Resolving genocide essential for Namibia and Germany to heal

Resolving genocide essential for  Namibia and Germany to heal

Imperial Germany was one of the latecomers in acquiring colonies in Africa, and Namibia was selected by them as a settlement colony. Formal German rule over Namibia (Deutsch Sud-Wes Afrika) was declared in 1884-5, but prior to that German missionaries, explorers and merchants were well-established in the south and central parts of the country.

What transpired during 1904-8 was a total genocide that has left deep scars in the communities of Namibia, up to the present day.

In her definitive History of Namibia, Marion Wallace states: ‘The genocidal acts of the Namibian War did not occur accidentally – they were, to quote from the United Nations definition of genocide, ‘committed with intent’.

I would like to recount to you the story of Imperial Germany in Namibia, as experienced by my great-aunt, Maria Inaazombandi Tjihungu. She was a young woman in 1904, when our people confronted the German colonial forces in Okandjira village, Ovitoto area, near Okahandja in central Namibia. On this particular day, the German colonial forces were in pursuit of the resistance, when they were ambushed by the resistance fighters. Quite a number of German officers and men were killed in that battle. In retaliation, the German forces turned the surrounding area upside down, using a scorched earth policy. My great-aunt was injured during one of those battles and left for dead. A nearby missionary family of Germans took her in and nursed her till her recovery.

There has been extensive documentation of the genocide in Namibia. For instance, after they had taken over control of Namibia in 1915, the British Government produced the ‘Blue Book’, which documents German colonial rule in Namibia. This book is a significant contribution in terms of extensively documenting what transpired in Namibia during the period of German colonial rule.

According to various accounts including the Whitaker Report and the British Government Blue Book, it is estimated that 80,000-100,000 indigenous people of Namibia’s Herero, Nama, Damara and San communities were massacred by the German colonial forces in Namibia. The Herero population of approximately 80,000 was reduced to some 15,000 starving refugees.

With the end of German colonial rule in 1915 during the First World War, the territory was placed under the League of Nations mandate, with Britain having an oversight responsibility of its administration and management.

However, this was handed over to the Government of the Union of South Africa to administer on behalf of Britain.
South Africa decided to do so by extending its Apartheid policies to the country and treating it as another province of South Africa, in total defiance of the international community. As we look back on our history, we take note of the fact that, eventually, South African presence in Namibia was declared an illegal occupation, and the rest is history.

The genocide experienced by the people of Namibia was kept away from the rest of the world and nothing could compel German during all these years to be forthcoming about its guilt and how to rectify what was done by the German authorities of the time. Therefore, it was not until Namibia attained its independence that the liberated Namibian people sought to correct the wrongs done against them during the times of oppression, in various fora of the world.

However, Germany continued to be reluctant to officially accept its responsibility or the classification of their actions in Namibia as genocide. In October 2006, the late Kuaima Riruako, the then Paramount Chief of the Ovaherero people, presented a motion on the German genocide in Namibia to the National Assembly of the Republic of Namibia. The motion characterised Germany’s actions in Namibia during the colonial period as amounting to genocide, and demanded an official apology as well as reparations to compensate for these wrongs.

It is essential to note that Chief Riruako consulted other political parties in the National Assembly and this motion was unanimously adopted. Judging from Hansard, the debate on this subject was characterised by a unanimous consensus across the political divide in the House. In 2007, the Speaker of the Namibia National Assembly, then, Dr. Theo-Ben Gurirab, led an all-party delegation of Namibian MPs, including the current President Dr Hage Gottfried Geingob to the German Parliament. This was the first time the idea of a dialogue was muted to deal with the challenges surrounding Namibia and Germany’s past. I was the Ambassador of Namibia to Berlin at that time and I personally took part in the meetings.

These discussions introduced the idea of setting up a Namibia-German Parliamentary Friendship Group. Some circles within German argued that the SADC-German Parliamentary Friendship Group was sufficient but we insisted that the SADC-German friendship outfit could not address the special intricate relationship between Namibia and Germany. However, we finally managed to create the Namibia-German Parliamentary Friendship Group and in 2013, as head of this grouping, I led a delegation to the German Parliament. Both Parliaments and both governments agreed on the need to engage each other on the way forward, without being bogged down in arguments about terminology. Here, I wish to acknowledge and appreciate the positive responses received from most of the political parties represented in the German Parliament on this matter.

In equal measure, I would like to acknowledge the brave attempt by Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul, then German Federal Minister of Economic Cooperation and Development. While on an official visit to Namibia in 2004, during the 100-year anniversary commemoration of the Namibia-German battle of Ohamakari, the Minister indicated that in today’s world, that war would be viewed as genocide. For that, she apologised by citing the Lord’s Prayer, ‘Forgive us our trespasses’.

After the German parliament adopted a resolution in April 2015 recognising the Armenian genocide, the question of genocide in Namibia received renewed attention in Germany. Finally, in July 2015, Germany acknowledged publicly that what transpired in Namibia during German colonial occupation can be classified as genocide. In an article written for the German newspaper “Zeit,” Professor Nobert Lammert, the President of Germany’s parliament, said that anyone who refers to the Turkish massacre of Armenians in 1915 as genocide must also acknowledge that atrocities committed by German imperial troops a decade before in what is now Namibia should also be described as such. He said that, under today’s standards of international law, the crushing of the Herero revolt amounts to genocide and furthermore that, Germany had perpetuated a ‘race war’ in Namibia.

The question of genocide comes along with complicated issues, for instance:
When we are hurt, we need the person who hurt us to acknowledge what he or she has done, in order for us to be able to forgive and to heal and move forward. To date, Namibia as a country is still waiting for an official apology from the German Government; In addition, some scholars have established that recent genetic research appears to show that trauma can be inherited in one’s genetic makeup. Thus, trauma is not just remembered through stories told by one’s parents and grandparents but, rather, it leaves a genetic impact on the descendants of those who have been traumatised; Furthermore, the genocide that occurred in Namibia from 1904 to 1908 has commanded the attention of historians who study complex issues of continuity between this genocide and the Jewish Holocaust.

Some historians have argued that the Namibian genocide set an ideological pattern and a precedent in terms of physical and psychological warfare against particular groups of people. These tactics were later used by Hitler and his troops during the days of Nazi Germany, to commit acts of extermination against the Jewish people.
I am pleased to acknowledge that the Governments of Namibia and Germany are today seriously engaged in negotiations to find an amicable solution to this painful past. Both countries today have appointed dedicated special envoys who are overseeing this important process.

These are two distinguished personalities: Dr Zedekia Ngavirue, a renowned Namibian scholar; and Mr Ruprecht Polenz.

Under discussion are the following: A formal apology to the Namibian people by the German authorities; and a framework under which the German Government will compensate the affected Namibian communities through a comprehensive development programme.

These are complex issues that require commitment and sincerity to address in a conclusive manner. Resolving these issues is essential for both Namibia and Germany to heal the wounds of the past. Professor Reinhart Kössler, a German academic, in his recent book entitled “Namibia and Germany: Negotiating the Past”, acknowledges the fact that it is not only the victims of violence whose dignity and humanity are denied, but those who commit inhuman acts also forfeit their human dignity and indeed, and that both groups require rehabilitation.

The Government and Parliament of Namibia are wholeheartedly committed to finding a lasting solution. It is essential that we regain our heritage through understanding and appreciating events of the past, getting into memory and commemoration. In this regard, the history of Namibia right from the days of colonial occupation, to-date, needs to be properly documented and made available in an appropriate setting such as a genocide memorial centre. This would provide the necessary information to today’s and future generations, and to researchers, scholars and leaders. The main objective of this is to ensure that these kinds of heinous crimes are never repeated again.

• This is an excerpt from the lecture ‘Twentieth Century Namibian Genocide in Perspective’ by Peter Katjavivi, the Speaker of the National Assembly, at the Center for the Studies of Holocaust and Religious Minorities in Oslo, Norway, on 5 March.

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