OPINION | Daniel Malan: Imagine there's no countries; it is very hard to do (Apologies John Lennon)

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if you want to travel in most Wesern-European countries, you need a Schengen visa.
if you want to travel in most Wesern-European countries, you need a Schengen visa.

After reminiscing about a trip, he took in the late 1980s, where he tried to travel from Durban to Cape Town through the then Transkei, Daniel Malan considers, in light of the Russia-Ukraine crisis, if borders are necessary.


Somewhere in the late 1980s, I tried to travel from Durban to Cape Town through the Transkei after a student conference.

I knew at the time that – even though the South African government acknowledged the "homelands" as independent countries, one could easily travel through them without a passport, as long as you had your South African ID document with you.

On this occasion, though, I had left my ID document at home. I decided to combine an appetite for risk with naïve political acumen, and thus attempted an unauthorised international trip within my own country.

As a white male, I knew the risk would be minimal when stopped at the border post. In my most eloquent politically inspired narrative, I tried to explain to the immigration official (a fellow Afrikaans speaking South African white male) that we all knew this was a sham in the eyes of the international community, and could he please just let me through.

"Sir", he explained with indignation, "if you want to cross this border, it is the same as if you were travelling to Japan!"

Different types of borders 

A 24-hour detour later, having travelled through another former independent country called the Orange Free State, I arrived back home.

My argument with the immigration official stuck with me, and I have been thinking about it recently while trying to make sense of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Similar to the absurd situation of Bantustan banter with a clueless Homeland Affairs official, I tried to imagine Russian tanks being stopped at the Ukrainian border with requests for visas and international driving permits. Of course, this time, the international border is real, but a military tank has more persuasive power than a rental car filled with undergraduate students.

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This is where my ignorance in terms of global politics becomes apparent, but I started to think in very general terms about different types of borders and how they might or might not seem arbitrary to some, depending on the context. The United States of America. The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The European Union. And of course, the former Union of Socialist Soviet Republics.

As a South African citizen now working in Ireland, I live in the European Union. If I want to travel to Belfast in Northern Ireland, I need a United Kingdom visa, even though there is no border control on the Island of Ireland. I need one visa for the United States but can then travel between the 50 "united" states as I please, regardless of whether they belonged to the Union or the Confederacy. I only need one visa for most Western European countries, named after a village in Luxembourg (Schengen) where the intergovernmental agreement to abandon cross-border checks was signed in 1985.

How does my experience at an illegitimate border post in South Africa more than 30 years ago influence my views on the war in Ukraine? I am not sure.

Humans draw borders, and they need the support of humans to be maintained.

'What do people want?'

We know that some of these borders are arbitrary – consider the straight line between Namibia and Botswana (although the international dispute has been about the Caprivi strip and related to the more complex geographical issue of rivers and islands), not to mention the borders hastily drawn with the help of a ruler (the measuring tool, not a political leader) that have had a long-term impact on the political situation in the Middle East.

The people drawing the borders are usually not the ones required to respect them. The default democratic position is always to ask: "What do the people want?". We know this question is fraught with complexity. What if the people want capital punishment? What if the people want a racist as president? What if the people want to join another country, union or kingdom? Think about Flanders and Wallonia, Quebec and Basque country, to mention a few.

READ | A Belgian farmer redrew the French border by accident when he moved a stone out of the way

Going back quite a few years in South African history, we used to have a South African Republic (Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek, coincidentally ZAR is still the abbreviation for the South African currency) and the already mentioned Republic of the Orange Free State (Oranje Vrijstaat). These republics were acknowledged in the 19th century by the international community, including by what was then called the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland (now Great Britain and Northern Ireland).

Today the dream of a whites-only "boer" republic is restricted to Orania, a town that tries to maintain a whites-only apartheid community by evoking the human rights that could only be guaranteed by the political defeat of those they admire. The Orania website still celebrates the fact that the wife of Hendrik Verwoerd decided to call Orania home.

'My land was born'

My own background is not in political science, and I, therefore, have no qualms to conclude with three musical references.

It was during the 1980s that I saw a performance of the musical Chess for the first time. It was in London during my first backpack trip to Europe. I am sure many readers will have memories of Luxavia airline, spartan youth hostels and Eurail tickets. With music by ABBA members Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, the Cold War plot of Chess evoked different dimensions of manipulation involving an American and Soviet chess master, with catchy tunes like "One Night in Bangkok" and "I Know Him So Well". But it was in the lesser known "Anthem" that the complexities of belonging and nationalism were displayed:

"Long before nations' lines were drawn

When no flags flew, when no armies stood

My land was born …

Let man's petty nations tear themselves apart

My land's only borders lie around my heart"

A few weeks ago, I visited Paris (courtesy of my Schengen visa) and attended a piano recital by Valentina Lisitsa, a Ukrainian-Russian pianist residing in the United States.

Lisitsa is a controversial figure – a few years ago, one of her concerts was cancelled in Canada because of pro-Russian tweets following the annexation of Crimea.

This time she was more circumspect and issued a statement that was printed in the official programme: 

It is hard to think of anything more painful and horrific than war. Being born in Ukraine and having spent most of my adult life in the US, this tragedy is very personal to me, as I have family and friends in Russia and Ukraine. I believe that any war is against human reason and human nature, especially when this war is between neighbours.

I do not have any family or friends in either Russian or Ukraine, and my experience of the war in Ukraine is therefore not personal. Although it is romantically tempting, I do not believe that the borders of a country only lie around our hearts. Although the lines might sometimes be blurred, borders play a role in defining who we are, even in a globalised world. So when John Lennon sings "imagine there’s no countries, it isn’t hard to do", I have to disagree. 

- Daniel Malan is the co-chair of the B20 Integrity and Compliance Task Force and a member of the World Economic Forum's Global Future Council on Transparency and Anti-Corruption. He is an assistant professor in business ethics at Trinity College Dublin and an associate professor extraordinaire at the Stellenbosch Business School, Stellenbosch University.

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