Imperial Germany’s atrocities between 1904-1908, also known as the first genocide of the 20th century, has left a long-lasting effect on the Ovaherero and Nama. Over a 100 years later, the Federal German Republic and the Namibian government struck a deal, paving the way for a historical first apology by a western nation for crimes committed post the scramble for Africa. As a young journalist at Namibian Sun, I covered the earlier stages of the negotiations extensively, at a time when both the Namibian government and descendant communities were adamant that an apology without reparations would be unacceptably.
In November 2015, President Hage Geingob appointed long-serving diplomat, Dr Zed Ngavirue as the special envoy to lead deliberations with the German government on the Ovaherero/Nama 1904-1908 genocide. The appointment divided descendant communities, while some acknowledged that Ambassador Ngavirue was a perfect fit, himself being a member of the descendant communities, other Nama and Herero leaders argued that the move was not in line with a parliamentary motion which paved the way for negotiations. The motion was brought forward by former Herero Paramount Chief, Kuaima Riruako, and called for the Namibian government to act as mediator between the Germans and the affected communities. A few months after his appointment as Special Envoy, I sat down with Ambassador Ngavirue for an in-depth interview, titled Mapping the Road to Reparations.
‘It cannot be about us without us’
One of the major contentions at the start of the negotiations were questions surrounding whether the Namibian government was a legitimate actor. During the times I covered joint events hosted by Herero and Nama leaders, they would often use the slogan “it cannot be about us, without us”. As such, during my interview with Ambassador Ngavirue, one of the first questions I asked him was about his legitimacy as a negotiator. He made it clear that it was the German government who insisted in a two persons' negotiation. This is what I asked Ambassador Ngavirue: “This idea government is acting through the parliamentary resolution is also very contentious these days, with Nama and Ovaherero leaders saying that the way it’s done now wasn’t the initial motion, as tabled by the late Chief Riruako some years ago. Some are saying it wasn’t about government acting on behalf of the people, but about recognising that it is a legitimate cause and a legitimate fight, and that government should sort of mediate”.
This was his response to that question: “I have seen the documents. I know that there was such a formulation, but the motion actually asked Parliament to debate, and also to present the case on behalf of the victims. Those details need perhaps to be gone into. The most important point is that the government carried out the instructions to approach the German government on this issue, and it is the government of Germany that came up with the proposal that the dialogue will start with two people. It is not a proposal that came from our government. Now, it’s for the people to accept or say ‘no, unless the victims are there, we will not accept’. They talk as if the government decided they should not participate, when everyone knows it is the German government that refused to negotiate directly with the communities”.
I continued to press the ambassador on the matter, asking him whether it’s not oppressive in itself for Germany to dictate the manner in which negotiations must take place, to which the ambassador responded:
Reluctance to use the term reparations
Following my interview with Ambassador Ngavirue, it became clear that German authorities are reluctant to use the term reparations. In fact, ambassador Ngavirue revealed that the Germans often use the term “Healing the wounds” as opposed to reparations. This has become more evident, with German authorities referring to the £1.1 billion which they plan to pay over 30 years, as developmental aid. Descendant communities were further outraged over a recent statement by German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, who said that the killings were a genocide “from today’s perspective.” A clout of confusion also hangs over the deal, after Namibian Vice President Nangolo Mbumba recently said Germany “has agreed to commit to revisit and renegotiate the amount as the implementation of the reparations ensues,” while other media reports suggest that according to the Germans, this deal is final and will not be revisited in the future. Descendant communities, however, argue that the rapes and slaughtering of thousands of people who didn’t have the capacity to fight back, coupled with the loss of land and cattle as well as stripping people of the culture, and displacing the Herero and Nama, with some still living in Botswana and South Africa, cannot not be quantified in monetary terms, and argue that having the descendants of perpetrators of genocide dictate the terms of an apology is violent, arrogant and condescending in itself.
Debate about the deal will probably continue to divide Namibians. For some, this is a breakthrough following a more than five years long negotiation. To the descendant communities, however, the deal is one of disrespect that lacks political will for restorative justice, and one that seeks to reduce the first genocide of the 20th century and the precursor to the holocaust,to a blip in Namibian-German history, that both nations are determined to put to rest.
* Gordon Joseph is a Namibian journalist and television producer who has covered Namibia’s fight on genocide recognition and reparations for the 1904-1908 Genocide perpetrated by the Imperial Germany in the south-west African country.