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Reflections on the genocide reparations agreement between Germany and Namibia



Bayron van Wyk,

Namibian activists like Esther Muinjangue protest against the inadequate processing of the German genocide against the Ovaherero and Nama during the return of human remains to Namibia, 29 August 2018, Berlin. Photo: picture alliance / AA | Abdulhamid Hosbas

On 2 October 1904, on a small hilltop in the Otjinene area in central Namibia, General Lothar von Trotha read out his infamous extermination order targeting the Ovaherero, calling on his troops to shoot “any Herero found within the German border, with or without a gun, with or without cattle.” In the following year, a similar order was issued that targeted the Nama. Concentration camps were established, where the Ovaherero and Nama were forced to work for their German colonial masters.

Bayron van Wyk holds a Bachelor of Arts (hons.) in History and currently a Masters student in Anthropology at the University of the Western Cape (UWC) in South Africa. His thesis research explores memory activism by the genocide reparations committees in southern Namibia.

One such camp was Shark Island, also known as the “Island of Death” (due to its high death rates) along Lüderitz Bay(!Nami≠Nüs). Many similar camps existed in Windhoek and Swakopmund. In an additional and equally gruesome act, the bodies of the victims of these genocides were collected and shipped to Germany for use in pseudo-scientific experiments.

More than 117 years later, on the weekend of 28 May 2021, the international media buzzed with reports that the German and Namibian governments had successfully concluded their negotiations on genocide reparations. Since mid-2015, the two governments had been involved in secret, closed-door negotiations over what has been dubbed“Germany’s first genocide”.

Rectifying Past Wrongs

At independence in 1990, Namibia implemented a policy of national reconciliation with the aim of confronting its difficult colonial past. For more than a century, black Namibians were subjected to colonial subjugation and exploitation, as outlined above, by the German Reich from 1884 to 1915, by South African rule from 1915 to 1990 that forcefully exerted control over their lands, and by apartheid from 1945 to 1990. The policy of national reconciliation was supposed to remedy the conditions caused by over one century of subjugation.

This was, however, not the case, and the Namibian government decided on a policy framework that resembled the old hierarchies of colonialism and apartheid. That is, there was no broad public involvement in this process. Instead, the Namibian government preferred a top-down approach when dealing with issues related to Namibia’s colonial past. This was potently expressed in the speeches of the founding President, Sam Nujoma, in the first decade of national independence. In practice, it meant that the vast majority of land, a primary source of wealth for traditional tribal communities in Namibia, would remain in the hands of a small but influential white minority. Post-independence land redistribution programmes, a critical component of national reconciliation, have done little to change this situation.

Many activists at the time opposed this form of reconciliation and wanted Namibia to follow a similar path to South Africa. While initially emerging from apartheid rule in 1994, South Africa established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) to initiate discussions on the crimes of the apartheid regime. Many witnesses who suffered under apartheid rule gave testimonies, while the regime’s leading figures were put on trial and subsequently granted amnesty for their crimes. The TRC has been criticized for not addressing the many injustices perpetuated by the apartheid system. Although the TRC allowed for broader social engagement with the past, many legacies of apartheid still remain unresolved, including the issue of land ownership, much like in Namibia.

With the ruling SWAPO Party itself having been accused of committing human rights violations during the country’s liberation struggle, activists’ lobbying efforts were, however, futile. The Namibian government refused a more deep-rooted approach to addressing issues related to Namibia’s colonial past. Therefore, former colonial-era crimes perpetrated by colonial Germany, apartheid South Africa, and even the SWAPO Party were quietly swept under the rug.

That changed in the mid-1990s when Ovaherero and Nama activists came to the fore to demand justice for the crimes committed against their ancestors during the German colonial period. They specifically made demands for an apology and genocide reparations from Germany. Their refusal to let bygones be bygones, or to forgive and forget, has forced both the Namibian and German governments to step up their efforts at reconciliation. The genocide reparations agreement certainly epitomizes this. However, even though the agreement is a step forward from previous attempts at reconciliation, it is still fraught with many difficulties. Many of the communities, i.e. is the descendants of the victims of the genocide, have condemned the genocide reparations negotiations for having failed to incorporate their views on reconciliation.

The Struggle for Restorative Justice Begins

In the years following independence from apartheid South African rule, a struggle over restorative justice ensued. It started with the early, prominent campaign of the late Kuiama Riruako, the Paramount Chief of the Ovaherero. Riruako and his followers organized protests during the first official visits of high-ranking German officials, namely the then Chancellor Helmut Kohl and the then President Roman Herzog. They called on the German government to acknowledge, apologize, and pay reparations to the Ovaherero community. Unsurprisingly, the German government refused, prompting Riruako to launch a court case against the German government and private companies for their involvement in colonial genocide.

Demands for genocide reparations intensified with the centennial commemorations of colonial war and genocide in 2004, 2005, and 2007. In 2004, Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul, the German Federal Minister of Economic Cooperation and Development, issued an apology to the Ovaherero at Ohamakari. However, her apology was retracted by the German government.

Later, on 19 September 2006, Riruako introduced his “Reparations Motion” to the Namibian parliament. The motion, which called on the German and Namibian governments to initiate bilateral talks on genocide reparations, was overwhelmingly supported by lawmakers. It would, however, take roughly a decade for official talks between the two governments to begin. The negotiations began in mid-2015, after Germany’s acknowledgement that the events between 1904 and 1908 constituted genocide. The acknowledgement was made by the German Foreign Ministry before the commencement of genocide reparations negotiations between Germany and Namibia.

Equally significant was the return of human remains and cultural objects from Germany to Namibia in 2011, 2014, and 2018, after activism by the communities for the return of these items.

Namibia’s Negotiations Strategy

The German and Namibian governments held nine rounds of negotiations between 2016 and 2021. Long-time diplomat Dr. Zedekia Ngavirue, who sadly succumbed to COVID-19 in Namibia in June 2021, was appointed as Special Envoy and Chief Negotiator of the Namibian government. His German counterpart is Mr. Ruprecht Polenz.

According to a State House media address by Vice-President Nangolo Mbumba, seven consultative meetings were held between Dr. Ngavirue and Traditional Leaders, which were “fully incorporated in the negotiations.” These consultations, however, excluded the Ovaherero Traditional Authority (OTA) and Nama Traditional Leaders Association (NTLA), the main representatives of the concerned communities, who excluded themselves from the negotiations over concerns that they would play a less meaningful role in the process, meaning that the Namibian government negotiated on their behalf. Refusing to be mere spectators in the negotiations, the government’s initial proposal to incorporate the communities in a purely consultative role was rejected by the two groups.

Instead, they called for the communities to play a more decisive role in the negotiations. Moreover, they wanted to be seated at the negotiating table with the German government. However, from the start of negotiations there has been no attempt at taking seriously the concerns of the communities. The German government refuses to engage with the communities directly and insists on state-to-state negotiations, despite having negotiated with the Israeli government and several other smaller Jewish organizations in the 1950s. The Namibian government regards itself as the main representative of the Namibian people and therefore, argues that there is no need to include the communities as active participants in the negotiations, other than through consultation.

This has a lot to do with a United Nations declaration in 1976, which recognized the SWAPO Party as the “sole and authentic representative of the Namibian people”, and effectively gave it a monopoly over Namibia’s protracted independence negotiations, while overlooking other participants, amongst others, the SWANU Party, Namibia’s oldest political party. At independence, the SWAPO Party sought to build the state along party lines, regarding itself as the main liberators of the country. Thus, blurring the line between the Party and State.

Some representatives, however, from smaller Ovaherero Royal Houses and Nama traditional groups have accepted the Namibian government’s proposal to be consulted and have since been included in government structures for the negotiations. These groups include the Zeraua, Maharero, and Kambazembi Royal Houses. For the Nama, they are the Vaalgras, !Aman, and /Hai-/Khaua of Berseba. Together, these groups make up the Chief’s Forum, which was formally constituted by the government and held eight consultative sessions, supported by a Technical Committee led by Judge Tonata Emvula to advise on matters of research, history, and economy. A Cabinet Committee was also established by the Office of the Vice President.

Without giving any further details on the negotiation process, Mbumba acknowledged that the German government’s offer of 1.1 billion euro (18 billion Namibian dollars) in reparations given over 30 years was a far cry from what Namibia wanted. The negotiating team initially submitted a claim of 70 billion euro (1.1 trillion Namibian dollars), calculating the loss of life, livelihoods, and land for the communities. Germany put forward a counteroffer of a meagre 289 million euro, calling it a “special” compensation for “the healing of wounds” and not reparations for genocide. Germany’s second offer was slightly higher at 300 million euro, while the third of 700 million included an additional offer of 780 million euro in the form of development loans.

All of these offers were, however, rejected by the Namibian government, which eventually forced Germany to offer 1.1 billion. The Namibian government agreed to this sum after Germany’s offer to fund land reform. An apology by the German Federal President, Frank-Walter-Steinmeier will also be issued in the Namibian parliament. All of this was agreed upon between the German and Namibian governments in their “joint declaration”.

Not Enough, But Better than Nothing

Mbumba stressed that they were “not proud of the amount” but that “negotiators did the best under present conditions.” He also emphasized that the current offer includes the German government’s paying for Namibia’s expensive land reform programme.

At the start of independence, the Namibian government passed a controversial “willing buyer, willing seller” policy for land redistribution, giving the state the first refusal on land for sale. An amount of 540 million euro from the reparations package has been earmarked for this purpose. Yet the policy has been criticized for the slow pace at which land redistribution has occurred. Similarly, there is the contentious National Resettlement Policy (a critical component of land redistribution).

Many opposition leaders accuse the government of disproportionately selecting families from Namibia’s northern regions as beneficiaries. These families were spared many of the horrors of settler-colonialism, including large-scale dispossession of land. It is still not clear how the redistribution of land to the Ovaherero and Nama communities will take place, especially as Namibia’s Second National Land Conference in 2018, recognized ancestral claims to land. A Commission of Inquiry into Claims of Ancestral Land was subsequently established by President Hage Geingob and in mid-2020 and a report was submitted to the Office of the Presidency. However, it is still to be tabled in the Namibian parliament and to be proclaimed as law.

Moreover, 100 million euro will be used for the construction of rural roads, with another 50 million going to reconciliation, research, and education. Vocational training, renewable energy, and upgrades to rural water supplies and sanitation will also be funded by the programme. These projects will be undertaken in the Kunene, Erongo, Otjozondjupa, Omaheke, Khomas, Hardap and //Karas regions, which have historically been occupied by the Ovaherero and Nama communities.

The German government has been wary of the term “reparations” and insists on labelling them funds for “reconstruction and reconciliation”. In a media briefing, German Federal Minister for Foreign Affairs Heiko Maas referred to the payments as “a gesture of recognition of the immeasurable suffering”, prompting criticism that the funds were actually development aid and not reparations. Germany has been funding development projects in Namibia since independence. In fact, the country receives the highest amount of German aid per capita in Africa.

The Namibian government, on the other hand, insists that this is not the case, citing that “reparations” and “development aid” were treated as two separate issues in the negotiations. Germany, however, still refuse to use the terms reparations. It is widely suspected that this is out of fear that similar claims may emerge from its other former colonies.

Reactions to the Reparations Deal

The genocide reparations deal has been met with a great deal of scepticism and even hostility from some community leaders. When asked about his views by Namibian Sun Evening Review host Mathias Haufiku, the Ovaherero Paramount Chief Vekuii Rukoro, who also succumbed to COVID-19 on 18 July 2021, could not help but register his “utter disappointment” and “shock”, before blasting the genocide reparations deal as an “insult” to the Ovaherero and Nama communities. Rukoro also accused the German government of racism for holding negotiations with the Israeli government and several other Jewish community organizations but refusing to do so in the Namibian case. According to Rukoro, this was because Jews were white, whereas the Ovaherero and Nama are black. On 12 June, Rukoro and Goab PSM Kooper, chairperson of the NTLA, signed the !Hoaxa!nâs-Declaration in the southern town of Hoachanas, rejecting the reparations deal.

Surprisingly, the two groups were also joined in their opposition by other traditional leaders from Zeraeua, Maharero, and Kambazembi Royal Houses, who participated in the negotiations. A press statement by the Royal Houses read: “It has not been known to us how the German government has arrived at their figure of 1.1 billion euro. We request that the envisaged signing ceremony between the German and Namibian governments be postponed to allow for conclusive discussion of the delicate issue of reparations for purposes of restorative justice”.

Instead, the groups proposed that Germany pay 8 trillion Namibian dollars in reparations over 40 years and establish a pension fund for the descendants of victims of the genocide, similar to what was done by the Namibian government for veterans of Namibia’s independence struggle after 1989. The deal’s firm focus on development projects, however, completely rules out any form of individual compensation and excludes many of the Namibian diaspora living in Botswana and South Africa. Ian Khama, the former President of Botswana, has since issued calls for Botswana’s Ovaherero community to be included in Germany’s offer. Mbumba, for his part, stated in no uncertain terms that “how to deal with it is up to Namibians.”

The statement by the Royal Houses is revealing, in that groups who were part of the negotiations and as the supposedly consulted that Mbumba alluded to, were still oblivious as to how an agreement between the two governments on the final amount was reached. This uncertainty brings the whole process of consultations on genocide reparations into question. Why would these groups make an about-turn at the end of the negotiations? Did they perhaps feel that their concerns were not seriously considered by the government during consultations? If that is the case, then it raises serious questions on the effectiveness of consultations with these groups undertaken by the Namibian government, which means then that the OTA and NTLA were justified in their opposition to participation in the consultations.

The opposition from the three Royal House groups, however, does not set out a strategy for integrating its efforts with the OTA. The former still remain very much aligned to government efforts. The OTA and NTLA, on the other hand, continue to demand that their communities be given a greater position in the talks and have decided to petition the United Nations to achieve this.

In the Namibian Parliament, the opposition parties chastised the Namibian government for its deal with Germany. The Chief Whip of the Popular Democratic Movement (PDM), Vipuakuje Muharukua, raised concerns not only around the exclusion of the representatives of traditional leaders but also of members of parliament, noting that parliament lacked a committee to deal specifically with genocide reparations. Consequently, he proposed that the agreement be presented to parliament to be “properly scrutinized” before it is officially ratified by MPs.

The National Unity Democratic Organization (NUDO) and Landless People’s Movement (LPM) representatives, Joseph Kuandenge and Edson Isaacks, rejected the deal, stating that their parties would not be signatories to the agreement. Kuandenge stated that “NUDO rejects with the contempt it deserves the agreement.” Meanwhile, Isaacks described it as “a substandard agreement” and accused the Namibian government of using apartheid tactics for “excluding groups with a deviant view on how the process should be undertaken.”

A Missed Opportunity for Real Change

The Namibian government has also been accused of being forced into the agreement by Germany. Former Minister of Youth National Service Sport and Culture, Kazenambo Kazenambo, who organized the first hand-over of human remains from Germany to Namibia in 2011 and who also sadly passed away on 17 August 2021 due to COVID-19, said that the agreement “sounds like a one-man show, with Germany dictating everything” and suggested that “Germany is treating the Namibian government officials as zombies”. Kazenambo wants fresh negotiations involving Ovaherero and Nama communities and warned that the agreement may lead to renewed civil strife.

The chances of this occurring are quite low. With increased international attention, both governments are under pressure to present a successful agreement. However, the ratification in Parliament should have taken place on 7 September and was postponed for two weeks, likely because of the criticism raised.

Nevertheless, Kazenambo has a point, Namibia needs to tread carefully. It is a fragile society, having newly emerged from more than a century of colonial rule. Namibia is one of the most unequal countries in the world, with a white minority still controlling most of the country’s wealth. The situation is exacerbated by an up-and-coming black elite, with close connections to the SWAPO Party. The vast majority of the population, who is mostly black, is still ravaged by poverty and post-independence socio-economic policies have failed to change their plight.

While the genocide reparations are certainly not the only way to address historic colonial injustices, they are an important step to putting Namibia on a different path towards achieving more social and economic justice. That is why more was needed from the negotiations between Namibia and Germany. There are serious reservations as to whether the agreement in its current form can effectively bring about this change. In fact, it represents a missed opportunity to effectively address the gross injustices perpetuated by colonialism and apartheid.