ing the pres­i­dent de­serves “most of the blame” for the shut­down. The same poll found 32% blamed Democrats, sug­gest­ing that Trump is op­posed by a slice of his own sup­port­ers. The rea­son is ob­vi­ous; apart from be­ing an elec­toral prom­ise, the wall is an ob­ses­sion for Trump, and even some of his own sup­port­ers feel a shut­down of gov­ern­ment is an over­re­ac­tion to what is, after all, an­other squab­ble about gov­ern­ment re­sources.

On a broader level, how­ever, a 3,000km wall is not only a quixotic ef­fort at re­duc­ing il­le­gal im­mi­gra­tion in the US but also at the very least a sug­ges­tion of in­cip­i­ent racism. Polls sug­gest there were 10.7-mil­lion unau­tho­rised im­mi­grants in the US in 2016, or 3.3% of the pop­u­la­tion. This is down from a peak of 12.2-mil­lion in 2007. About 60% have been in the US for more than a decade. Most im­mi­grants ar­rive not by jump­ing the wall but with le­gal visas, and they sim­ply don’t leave. This is far from be­ing the “cri­sis of the heart and a cri­sis of the soul” Trump de­scribes.

Trump does not re­alise or per­haps care about the harm he is do­ing to the US lead­er­ship around the world, which in the past has, with some no­table ex­cep­tions, been ben­e­fi­cial to all coun­tries. South Africans have weath­ered a huge rush of im­mi­grants from the rest of the con­ti­nent in larger pro­por­tions than the US has ex­pe­ri­enced, some­times with bile and vi­o­lence, but gen­er­ally with grudg­ing ac­com­mo­da­tion and some sym­pa­thy.

The irony that the US was largely es­tab­lished through im­mi­gra­tion flies over Trump’s head as he spews false mal­ice.


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