Addressing Genocide in Namibia

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.

Article Link:https://africasacountry.com/2018/03/addressing-genocide-namibia

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