Namibia’s Ovaherero, Nama slam exclusion from Germany deal

Affected communities in Namibia reject an agreement that saw Germany formally recognise colonial-era massacres as genocide, say true reconciliation will not be achieved without their participation.

A photo taken during the 1904-1908 genocide in Namibia shows men in chains
This undated file photo taken during the 1904-08 war of Germany against Ovaherero and Nama in Namibia shows a soldier, right, probably belonging to the German military, supervising Namibian war prisoners [File: National Archives of Namibia/AFP]

Windhoek, Namibia – The news left Laidlaw Peringanda angry and disappointed.

“If the German government wants to reconcile, they need to give us our dignity back,” said the 47-year-old. “But that can’t happen as long as they are excluding us.”

Peringanda, the chairperson of the Namibian Genocide Association, was referring to Germany’s announcement last week that it would acknowledge the colonial era massacres against the Ovaherero and Nama people in modern-day Namibia as genocide.

Historians typically accept that up to 65,000 of the 80,000 Ovaherero and at least 10,000 of the 20,000 Nama were killed by German settlers between 1904 and 1908 after members of the groups rebelled against colonial rule in what was then known as German South West Africa.

After years of negotiations with the Namibian government, Germany on Friday also pledged $1.3bn in financial aid over a 30-year period, with the funds to go to development projects, including rural infrastructure and energy and water supply.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said his country was asking for “forgiveness” from Namibia and the victims’ descendants, while the Namibian government welcomed Germany’s acceptance of the atrocities as genocide as a vital step in the process towards reconciliation and reparation.

But descendants of the affected communities rejected the text of a “joint declaration”, which omitted the word “reparation”, and they said true reconciliation could not be achieved without their inclusion in the negotiations.

“We are also worried that the social projects proposed by the German government won’t actually benefit us,” Peringanda, a descendant himself, told Al Jazeera. “If they are not including us in the negotiations, how will they suddenly involve us when it comes to these projects?” he asked, emphasising the ongoing suffering of his community.

“We have lost our ancestral land. A lot of us, of our community, live in poverty today. Some of us live in shacks and have to go without eating for a week. A lot of us inherited transgenerational trauma.”

‘They don’t see us’

The Ovaherero Genocide Foundation, the Ovaherero Traditional Authority and the Nama Traditional Leaders Association, meanwhile, started an online petition, demanding that reparations be paid to the descendants of the victim communities directly.

“We demand that Germany accepts its responsibility towards the genocide also according to international law,” read the petition, rejecting the “reconciliation agreement” as “a Public Relations coup by Germany and an act of betrayal by the Namibian Government”.

The Council of Chiefs, a body representing the Ovaherero and Nama people, also called for the renegotiation of the agreement with a focus on increasing the financial amount offered by Germany.

Sima Luipert, a Nama activist and descendant of a genocide survivor, feels as though “the lack of respect continues the dehumanising of the Nama people”.

For her, the exclusion of the affected communities reinforced colonial tropes of not seeing Ovaherero and Nama as equals.

“The German government is objectifying people that they committed a genocide against because they don’t see us,” the 52-year-old said.

“It is because they don’t see us, that they don’t want to talk to us. So what kind of reconciliation are you expecting when you don’t actually see these people as human beings, who have the right to speak for themselves?”

‘A stepping stone’

The declaration is expected to be signed by Maas in the Namibian capital, Windhoek, during a visit later this month before being ratified by parliaments in both countries.

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier is then expected to officially apologise during a speech in the Namibian Parliament, but some members of the Herero and Nama communities have announced their unwillingness to attend the event if the reconciliation agreement is not reviewed.

Ottmar von Holtz, a German politician who was born in Namibia himself, said he believed the agreement between the two governments is a “first step in a long reconciliation process”.

“While Germany recognising the genocide and finally calling it as such is a big stepping stone, true reconciliation can only be realised when the criticism of the Ovaherero and Nama people is taking seriously,” said the Green politician.

Despite this, von Holtz still deemed the agreement to be “a historical step towards the reckoning of Germany with its colonial past”.

Historian Jurgen Zimmerer shared a similar view: “This is a fundamental step for all of Europe, permanently inscribing the structural-racist system of colonialism into the official culture of remembrance of Germany and Europe.”

But, it could be an “irreparable loss of reputation” if demonstrations were held and Ovaherero and Nama deputies were to leave the room during Steinmeier’s apology speech.

Henning Melber, a senior research associate with the Nordic Africa Institute in Uppsala who immigrated to Namibia at a young age with his parents, pointed out that the promise of $1.3bn in development projects “is about the same amount Germany had spent the last 30 years on development cooperation with Namibia”.

He said: “While this development cooperation will continue and the compensation fund is added, it is putting in perspective indeed a ‘gesture of recognition’, meaning rather tokenism than a sign of true remorse.”

Source: Al Jazeera