How to pay for genocide: Namibian victims of German colonialism want a say

For years, the Nama and Herero rallied for recognition and redress of systemic violence. When Namibia and Germany reached an agreement, however, they were excluded.

The Nama and Ovaherero Genocide Moemorial site on the Shark Island peninsula near Luderiz, Namibia
The Nama and Ovaherero Genocide Memorial site on the Shark Island peninsula near Luderiz, Namibia, is seen in this April 24, 2023 image [File: Hildegard Titus/AFP]

Berlin, Germany – South of Berlin, the expansive Treptower Park stretches out alongside the Spree river – an oasis of tranquillity in an otherwise restless city. On a recent Saturday, small groups of people strolled along the paths, and on the river, a boat fitted with a jacuzzi floated lazily by. Towering trees, a combination of rust browns, greens and yellows against a grey sky, shook off tired leaves that carpeted the ground.

The park, idyllic now, belies a dark past. Some 127 years ago, dozens of people pried away from their homes, were displayed in ethnological expositions or “human zoos” here and in other parts of the city to signal Germany’s entry into the colonial venture. Some of those exhibited were from colonies in South, East, and West Africa where violence was crucial to keeping the occupation in place.

In southwest Africa, German settlers were pushing Indigenous people off their lands. When two ethnic groups rebelled and fought back, the Schutztruppe – or colonial guards – responded with such brute force that they almost wiped them out entirely. The massacre of the Nama and Herero peoples between 1904-1908, now in present-day Namibia, is widely recognised as an intentional extermination attempt.

In May 2021, three years after the German government formally apologised for the massacres, the country announced a framework to address the tragedy. The scheme would see Namibia get 1.1 billion euros ($1.2bn) in “development aid”, with 50 million euros ($54m) set aside for research, remembrance and reconciliation projects, with the rest marked for the development of affected descendants’ communities.

“Germany asks for forgiveness for the sins of their forefathers,” the Joint Declaration issued by the German and Namibian authorities read, and “the Namibian Government and people accept Germany’s apology.”

The agreement was supposed to be a win-win. Germany would atone for its bloody crimes and Namibia would get needed funding. But for the surviving communities, it was a betrayal. Protests broke out in the Namibian capital, Windhoek, as people vehemently opposed the agreement, saying it was dictated by Germany.

“I think the first response of the community was just total shock – so violent, so cruel, that what it (the declaration) did was re-traumatise us again,” says Sima Luipert, an adviser to the Nama Traditional Leaders Association (NTLA). Luipert, like many in the affected communities, says recognised members of the Nama and Herero were not present at the table and that the two governments were forcing the agreement upon them.

“This was not a trilateral process. It was a bilateral process, so the document defeats its purpose and it lacks legitimacy because the legitimate people are not at the table,” Luipert says.

The case underscores the challenges of righting historical injustices in ways that are acceptable to, and inclusive of the very people who were wronged.

In January, lawyers representing the survivor communities sued Namibian authorities at the high court in Windhoek, urging the court to declare the agreement unlawful and thus, invalid. The suit is one of the rare cases globally – perhaps the only one – in which a court in a former colony passes judgement on the colonial power that ruled it. Although directly binding only on Namibia, the top court’s judgement could derail Germany’s attempts to rid itself of decades of colonial guilt by forbidding Windhoek from receiving those funds.

Almost a year after it was filed though, the suit is frozen in “Status Hearing” – legal speak for a case suspended so the prosecuting party can gather more documents and draw a road map for its arguments. There have been no trials or seatings and Germany has so far disregarded the suit, promising instead to press on with its plans.

Patrick Kauta, the lawyer who filed the suit, did not respond to Al Jazeera’s requests for comment.

Namibia protest
People hold banners as they stage a protest in Windhoek, Namibia, over colonial-era reparations on Friday, May 28, 2021 [File: Sonja Smith/AP Photo].

Carrying a painful history

The arid southwest African region was home first to the San, then later, to the cattle-farming Herero and Nama people as far back as the 16th century. This was some 400 years before German missionaries came and before German settlers started acquiring land from Indigenous chiefs there. Following the partition of Africa by European powers in the 1885 Berlin Conference, Germany officially laid claim to the area.

As settlers and colonists continued to descend on the region, enthralled by the prospects of diamonds they would later discover, they restricted the Indigenous nations to “reserves”, confiscating their land and cattle despite their resistance.

In January 1904, the Herero staged a stunning revolt and invaded Okahandja – one of the biggest German settlements and the heart of Hereroland. Mounted on horses, they killed dozens of settlers and torched their homes, according to one account. The war raged for months, spreading to other cities. The Nama also joined the battle alongside the Herero, despite previous rivalry.

Although the war favoured them at first, the revolters ultimately faced defeat. People died in their thousands, some driven into British territory in present-day Botswana and South Africa.

Yet, when they signalled peace by heeding calls to assemble in certain locations from the well-trusted German missionaries who arrived way ahead of the colonialists, the German soldiers would not let up. On October 2, 1904, German military commander General Lothar von Trotha issued a chilling call to his troops: “…every Herero, with or without a gun, with or without cattle, will be shot. I will no longer accept women and children, I will drive them back to their people or I will let them be shot at.”

German troops – numbering about 1,500 under the command of von Trotha – encircled the weakened fighters and forced them into the desert, the waterless Omaheke region, trapping them, Herero descendant Laidlaw Peringanda, who heads the Namibian Genocide Association (NGA), says. When those fleeing dug wells, the Germans snuck up and poisoned the water. Survivors of the thirst and slaughter – including those who listened to the missionaries and peacefully assembled – were then rounded up and forced into concentration camps.

In the camps, women pulled ropes tied to train cars with their bare hands. Often, they were raped and hung naked from trees. Insubordination, for men, meant firing squads. The colonialists would also force the women to scrape the skin off corpses so their skulls could be sent to Germany. Cultural artefacts were looted.

“They rented out the women to German companies and German settlers who would pay the German administration and not the workers,” Luipert says. Her own great-grandmother was “rented” to a settler who violently abused her and got her pregnant.

By the time the camps were shut in 1908, about 80 percent of the 90,000 Hereros, and about half of the 20,000 Nama population, had perished. Some 100,000 people were killed in total.

Some historians link the atrocities of that war to the methods later used in the mass extermination of European Jews: the death camps in Shark Island, Swakopmund and Windhoek were similar to the concentration camps in Europe. Medical experiments  – now discredited – were also done on the remains of Nama and Herero people during the Holocaust, to show the supposed racial superiority of whites.

Skulls and skin fragments from Namibia and other former German colonies are still kept in museums, hospitals and universities across Germany. In 2018, German authorities handed over 19 skulls, five full skeletons, as well as bone and skin fragments to Namibian descendants in a ceremony in Berlin.

Namibia memorial
A boy jogs past a memorial paying tribute to the victims of the alleged genocide committed by German forces against Herero and Nama people in 1904, on June 20, 2017, in Windhoek, Namibia [File: Gianluigi Guercia/AFP]

A legacy of landlessness

Generations later, the affected communities are still reeling from the effects of German colonisation, and the question of land is perhaps the sorest issue of all.

As a child, Peringanda listened to his great-grandmother describe what happened to their family wealth. Theirs was a powerful Herero family before the genocide started in 1904, he says, but after they were forced into labour, the German occupiers announced decrees that assigned all communal land belonging to the two ethnic groups to settlers. Peringanda’s family lands in the region of Otjozondjupa, as well as thousands of cattle, were gone.

“Till today, I know the family that took over this land,” says Peringanda, of the NGA. He has tried to petition the family, Namibian authorities, as well as the German government, he says, but to no avail.

“They said there’s no evidence that we had the land, but I have all the evidence,” Peringanda says. Missionary Carl Hugo Hahn, who led missions into South West Africa at the time, documented the lives of the population. One of those he wrote about was the great Herero chief Mungunda wo Otjombuindja – Peringanda’s great-grandfather. “Hahn wrote that Chief Mungunda was a wealthy man who owned over 20,000 cattle and (that) he controlled the area between Okahandja, Omaruru and Otjimbingwe,” the activist added.

The life of Kambazembi wa Kangombe, too, the Herero chief who lived around the Waterberg area – which the Hereros would later lose to the Germans – and who fiercely opposed selling communal land to settlers, is well documented. Kangombe, Peringanda says, was his uncle.

German descendants now occupy thousands of acres belonging to his forebears and claim to have legally bought them, but neither those occupiers, nor the German authorities Peringanda has written to, have provided any evidence of a sale.

“The descendants of the white settlers continue to live in mansions while the descendants of the enslaved people live in informal settlements here,” says Peringanda.

Although it’s a middle-income country, Namibia is also one of the most unequal countries in the world.

Today, German Namibians make up 2 percent of Namibia’s 2.5 million population but own about 70 percent of the country’s land, most of it used for agriculture. Multiple state-led efforts to legally restore ancestral land to Indigenous peoples by buying land from private farmers have only partially succeeded because it has proven too expensive for the state. Although the Namibian government sought to transfer 43 percent (15 million hectares) of its total arable land to landless communities by 2020, it has only succeeded in acquiring about three million hectares.

Inequalities extend to remembrance, too. In “Little Germany”, as the seaside resort city of Swakopmund is sometimes called, owing to its German population and architecture, monuments carry the names of colonial soldiers who put down the rebellion. But the concentration camps where thousands of Herero and Nama people perished have turned to campsites, and the unmarked, shallow graves of those killed in the genocide are falling apart, the mounds of sands shifting often to reveal human remains.

It’s why Peringanda founded the Swakopmund Genocide Museum in 2015, and why he makes a quarterly pilgrimage to the unmarked graves.

“Four times a year we take a shovel and restore the grave and cover the remains with sand,” Peringanda says. When he does it, he says he feels an overpowering sense of loss. “The first time I went, I fainted,” he said.

Imperial Germany also severely exploited the former colony economically, experts say. After the war, Germans discovered diamonds in the area in 1908 and proceeded to mine so much of the mineral that they engineered a worldwide culture of using diamonds to profess love. At the height of the trade, the German empire controlled 30 percent of the world’s diamonds.

“Many of the property and mining ownership rights drawn up by German colonial authorities are still in place in today’s postcolonial Namibia,” says Steven Press, an author and Stanford University history researcher. And contracts, in the past or today, “do not include any mechanism for Nama, in particular, to partake of the wealth that was located on their land”, he adds.

Following Germany’s defeat in World War I, German South West Africa was placed under the control of British-occupied South Africa, which proceeded to entrench its own apartheid system in a region already ripe with inequalities. The Hereros and Namas, for one, remained on reserves as South African occupiers transferred Dutch settlers to the area’s most fertile lands.

Activists like Peringanda hope that by reworking a reparations framework, German and Namibian governments might adequately tackle the land issue. The declaration agreement mentions land reform and notes that “a separate and unique reconstruction and development support programme will be set up”.

There is palpable dissatisfaction within youths in disadvantaged and survivor communities who see the stark inequalities in their country as holding them back, Peringanda says. He wants the German government to buy back the disputed land and redistribute it to his people. The amount already bought back by the Namibian government is not nearly enough for Peringanda. Although the controversial Joint Declaration addresses “land acquisition,” it does not lay out specifics.

“We want back all our ancestral land,” Peringanda says. Delay, he warns, could spell trouble.

“We fear that there might be a revolt and people will be forced to seize land,” he says. “Before that happens, we need to go back to the drawing board and start the talks again.”

The Nama and Ovaherero Genocide Moemorial site on the Shark Island peninsula near Luderiz, Namibia
The Nama and Ovaherero Genocide Memorial site on the Shark Island peninsula near Luderitz, Namibia [Hildegard Titus/AFP]

Reparation talks without the victims

Attempts to start a reparations process go as far back as 2006 in the Namibian parliament [PDF], although official talks with Germany began in 2015.

Herero and Nama leaders had long pushed for a holistic reparations framework that would include recognition of the massacre as a genocide by Germany, direct compensation for generational economic loss to their communities, land transfers, and crucially, full participation in the process.

Namibian authorities initially stood as advisers to the survivor communities, but things changed once those official talks started. Until May 2021, when Germany released the Joint Declaration, community leaders were not involved in the proceedings, Luipert says, even though they had protested from the start.

“Nama leaders were approached individually by the vice presidency,” Luipert says. “But they made it very clear that they would not accept a situation where the negotiations would be between the two governments. They made it clear that they will see the Namibian government as a rightful facilitator, but the Namibian government insisted it will represent (us) legally.”

By sidelining them, the two governments violated international law, according to the European Council on Human Rights. “Indigenous people’s right to adequate participation, and the collective human rights to free, prior and informed consent and to freely choose a group’s representatives have become part of customary international law … enshrined in the United Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), and laid out in core human rights treaties, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (ICERD),” a statement from the organisation read.

Separate from the matter of inclusion is the wording of the declaration itself, the movement’s leaders say. Nowhere is “reparations” officially mentioned, but rather, the document describes the funds from Germany as “grants”. “Germany accepts a moral, historical and political obligation … in events that, from today’s perspective, would be called genocide,” the document reads, omitting a legal obligation to address the injustice.

The wording implies that Germany is giving compensation of its own free will rather than taking part in a process of redress, says Karina Theurer, a Berlin-based lawyer who was instrumental in helping to file the Namibian high court case in January as an adviser to the communities.

Contrary to its stance now, Berlin, in addressing its more recent – and much better-known – dark past, has paid some 80 billion euros ($87.5bn) in reparations to Israel, including 29 billion euros ($31.7bn) directly paid to victims and descendants of the Holocaust when six million Jews were systematically murdered.

Germany has so far refused to accept a similar approach towards the Nama and Herero people.

“It’s a white saviour thing,” Theurer tells Al Jazeera. “Using the term ‘legal’ obligation makes a difference because ‘moral’ obligation implies that you’re receiving something out of the goodwill of the person who wronged you, which is not a nice position if you are the victim.”

German authorities have said there were representatives of the two ethnic groups present at the talks, although activists say those people were not recognised traditional leaders and could not speak for all Hereros and Namas. The German parliament in March also noted in a statement that “in the absence of a legal basis, there would be no individual or collective compensation claims of individual descendants of victim groups such as the Hereros or Namas.”

In a separate, unsuccessful court case brought by activists from the affected communities in the United States in 2017, Germany’s lawyers argued that the country did not commit genocide, because as of 1908 the Genocide Convention did not exist. Some laws set minimum standards for war in Europe at the time, but the Namas and Hereros were not regarded as needing protection.

“That in itself is shocking,” says Luipert. “What Germany is saying is that at the time we committed these atrocities, you had no legal standing and therefore, we could kill you. That says to me that Germany does not feel any remorse but is just trying to soothe its ego and lessen its own guilt. It does not want to accept the extent of damage but it wants to sugarcoat it with development aid. The entire document is racist (and) it is very shocking that our own government would allow this to happen.”

After the declaration was published in May 2021, the affected communities got to work on a legal intervention. With the assistance of Theurer, they wrote to United Nations special rapporteurs on reparations and Indigenous people’s rights, urging them to take action. And then in January, they sued the Namibian government in the Windhoek high court.

The international pressure worked. In February, UN rapporteurs wrote to the German and Namibian governments, urging them to discard the agreement and restart the talks with the communities adequately represented.

Although Namibia’s high court has not yet deliberated on the case, and although that judgement, when it comes, is not binding on Germany but only on Namibia, ultimately, the goal of forcing a pause on the transfers of those “grants” has been momentarily accomplished, Theurer says.

For the Herero and Nama groups, blocking the release of funds from Berlin to Windhoek gives them vital additional time to draw more international attention to their plight, and eventually, create an atmosphere where both Namibian and German authorities, they hope, will have no choice but to agree to a whole new process. This time, with the two groups right at the heart of it.

Decolonial Tours in Berlin
Justice Lufuma, first from right, talks to a group of tourists in Berlin’s African Quarter, once marked as a permanent zoo and human exhibition centre [Aimé Mvemba/Decolonial Tours]

‘Not just about money’

Even as the fight for reparations continues, Nama and Herero leaders say their struggle is about much more than financial compensation. The focus on just that by the Namibian and German governments is insensitive and unjust, they say.

“I find this obsession with the amount to be patronising, that you can dangle this carrot to these African minority Indigenous people (and) they should be happy with it because they are so poor,” says Luipert. The cruelties their ancestors witnessed and the trauma that generations continue to carry today, can never be adequately priced, she says.

“No amount of money can ever wholly repair the damage that has been done,” Luipert adds. “It’s about recognition. Germany will only recognise us when it sits with us at the table.

“It will be like a mirror reflecting back to Germany what it has done. Germany is afraid to look into that mirror because it will see the monstrosity of what it has done. The collective German psyche is not ready.”

Rights experts say new negotiations could encompass a truth and reconciliation mission, where the emphasis would be on inclusive dialogue. “It could be chaired by leading decolonial scholars and experts on gender-based crimes,” the ECCHR suggests in its statement. “Members of Namibian civil society and self-elected representatives of affected communities must be able to participate … the testimony could become a living memorial in remembrance to the past, and a resilient departure point for the future.”

Back in Germany, the story of the Namas and Hereros is not well known in history, although colonial legacies are still visible in the country, especially in Berlin’s African Quarter. The quiet residential area with pastel-coloured buildings had been marked by imperial authorities for a permanent human exhibition, before World War I halted those plans.

On a Sunday in late October, tour guide Justice Lufuma Mvemba points out street signs honouring colonial resistance. There’s Cornelius Fredericks Street, named after a Nama leader in the uprising. Maji Maji Lane pays tribute to another revolt in German East Africa, present-day Tanzania, where another brutal colonial system was in place.

“There’s a lack of awareness because these things are not taught in schools,” Mvemba says. It’s why she founded Decolonial Tours, where she and a team of young guides take people around parts of Berlin that are most connected to Germany’s unsavoury colonial past. “What stands out for me is the violence that was used in these colonies. People are not very aware here. I’ve had a woman cry on my tour saying I’m trying to make her feel bad because of the history I was talking about,” she says.

In October, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier apologised for the first time on behalf of his country while on an official trip to Tanzania. There, too, families are still waiting for the remains of their loved ones to be returned and calls for reparations have become louder. Now, both governments have agreed to open negotiations, following the Namibian example.

For Luipert, Germany’s eagerness to begin talks with Tanzania seems like a desperate attempt to be a pacesetter for cleaning up colonial crimes. Yet, the fact that Germany still has no legal framework to address its colonial past, she adds, and the fact that it is not close to properly addressing the Herero and Nama people means it has neither credibility nor an example that it can cite to show how it would genuinely atone for its historical crimes.

“We advise the people of Tanzania to learn from Germany’s pathetic failure in Namibia,” Luipert says. “It gropes at whatever it can find to appear as a white saviour and redeemer. What example does Germany want to display to Tanzania?”

Source: Al Jazeera