Addressing the genocide in Namibia

It took almost 110 years for Germany to accept the fact of the Namibian Genocide of 1904-1908.

Image by Antoine 49. CC via Flickr CC.

The past is never dead.
It’s not even past.

– William Faulkner

Colonial rule in “German South West Africa” (1884-1915) was a relatively short period during the final stages of the so-called Scramble for Africa. But in even a shorter period of time (1904-1908) it marked a military encounter, which today is termed the Namibian War. The consequences for the colonized communities living in the eastern, central and southern parts of the territory were devastating.

It took almost 110 years until the German government was willing to accept the classification as genocide. As a result, this chapter of German-Namibian relations became by the end of 2015 a matter of bilateral negotiations between special diplomatic envoys of both states, tasked to find an adequate recognition of such history. While these negotiations continue, an amicable solution is nowhere in sight. This also regards the hitherto inadequate involvement of the representatives of the descendants from the mainly affected groups, which remains among the contentious issues.

The historical record

Much has been researched and published on German colonial rule in the Republic of Namibia. As a result of the war, an estimated two-thirds of the Ovaherero (including the Mbanderu) and one-third to half of the various Nama (denounced as “Hottentotten”) were eliminated. The Damara (in German derogatorily called “Klippkaffern”), living among and in between the various Nama and Ovaherero communities, became victims too. They were in today’s euphemistic jargon a kind of “collateral damage”, since the German soldiers could not (or did not want to) make a difference. Settlers also organized hunting safaris on Bushmen communities, tantamount, in the words of Mohamed Adhikari, to a “genocide in slow motion.”

The survivors among these local communities were denied their earlier social organization and reproduction. While concrete figures of the numbers killed remain a matter of dispute, there is clear evidence of the “intent to destroy” their established way of life. This is the core definition of genocide. According to this understanding, the “Whitaker Report” presented to the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) in 1985, lists the German warfare in 1904 as the first genocide of the 20th century.

In her seminar work on “A History of Namibia” (2011), Marion Wallace puts this chapter in its appropriate perspective:

The atrocities in Namibia can be understood as standing at the extreme end of a continuum of violence and repression in which all the colonial powers participated. Nevertheless, it is important to name what happened in 1904-8 as genocide, not least because those who deny this continue to foster a debate that is really ‘a constant exercise in denial of historical evidence’ (quoting Werner Hillebrecht, then head of the Namibian National Archives; H.M.). Because of the tenacity with which they make their arguments, it needs to be restated that the way in which they minimize African suffering is contrary to the weight of historical evidence and the conclusion of most recent research.

Genocide is genocide is genocide

Since the turn of the century, genocide studies have internationally emerged as a new field, adding to and transcending the former exclusive focus on Holocaust studies. Despite ill-motivated accusations of questioning the singularity of the Shoa (at times mounting to blames of being anti-Semitic), genocide scholars thereby added important perspectives to the domain. The contextualization of genocides (in the plural) also included and promoted engagements with the South West African case. Within a short period of time since the end of the 20th century aspiring young (mainly German) scholars produced a variety of new insights on matters related to the genocidal warfare in South West Africa.

Although German governments of all party-political combinations remained in denial, a turnaround finally happened in 2015, after the German Bundestag, on occasion of another centenary, recognized the Armenian genocide. This provoked havoc by an enraged Turkish president Erdogan, who pointed to the hypocritical dimension of such selective perspective given the unacknowledged German colonial genocide. Many established German media also questioned the double standards and voiced long-articulated views of the German community of postcolonial initiatives. For the first time, the genocide in Namibia became a wider public issue. Last but not least, the social democratic Foreign Minister Walter Steinmeier could not escape the fact that his party while being in opposition had tabled a (dismissed) parliamentary motion on Namibia jointly with the Green party, which had introduced the term genocide. At a press conference in July 2015, the spokesperson of the Foreign Ministry confirmed that the term genocide is now applicable also to what had happened in South West Africa. As a consequence, by the end of 2015 the German and Namibian governments had appointed special envoys to negotiate how to come to terms with such recognition and its implications.

Negotiating genocide

The German side entered the negotiations without offering any apology. Rather, it declared that finding an adequate form of apology would be one of the agenda items. But admitting genocide as a precursor to negotiations over the implications of such an admission should require an immediate apology as a first sign of remorse. In the absence of such a symbolically relevant gesture, the point of departure for negotiations based on mutual respect seems at best dubious. Not surprisingly, the meetings since then have not produced any concrete results, but created some embarrassing moments due to the lack of German diplomacy. Much to the frustration of the Namibian government, the German side was at times setting the agenda unilaterally and making its views public on pending matters discussed behind closed doors. It also tried to influence the schedule according to domestic German policy matters.

Both governments have so far also not offered any meaningful direct representation to the descendants of the affected communities. While these do not speak with one voice and some smaller groups cooperate with the Namibian government, their main agencies have remained marginalized. For the Namibian government this is an affair between two states and the German counterpart gladly complies. Such understanding, however, also ignores those who as a result of the genocide live in the diaspora and are therefore, by implication, denied any representation.

On January 5, 2017, the Ovaherero Paramount Chief Vekuii Rukoro, together with Chief David Fredericks, the Chairman of the Nama Traditional Authorities Association as the main plaintiffs, together with the Association of the Ovaherero Genocide in the USA Inc., filed a federal class action lawsuit in a US federal court. The plaintiffs claim “the legitimate right to participate in any negotiations with Germany relating to the incalculable financial, material, cultural, intellectual, religious and spiritual losses suffered.” Their complaint submitted under the Alien Tort Statute asks for the award of punitive damages and the establishment of a Constructive Trust. Into this the defendant (Germany) should pay the estimated “value of the lands, cattle and other properties confiscated and taken from the Ovaherero and Nama peoples.” They refer among others as a substantial new dimension to the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, adopted on September 13, 2007 with the votes of Germany and Namibia by the United Nations General Assembly. Its Article 18 stipulates that, “indigenous peoples have the right to participate in decision-making in matters which would affect their rights, through representatives chosen by themselves.”

International media follow the German-Namibian negotiations with great interest — so do the governments of other former colonial powers. After all, despite its degree of violence, the German colonial adventure was relatively limited. Putting the likely material reparations in relation to the size of the German state coffers, a compensation for damages could solve a problem and might even be an investment into Germany’s reputation. But it would not only open a can of worms for other claims against the German state, relating to its other colonial territories and — more importantly — to not yet compensated crimes during World War II among civilian populations in Eastern Europe, Greece and Italy. Over and above such relevance this would create a precedence other states with a colonial-imperialist past would certainly not want to see happen. These implications turn the negotiations into much more than an affair between two countries. One does not need to entertain any conspiracy theories to assume that the German-Namibian negotiations have in all likelihood already been a matter discussed by foreign ministers in Brussels.

Since mid-2017 the German ambassador to Namibia, Christian-Matthias Schlaga, has presented the current German position. There are three core issues guiding the German approach: a) To find a common language for the events of 1904-1907, suggesting in tendency to revert the terminology from “genocide” to “atrocities”; b) a willingness to apologize for the crimes committed, assuming such apology is accepted as a clean break of the political-moral discussion; c) to establish a common memory culture and to support financially initiatives for the development especially of those regions in which at present the then most affected communities are living. Schlaga emphasized further, that attempts towards a judicial clarification would not be adequate. The German government sees no legal basis for demands for financial compensation. It maintains that claims in court with a focus on judicial terms such as “reparations” would lead astray.

According to the German special envoy, Ruprecht Polenz, the term reparation is a legal category, while the matter is a political-moral but not a judicial question. He does however not elaborate why this would exclude adequate forms of compensation as a political-moral consequence (tantamount to, though not necessarily declared as reparations). Polenz had earlier on stated that the efforts to come to terms with this past are about healing wounds. The Namibian special envoy, Zed Ngavirue, pointed out in an interview that such an approach seems to suggest that the medical prescription is issued by a doctor in Berlin. But from a Namibian point of view, he added, a medical practitioner in Berlin cannot alone decide on an adequate treatment. It should be added that a medical practitioner based in the Namibian capital Windhoek is not necessarily able to prescribe the recipe which most adequately treat the wounds of the descendants of the most affected victim communities. Ngavirue insisted that the matter of reparations will remain on the table.

This touches on the issue of perspectives. Postcolonial theory has since the late 1990s strongly advocated a fundamental change in the narratives to critically deconstruct colonial formations of knowledge and history. As a consequence, it is doubted whether colonial discourses are adequately transcended or abandoned even in Western anti-colonial counter narratives and their norms of presentation. Academic writing remains largely (and often uncritically) confined to the standardized modes anchored in western traditions, often without being aware of and self-critically reflecting on these limitations. But looking at the world through the eyes of others is not only a huge challenge. It borders to a mission impossible. Eagerness to comply with such a shift of perspectives might even risk becoming patronizing or paternalistic again by claiming to speak on behalf of those who continue to remain either silent or unheard.

Few studies so far intentionally include oral history and local perspectives on the subject. But this does not transcend their work as one created within certain parameters. Scholarship might have to humbly accept its limitations in representing the “other” views. Marion Wallace already expressed concerns that “the genocide debate can also be a hindrance to inquiry, and, above all, to situating the Namibian War as an event in Namibian, rather than German history.” While this is a necessary caveat, it should certainly not prevent those confronted with the consequences of such history in Germany and those descendants of German colonialists in Namibia, from addressing them in an effort to come to terms with such past. After all, it has been an event that would have not taken place without German colonial intervention with long-term implications not only for the colonized. Decolonization (especially when including the mindset) requires engagement by the descendants of those involved on all sides.

This must include space for the voice of those who represent the experiences that western perspectives and forms of communication cannot articulate. Post-colonial initiatives in the former colonial states can provide such platforms. But scholars and activists there will have to accept that their engagement is limited to their own voices and perspectives, which confront other narratives seeking to downplay the trauma of colonialism and its devastating effects on colonized societies and generations of colonized people. After all, we are addressing matters through our views, which relate to a shared history with others. But we cannot replace our upbringing by an upbringing of someone else. We can only engage in our own way. This also means to fight not mainly for the adequate recognition of humanity for others, but for one’s own humanity and human values, shared in the general conviction that humanity has a common ground and bonds reaching beyond the existence of otherness.

In the case of the Namibian-German history and its treatment in the present, it therefore seems appropriate to end with a quote from Rukee Tjingaete’s “The Weeping Graves of our Ancestors” (2017):

We cannot free ourselves from the past until both the victims and villains are atoned with Germany’s imperial past in Namibia. The past is like the shade of a thorn tree that covers a pile of thorns for those stepping on it… It is like a weeping grave of an angry ancestor.

* This is a slightly modified, short version of an article published with “Stichproben. Vienna Journal of African Studies,” freely accessible here.

Further Reading

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