Publication Africa - Southern Africa Namibia: A Week of Justice

115 years after the genocide of the Ovaherero and Nama peoples



Howard Taylor,


May 2019

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The first genocide of the twentieth century began to unfold 115 years ago in the German colony of South West Africa, today Namibia. Following the issuance of extermination orders, the Ovaherero and Nama peoples were systematically targeted in deadly phases over the course of four years. This culminated in the herding of thousands of people into concentration camps where the majority died through starvation, disease, and exhaustion. Their lands were occupied by German settlers, the descendants of whom by and large continue to own this land. This traumatic history, the effects of which continue to linger in both Germany and Namibia, has not been adequately addressed in either country—despite a long struggle for reparations on the part of the affected communities.

The conference “Namibia—A Week of Justice” organised by a set of German and Namibian organisations[1] was one of the first public conferences in Namibia to address this genocide and its political aftermath 115 years after the fact. The conference brought together legal practitioners and scholars, historians, artists, political scientists, politicians, national and international activists from the affected communities, and wider members of the Namibian public. The organization of the conference was notable for being split into two parts, each with different organizers and different aims. The first part was a public event and those often seen as opposed to the reparations struggle were in attendance, particularly German Namibians and officials from both governments. This allowed for an at times tense but honest debate about topics such as historical facts concerning the genocide and what it means to adequately “come to terms” with this past.

The second part, titled “International Law and Justice in Postcolonial Contexts”, required prior registration and was notable for its emphasis on the affected communities. In a series of small workshops, those in attendance came together to discuss themes such as necessary ingredients for an apology from the German Bundestag, experiences and best practices in different historical contexts, and psychological impact. This allowed for a more intimate discussion between those more closely involved in the reparations struggle and took place without the need to discuss questions such as whether genocide indeed occurred, as was brought to the table at one point in Windhoek.

Throughout the conference certain topics came up repeatedly, topics around which there was much impassioned discussion from different perspectives.

Intergovernmental Negotiations and the New York Court

The Namibian government is currently in negotiations with the German government to find a remedy for the genocide and “systematic generational decay”[2] that it continues to engender in Namibia. Yet these negotiations have not gone smoothly, are taking years, and the entirety of the affected communities is not able to express themselves independently of the Namibian government itself. A significant proportion (though not all) of the Herero and Nama are therefore suing Germany for entry into the negotiations and for damages in New York City. The vast majority of attendees voiced an intense critique of these negotiations and supported the New York court case wholeheartedly. The conference opened with speakers praising the court case for bringing the issue to an international arena, and it closed with highly optimistic words about the court case by Paramount Chief of the OvaHerero Traditional Authority Vekuii Rukoro, who bestowed the two lawyers in attendance, Kenneth McCallion and Michael Lockman, with Herero names. He called for the negotiations to end and for the Namibian government to instead join the reparations struggle of those suing in New York. The lawyers in the case argued that the case would almost certainly win upon appeal, and explained the possibility of utilizing a concept of “bone jurisdiction” to establish US courts as a suitable forum. They therefore provided a deeply hopeful message concerning the possibility of US courts dealing with colonial-era crimes committed by another country.

The legal scholars present, however, were somewhat more sceptical of using legal avenues to pursue reparatory justice. Vesuki Nesiah introduced attendees to the theoretical school of Third World Approaches to International Law, which is “very suspicious of international law” seeing it not as a solution but rather a major part of the problem when it comes to addressing the history of colonialism. Makau Mutua argued that international law “banished Africans into darkness—banished them from the circle of morality.” He also posed a statement that resonated throughout the conference: “What the Germans do in responding to the genocide can tell us whether the Germans will ever see black people in Namibia as their equals.” In doing so, he spoke to the devaluation of black lives that continues to mark international law and Euro-American state politics. The message of these scholars seemed to be: do not assume that a struggle of this magnitude can only take place in a court of law. Many attendees agreed with the need for a multifaceted struggle, of which law is only one of many components.

Post-Colonial Amnesia in Both Germany and Namibia

The fact that both countries have primarily repressed this history was almost unanimously agreed upon, though Germany and Namibia were called out in different ways. Deputy Chair of the Nama Traditional Leaders Association Sima Luipert argued that German remembrance politics is stuck in World War II with a particular focus on the Holocaust, which becomes the barometer by which other periods of history are assessed: “The Holocaust has unfortunately become the international benchmark for defining what constitutes restorative justice and genocide.” Heard throughout the discussion were repetitions of the words of German negotiator Ruprecht Polenz, who has repeatedly argued that the Herero and Nama cannot compare their suffering to that of the Jews and that reparations are not possible because the Herero and Nama living today are not direct genocide victims. This argument has been made on multiple occasions by the German side. The question of what it means to be a “direct victim” was discussed extensively in Swakopmund, with many arguing that “we are the victims” especially due to the systematic exclusion, impoverishment, and landlessness of the communities affected by genocide, whose lives continue to be differentially valued.

Throughout Namibia graves of genocide victims are left almost completely unmarked, while memorials to killed German soldiers and settlers are well-maintained and easily identified. In Swakopmund, where the second part of the conference took place, conference attendees went to the Herero mass graves—overlooked by German Namibian homes. It was explained that tourists used to ride quad bikes over these graves until the council finally put a wall around them. Shark Island, a notorious concentration camp in Lüderitz, is today a tourist camp site that does not mention the genocide. The Namibian politics of remembrance, which gloss over the genocide, was interrogated as much if not more than Germany’s. It was argued by many speakers that Namibia is stuck in a narrative that places the wars of liberation after the beginning of SWAPO’s armed struggle against South Africa in 1966 at the centre of national identity and hence that which must be remembered. The question of why this is the case was highlighted by such speakers as Namibian politician and critical activist in the Nama genocide movement Ida Hoffman, who interrogated what many perceive as the tribalism of the Namibian government and their inability to institutionalize memorialization of the Herero and Nama genocide and the German colonial period more generally. When the government does refer to it, Nokokure Veii and Lazarus Kairabeb argued, it is seen only as a “Namibian” issue, with little attention paid to the particular communities most affected. The message from many seemed to be that the post-colonial Namibian state is yet to be decolonized, and that without a focus on memorializing the genocide and its after effects the post-colonial credentials of the Namibian nation-state can be called into question. One attendee in Swakopmund expressed that the struggle to get the Namibian state to truly acknowledge the Herero and Nama genocide was “harder than the liberation struggle”.

“Namibia: A Week of Justice. Colonial Repercussions: Reflecting on the Genocide of the Ovaherero and Nama Peoples 115 Years Later” was held between 25–30 March 2019 in Windhoek and Swakopmund. The week opened with the symposium “Colonial Injustice—Addressing Past Wrongs” in Windhoek (25–26 March), organized by the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) and the Akademie der Künste (AdK) in cooperation with the Goethe-Institut. Together with the Ovaherero Genocide Foundation (OGF), the Nama Traditional Leaders Association (NTLA), and the Nama Genocide Technical Committee (NGTC), ECCHR and AdK then convened the international conference “International Law in Postcolonial Contexts” (27–29 March) as well as a public event in Swakopmund (29 March). “Namibia: A Week of Justice” was supported by the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung.

The Question of Land Reform

In Namibia it is clear that it is impossible to talk about colonialism and genocide without talking about land. The question of land was brought up in almost every session in one way or another. Panellists and attendees were not unanimous on this topic. Divisions could be seen when it came to the question of how to define ancestral land and the question of how extensively foreign-owned land and land owned by settlers’ descendants should be expropriated and who should receive expropriated land. Speakers like historians Dr. Werner Hillebrecht and Dr. Martha Akawa pointed to the fact that German colonial rule did not just expropriate the lands of the Herero and Nama, and pushed activists to think beyond the targeted communities of the genocide—to also think about other affected communities such as the Damara and the San. A number of speakers also spoke to the legacy of apartheid in entrenching the contemporary politics of land and about the fact that unlike South Africa, Namibia never saw widespread land reform focusing on ancestral land after independence.

Some also argued strongly that reparations from Germany would make no sense without land reform in Namibia and a restructuring of the Namibian state. Bernardus Swartbooi, for example, stressed the importance of considering reparations on two distinct levels: “Yes reparations from the German government, but also reparations here from the local government.” He also argued very strongly that the strength of empire persists in contemporary Namibia in the form of white land ownership, something that Dr. John Nakuta echoed when highlighting that in Namibia, “the second most unequal country in the world”, inequality persists primarily along racial lines.


The term “reconciliation” has a number of meanings but tends to refer to a restoration of friendly relations between two, in some ways equal, parties previously embroiled in conflict. In this conference it normally referred to reconciliation between German, Namibian, and Herero and Nama communities. Some attendees expressed scepticism at the notion of immediate reconciliation, with one attendee talking instead of the need for “justice before reconciliation”. However, a number of Herero and Nama speakers spoke of the need for the three communities to come together in order to engage in dialogue—whether or not they are “equal parties”.

German-Namibian Erika Von Wietersheim offered perhaps the most hopeful vision of such a dialogue. She told the story of how little she knew about the brutality of German colonialism until she began to read colonial literature and realized that something horrific had taken place: “We used to play on Shark Island, completely unaware that it had been an island of death.” She spoke of the need for healing, and the importance of moments of “crying together”. She also, however, dismissed all demands to invade German-Namibian land as “poison”. The greatest stumbling block to such reconciliation, therefore, seems to be the land question and a related fear and often lack of understanding on the part of a number of German-Namibians. One German-Namibian expressed dissatisfaction that many do not “understand that most German-Namibians came after the colonial period”, while a journalist from the Allgemeine Zeitung said that the conference did not challenge the “genocide doctrine”. The notion that what took place was not actually genocide was repeated more than once. Such comments came across as particularly insensitive to many. Bonita Meyersfeld, for example, expressed that as the descendant of Holocaust survivors she has never been treated disrespectfully by people of German descent, but that at this conference she could see a serious “lack of compassion” from a number of attendees from the German-Namibian community.

It became clear as the conference went on that the horrors of genocide repressed over the course of more than a century was certainly under discussion, but also the very question of how that repression is linked to the impossibility of a truly decolonized political future in both Germany and Namibia. The thrust of the conference was therefore arguably that decolonization is necessary on two fronts. Firstly in the former colonizer country, Germany, where practices of state racism and denial of colonial violence are rampant, where denial of non-European genocide and the differential valuation of non-white lives persists in the present. Secondly it is also necessary in Namibia, a country in which a considerable settler population continues to live, in which communities most affected by colonial rule are often landless and discriminated against, and where memorials to former colonizers are still displayed without comment while mass graves of genocide victims go without adequate public recognition.

The responses by some members of the German-Namibian community were perhaps symbolic of how far there may be to go to bring about a situation in which a just and decolonized future could be possible in both countries. Yet this conference seems to have been an opening that may lay the groundwork for future discussions in Germany and most especially in Namibia. It offered an opportunity for the strengthening of transnational and local networks, for open discussion concerning issues that have too often between repressed, and above all it allowed for the affected communities, especially those who have been systematically excluded, to come together and articulate next steps in their struggle for restorative justice.

Howard Rechavia Taylor is a PhD candidate at Columbia University in New York City and a visiting research fellow at the Free University of Berlin. His research interrogates the manner in which Germany deals with transnational legal and political claims to address the legacy of colonialism and genocide in Namibia. He also works on related questions concerning the relationship between anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and anti-Black racism in Europe, and the various languages through which aftermaths of European colonial violence are articulated in the present. He has written as a journalist for outlets such as Al-Jazeera and Open Democracy.

[1] The first event, at the Goethe Institute in in Windhoek, was organised by a number of German institutions: the European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR), the Goethe Institute, and the Academy of Arts (ADK). The second event, at a hotel in Swakopmund, was organised between the ECCHR, the ADK and organisations of a section of the affected communities: the Ovaherero Genocide Foundation (OGF), the Nama Genocide Technical Committee (NGTC), and the Nama Traditional Leaders Associaiton (NTLA)

[2] Words said by Nama Chief Johannes Isaak at the Swakopmund symposium