For Namibia, Germany's 'never again' promise rings hollow

For Namibia, Germany's 'never again' promise rings hollow
7 min read

Beauty Dhlamini

23 January, 2024
Germany's defence of Israel in the ICJ genocide case shows the limits of its historical reckoning. The hypocrisy is not lost on Namibia, writes Beauty Dhlamini.
In Namibia, German colonial forces committed the first genocide of the 20th century against the Herero-Namaqua people. [Getty]

Two weeks ago when the President of Namibia, Hage Geingob, rightfully condemned Germany for its support for Israel’s genocide and defense at the International Court of Justice (ICJ), many people were exposed for the first time to why such a small country in the South West of Africa felt compelled to do so.

For people like me, who grew up there, we were never shielded from the legacies of German’s colonialism in Namibia and what is known as its ‘forgotten genocide’.

It is no secret that German colonialism still divides Namibia. From the German monuments and schools across the country to hearing my older sisters forced to learn German throughout their secondary education, I was not only taught about it but also confronted with the impact of Germany’s past in my everyday life in Namibia. 

Germany and the Western imperial core have always used their reckoning with the Holocaust as a benchmark for historical atonement and accountability.

But the lack of widespread memorialisation, ‘remembering’, apology or even reparations for Namibians makes it clear that this reckoning did not and will not extend to the victims of its first genocide.

Germany's failed accountability

Historians often comment on how ‘short-lived’ the German empire was, making the case that because it ‘lost’ its colonies by 1918, German colonialism was not as significant as other European conquests.

The Herero-Namaqua people of Namibia remember things differently.

Following the 1884 ‘Scramble for Africa’, Germany took colonies in East Africa, South West Africa, and North West Africa. In Namibia, German colonial troops stole indigenous land, livestock and subjected indigenous populations (the Herero-Namaqua) including children to exploitative labour and brutal forms of punishment.

In 1904, when the indigenous populations resisted, the Germans suppressed these uprisings and immediately issued an extermination order. In 1905, Konzentrationslager (concentration camps) were set up to cause “death by exhaustion” including through starvation, sexual violence, medical experiments, and disease.

The genocide in Namibia killed approximately 80% of the Herero population and 50% of the Namaqua population, with estimates of 100,000 Herero-Namaqua people killed by colonial troops. It was the first genocide of the 21st century.

Coincidingly, in East Africa, the Maji Maji rebellion of Tanzania from oppressive German rule was taking place. This was squashed by German colonialists through a three year long enforced starvation of the interethnic people from Tanzania.

As many as 300,000 people died, foreshadowing the level of inhumanity that would be explored and used during the Nazi Holocaust.

These systematic massacres were characteristic of Germany’s colonial rule in Africa. But they are almost absent from Germany’s memory today.

The politics of memory and reconciliation

It was only in 2004, a whole century later, that the German government formally recognised its colonial brutalities in Namibia and apologised. But it ruled out reparations for survivors and descendants of the victims of the genocide.

Then in 2015, Germany negotiated with the Namibian government to ‘heal the wounds’ of their colonial violence and officially recognise it as a genocide. In addition, they agreed to pay Namibia, €1.1bn (£940m) in development aid over 30 years as a gesture of reconciliation but not legally binding reparations.

But this false pretence of reconciliation is a form of structural violence and therefore can be considered as an ongoing legacy of Germany’s genocide and colonialism against the Herero-Namaqua people.

In present day Namibia, German settlers still own 70% of land in Namibia, despite making up just 2% of the Namibian population.

Germany’s ‘reconciliation’ has also continued to silence those most affected by its colonial legacy. Many in the Ovaherero and Namaqua communities say they have been excluded from the talks by both the Namibian and German governments, and are sceptical that they would ever receive anything in the form of reparations.

Since genocide, there have only been symbolic commemorations. Remains of genocide victims have been repatriated to Namibia in 2011, 2014 and 2018, after they had been used and displayed in German academic and medical institutions.

Memory is multi-layered and nuanced, but it forces us to reckon with the truth. In Namibia, the legacy of the Herero-Namaqua genocide is still facing a reckoning.

But this legacy’s influence extends far beyond Namibia, reverberating in the international community.

Today, it is clear that Israel is mobilising the imperial core to do what it does best: maintain the status quo.

Germany’s endorsement of Israel’s indiscriminate war, ethnic cleansing and genocide against the Palestinian people in Gaza for the past 109 days has revealed the shallow depth of German guilt and the limits of ‘never again’.

We must continue to call out Germany’s hypocrisy to support Israel as it pretends to have moved away from the racist and fascist state it has always been.

Why has Germany been able to so easily pay generous reparations to Israel and survivors of the Holocaust since 1952, but continues to deny the same courtesy regarding Namibians?

Why did the German government realise the importance of including the Jewish people in reconciliation talks but refuses to sit down with the descendants of its victims in Namibia?

Most importantly, how does real change come if colonial powers are only willing to do the bare minimum through symbolic engagement with their colonial pasts?

A changing world order

Namibia’s bold condemnation of Germany for enabling Israel’s genocide shows that it is a country uniquely placed to act as a catalyst for a changing world order.

After World War I, German colonies were mandated to the apartheid government of South Africa. Namibia was subjected to its own system of apartheid until finally gaining independence in 1990.

Like South Africa with the ICJ case, Namibia has tried to force accountability for genocide. In 2001, before the German government recognised the Herero-Namaqua genocide, representatives of the Herero people filed a lawsuit in the United States for $2 billion against the German government and Deutsche Bank (the bank that financed the colonial pursuits of the German government and other companies in Namibia).

The lawsuit was unsuccessful. This does not mean we forget.

Germany’s guilt is mythical, because as a colonial power it has no right to determine when and how it is forgiven, least of all make prescriptions for how Namibia (and any of the other countries it has colonised) should behave especially when they call for the reparations they rightly deserve.

Germany's efforts to ignore and completely silence its colonial history outside of the Holocaust, in the same way it seeks to ignore and silence the ongoing racism and repression today, is a complete circle.

The unsettling part is that Germany’s genocide of the Herero-Namaqua and colonial history in Africa does not haunt it. But just as South Africa is doing by forcing Israel to reckon with its present genocidal history, we have to make all of Germany’s past haunt it.

South Africa’s landmark ICJ case serves several purposes: not only does it rightly call for Israel’s brutal war to be recognised as a genocide, but it has also emboldened other countries to reject the colonial paradigm in which their pasts have been determined.

New global solidarities are being forged and old ones strengthened between Global South nations, such as South Africa, Namibia and Palestine, as they actively fight for true decolonisation, racial justice, reparations and unconditional freedom.

Beauty Dhlamini is a Tribune columnist. She is a global health scholar with a focus on health inequalities and co-hosts the podcast Mind the Health Gap.

Follow her on Twitter: @BeautyDhlamini

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.