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The sun sets over the Windhoek city skyline in Namibia. Namibia’s colonisation, by Germany and SA, still clearly felt, the writer says. Picture: 123RF
The sun sets over the Windhoek city skyline in Namibia. Namibia’s colonisation, by Germany and SA, still clearly felt, the writer says. Picture: 123RF

The year 1904 marked the introduction of traffic rules in Windhoek, prohibiting the galloping of horses in town. Today, 120 years later, Windhoek is still slow-moving. In spite of significant economic development since independence it retains the character of a sleepy colonial town, Namibia’s double colonisation, by Germany and SA, still clearly felt.

When it comes to full acknowledgment of the early 20th century massacres of the Herero and Nama people, the German government has been equally sleepy. It was only last week, on July 4, that the country officially recognised that what took place actually amounted to genocide.

Using the “g” word has long been a matter of great sensitivity in Germany, though it is generally accepted that 80% of the Herero and 50% of Nama population were massacred during the German colonial era between 1904 and 1907. One reason for this is that in terms of international law an official acknowledgment of genocide can trigger the responsibility to pay reparations. 

The German government caused controversy in 2021 when it stated that it recognised that what occurred was a genocide “from today’s perspective”. According to the Ovaherero Traditional Authority, this qualified recognition meant Germany did not take on any obligation to make reparations to the descendants of the victims under the current reconciliation agreement between the two countries.

In his address at the recent funeral of Namibian president Hage Geingob, German President Frank Walter Steinmeier stated that it was “high time” that Germany apologise to the Herero. His country has previously apologised to Namibia, but it was never an explicit apology for genocide. And to this day the German government has not made a clear commitment to paying reparations. In the view of Namibian human rights activist Norman Tjombe, this delay by the German government is simple racism.

In 2023 Herero and Nama representatives filed a lawsuit to challenge the “joint declaration” conciliation agreement with Germany. According to the 2021 agreement the German government offered development assistance to projects in Herero and Nama territories, but no direct reparation payments to individuals. Herero and Nama lawyers say this makes the agreement illegal. 

Meanwhile, after much debate within the UN, the body has agreed to designate July 11 the International Day of Reflection and Commemoration of the 1995 genocide in Srebernica. The day recognises the more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys who were systematically murdered when Serb forces attacked the “safe” area of Srebernica in the spring of 1993. Altogether 100,000 people were killed in the war in Bosnia Herzegovina, making it the worst atrocity in Europe since the World War 2.

The text of the UN resolution establishing Srebernica Day was strongly supported by Germany. It is interesting that Germany is at the forefront of commemorating other genocides but is so slow in fully recognising and making reparations to the Herero. Again, it is difficult to resist the conclusion that this is an attitude reminiscent of the racism of the early colonists. 

On a visit to Windhoek this week I was struck by the scarcity of memorials to the victims of the Herero genocide. Whereas German colonial buildings are scattered throughout the capital, there is still no consensus on the building of a museum commemorating the Herero who lost their lives at the hands of German colonists. 

According to David Olesuga and Casper Erichsen, co-authors of the magisterial book The Kaiser’s Holocaust, the Herero genocide can be seen as part of a larger phenomenon, “the emergence from Europe of a terrible strain of racial colonialism that... regarded the earth as a racial battlefield on which the ‘weak’ were destined to be vanquished”.

At a time when much of Europe is turning to the right politically, former colonists such as Germany must make haste to repair and correct what can still be of nominal meaning to the descendants of victims.   

• Swart is a visiting professor at Wits Law School specialising in human rights, international relations and international law. She writes in her personal capacity.

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