The Namibian debate over German reparations

Image credit Eric Montfort via Flickr.

Just over a century ago, German colonial troops engaged in genocide against the Herero and Nama people in what is today Namibia. The debate over the form of reparations and who specifically should benefit rages not just between Germany and Namibia as we would expect, but also within Namibia.

The historical facts are clearly documented by a wide range of historians. (herehere and here) Key pieces of evidence include the infamous extermination order issued by the German Lieutenant General Lothar von Trotha, details of the pursuit and killing of men, women and children, the poisoning of wells, and the use of concentration camps with extraordinary rates of death. An estimated 80% of the Herero people and up to 50% of the Nama living at the time were killed. As a result of the work of activists and researchers, today both the Namibian and the German governments agree: German forces engaged in genocide. Getting to such agreement has not been an easy process. The German and Namibian governments have been engaged in negotiations for Berlin to offer a formal apology, as well as some form of payment. But, negotiations have stalled.

First there are those who continue to dispute the facts of the genocide. One prominent denialist is Hinrich Schneider-Waterberg, a German-Namibian farm owner and amateur historian who has written a short book challenging the argument for genocide. Schneider-Waterberg has a clear stake in the debate, as he owns land in the Waterberg where many Herero were killed. It is hard to estimate how significant his support is among German-Namibians, but his book has been prominently displayed in central bookstores in both Swakopmund and Windhoek, areas where there are concentrations of German descendants. But, even among the older generation of German-Namibians, in such colonial towns as Swakopmund, there are a few who work to draw attention to the crimes of the past. Erika Rusch is a key example. She participated in the creation of a unified Cemetery Park to protect the unmarked graves of black African Namibians and to acknowledge German crimes against the Herero.

It is not surprising that some, perhaps most, German-descended Namibians would feel threatened by the acknowledgement of genocide. Colonial era crimes include not just the pursuit and killing of civilians but also the seizure of cattle and land. The vast farms that some, such as Schneider-Waterberg, own formerly comprised Herero and Nama land. Land reform has been minimal since independence, relying on the largely ineffective willing-buyer willing-seller model. Increasingly, activists in Namibia, as in neighboring countries, are demanding that the state seize and redistribute land.

Discussion of crimes of the past is therefore quickly linked to questions of who has the rights to land today. When activists organized a reparations march in Swakopmund in 2007, the local German language newspaper printed unsubstantiated claims that a group fashioning itself along the lines of Kenya’s Mau Mau would be seizing land from whites.

Beyond the white, German-speaking community in Namibia, whose political influence is waning, there are others in the seat of power who resist fully addressing the genocide. Some German Namibians argue that so many crimes were committed during and prior to colonial rule that it makes no sense to focus on one. Interestingly, prominent members of SWAPO, the popular liberation movement and the governing party since Namibian independence, make similar arguments about charges of crimes committed during their struggle for independence from South Africa. Representatives of SWAPO warn of the dangers of delving into past injustices and turned down an offer by the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission to host a hearing in Namibia. SWAPO so effectively blocked investigations into disappearances at their camps that one former SWAPO activist sought to file a case against the government with the International Criminal Court. These attempts to stifle discussion about the legacies of the past stem from a fear of tipping the balance of power.

Power relations clearly play a role in SWAPO’s reticence to support demands for reparations. Its support base is concentrated in the north, among various communities collectively referred to as Owambo. The Owambo were not the target of German colonial-era crimes because they lived outside the established police zone. The descendants of the Herero and Nama, in contrast, have supported a range of parties including prominent opposition parties. Herero and Nama activists demand that reparations payments be paid directly to affected communities rather than the government negotiating on their behalf.  This has undermined the Namibian government’s talks with Berlin regarding a special aid package, payable to the government. SWAPO has tried to keep negotiations and disputes behind closed doors, but recently some of these boiled over into the public domain.

In support of their demands, Herero and Nama activists have filed a class action suit in the Southern District Court in New York. While this suit is likely to fail as the US Supreme Court has restricted the application of the Alien Tort Statue, the attention it receives in the press helps to pressure the two governments. Conflicting reports have also surfaced of the Namibian government contemplating a suit against Germany.

The German government hoped to issue a formal apology, announce an expanded aid package and move on before German elections upcoming in September. This is now highly unlikely. Berlin has also refused to respond to the charges laid in the US District Court, leading to delay in proceedings that were set for July.

For activists seeking both a formal apology from the German government and reparations, the struggle continues and the road ahead is a long one.

Elke Zuern

Elke Zuern is professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence College.

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