Alfredo Tjiurimo Hengari: The return of the Herero and Nama skulls: Coming to terms with a difficult history

In his analysis of the failure over more than two decades to deal with the genocide, Alfredo Tjiurimo Hengari looks at the changing attitudes of Namibia’s SWAPO-led government and the role of the Namibian media as well as Germany’s evasive political posturing.

One of the most salient and challenging features of the relationship between Namibia and Germany has less to do with formal government-government relations and more to do with how successive German governments have dealt, or not dealt, with the contested colonial past in the former South West Africa at the beginning of the past century. The choices Germany has made with regard to its past in Namibia can be described, at best, as nothing short of failure to come to terms with its violent past. 

However the options available to Germany on this question should not be looked at in isolation. They are shaped by the texture of the bilateral relationship with the Namibian government. Germany’s choices, pointing more toward vacillation and denial, are largely the consequence of the relative indifference and adhockery on the part of the Namibian government in regard to the genocide of the Ovaherero people during 1904–08, including large-scale atrocities against the Namas. For the SWAPO-led government in Namibia, the Ovaherero genocide competes with the type of narratives that should be promoted as part of the official chapter of heroic resistance during colonial times. 

Notwithstanding the international frame of reference accepting the atrocities committed against the Hereros as genocide, official acceptance of such on the part of the German government and the Namibian government has, for several reasons, not been forthcoming. The fact that both the affected groups are minorities has not been helpful either in terms of pushing the issue up the political agenda. 

Whereas both the Namibian and German governments appeared to have opted for a wait and see attitude for more than two decades, hoping that the sense of grievance and demands for reparations and apologies would dissipate quietly, this has not happened. Instead, the demands by the Hereros and Namas have, over the years, taken on various forms, including civil court cases against German companies in American courts in 2001, public marches, and other activities commemorating and instantiating the memory of the genocide and mass killings by Germany. 

If the centenary commemorations of the genocide in 2004 were marked by a public, but not official, apology by Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul, former German minister of cooperation (thus short of full recognition of the genocide), the demands for justice, which originate in a profound sense of grievance, continued to dominate debates among the Ovaherero people. These demands for justice, pursued consistently by the affected communities and sympathisers within Namibia and across the world, reached a zenith last year when, after a protracted process, a delegation of Hereros and Namas travelled to Germany in order to collect and return 20 skulls of colonial victims from the Berlin Medical Historical Museum. What was supposed to be a solemn event at the Charité Hospital, marked by due regard for the families and descendants, turned into controversy, with members of the Namibian delegation accusing the German government of failure to accord the delegation the necessary protocol and respect that should guide such a solemn occasion in memory of those who had lost their lives. The indifferent treatment ranged from the German government sending Cornelia Pieper, only minister of state at the federal foreign office, to mark the official ceremony. Worse, Pieper disrespectfully left the hall before the leader of the Namibian delegation the Minister of Sport, Youth and Culture Kazenambo Kazenambo could deliver his speech. 

On the part of the German government, political posturing, in which attempts by affected communities to come to terms with the past are relegated as a non-issue, is deliberate. To relegate such events to deputy ministers allows the German government to avoid international media publicity about another dark chapter of its murky past in its former colony. However, the motion by the party (Die Linke) during the first week of March 2012 demanding federal recognition of the genocide provides a flashpoint whose consequences, in terms of how the issue clarifies (or not) in Germany and in Namibia, remain uncertain. 

Be that as it may, the return of the skulls to Namibian soil ought to have been the beginning of a process of healing relations between communities in Namibia, particularly between the small German-speaking community and those who suffered at the hands of colonial Germany. In this regard, three preliminary observations have to be made with regard to the return of the skulls. 

First, to a certain degree, by according the return of the skulls a state ceremony addressed by Head of State Hifikepunye Pohamba, the Namibian government, through this gesture, sent an important signal that it was potentially opening a new front in its engagement with Germany on the demands by the affected communities. 

Second, it was also a signal that the government was including this part of Namibian history in the official narrative of what has been otherwise a very selective historiography, reserved mainly for the liberation history of the ruling party, SWAPO. Even if it is not the role of governments to write history, a new chapter in normalising this part of Namibian history (alongside other historical chapters) is emerging. 

Third, and perhaps more importantly, it was also an indication from the Namibian government to the affected communities that its approach would be more caring and more fraternal toward their grievances with Germany. To this end, it deserves mention that a minor shift has occurred, with the rhetoric on the part of senior government officials having become more circumspect and calling for more restraint and sensitivity with regard to the question of the genocide and how Germany deals with the affected communities. The change in approach on the part of government, in all likelihood facilitated by the return of the skulls, should serve as a catalyst in obliging the German government to deal with its blood-drenched past in Namibia with due consideration to the sensitivities of the affected communities.  

If the return of the skulls was supposed to be an occasion to foster a more united people in the form of a unifying history, the opposite has been truer. Contrary to reports in international media, including in Germany (Der Spiegel) and the United Kingdom (Reuters and The Guardian), reporting in the Namibian media had been scant and pedestrian, without searing analyses, focusing largely on the controversies around the return of the skulls, and less on the historical, political and moral significance of the event. Bar a few exceptions, media concerns in Namibia focused largely on mundane issues, such as cost and the size of the delegation that went to Germany. In doing so, the local media avoided any serious grounding of the issue in terms of its moral, historical and political significance for Namibia and the affected communities. 

In light of this, the national debate following the return of the skulls to Namibia did not translate into a period of collective reflection and coming collectively to terms with Germany’s violent chapter in Namibia. It did not allow Namibians to measure the gravity of the crimes Germany committed against the Hereros and Namas. Instead, what has emerged is the hardening of relations between various communities with, among others, commentary and letters of denial of the genocide in the Allgemeine Zeitung, the local German-language newspaper. The absence of sensitivity to these issues, and the pedestrian approach of both the German and Namibian governments, suggests that the grievances of the Hereros and Namas will remain a festering wound, whose consequences are difficult to contemplate.

Alfredo Tjiurimo Hengari is a PhD-fellow in political science and researcher at the Center for Political Research at the University of Paris, Panthéon-Sorbonne, and currently a guest lecturer in European Studies at Rouen Business School, France.

Picture: The Namibian delegation who went to collect the skulls in Germany were welcomed by thousands of people at the Hosea Kutako International Airport outside Windhoek.

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