Namibian-German academic and social commentator, Dr Henning Melber, tells Managing Editor Toivo Ndjebela about the ongoing push for genocide reparations and his days as a youth in Swapo. Toivo Ndjebela (TN): Tell us about your background, when did you first come to Namibia and in what capacity? Henning Melber (HM): I was born in 1950 in the southern part of West Germany; VfB Stuttgart was my ‘home team’. My parents divorced when I was 13. My mother took care of my younger brother and me and she worked hard to raise us properly. We had a modest lifestyle, though I never felt being poor. Her new partner was a refugee child during World War 2. In search of a better life, my mother’s brother had already left Germany for South Africa, and my stepfather followed. In search of a job, he ended up in what was then the ‘fifth province’ – South West Africa – to manage the store at Neue Haribes, a big karakul farm between Mariental and Maltahöhe. After he had settled there we followed him as emigrants 50 years ago, in 1967. He later managed together with my mother the store at Dordabis. I still have fond memories of the farm life. Later they managed a grocery shop in Klein Windhoek, then farmed in Goanikontes and thereafter lived in Swakopmund. My brother Rainer died in 1979, my stepfather in 1991 and my mother in 2007. They are all buried in Namibia. TN: What kind of privileges did you enjoy, perhaps by default, by just being a white person staying in Namibia at the time, compared to your black peers? HM: It was an entirely different world. Black peers in the true sense of the word did not exist. We lived in completely separate entities. I remember that from our classroom I could see the school for Nama children at the opposite side of Church Street (where the offices of the Lutheran church are). It was attended by children from the Old Location situated in today’s Windhoek West and Hochland Park. The school was closed together with the Old Location. There was no interaction, no contacts, no shared experiences. But given the lack of exchange, we most likely were not even aware of the privileges we had, since we took them for granted as a kind of ‘normality’ without any insights into the life of those who were turned into ‘others’. Our world was confined to that of the exclusively white boarding school. TN: What motivated you to join Swapo in 1974 and how did everyone around you take it when it was almost not fashionable to do so? HM: By the time I left school I considered Namibia as my home. And you want to live in your home. For me this meant that I had to support change to have a future in the country where I wanted to spend my life. I studied journalism in West Germany and returned to work for the ‘Allgemeine Zeitung’ in 1972. After three months I was sacked because of fundamental ethical and political differences. Since then I was considered a ‘troublemaker’ and socially isolated from the German-speaking community. I did not find any other job and decided to study political science and sociology at the Freie Universität Berlin – mainly to understand better what happened in Southern Africa and to me. I returned every year for the lecture-free breaks. I then got into contact with activists of the Swapo Youth League and mingled with them. In 1974, one of them asked me why I had not yet joined Swapo. I was taken by surprise because I had internalised the view that Swapo was a black organisation. When he saw my consternation, he smiled, filled in a membership card and handed it to me. That was in September 1974. TN: Did you run into problems with authorities at the time for joining Swapo or did you keep a lid on it for your own safety? HM: In the police state of that time, tightly controlled also socially, such engagement could not remain a secret, though you would not want it to be known. I was entrusted in mid-1975 (after the exodus of students and teachers took place to join Swapo in Angola and Zambia) to look into opportunities how best church schools could provide means for meaningful education inside the country. This was a project by the Lutheran World Federation in collaboration with Swapo. I closely interacted locally with activists such as Dan Tjongarero, Thlabanello, Kameeta and others and also got involved in the youth league protest actions of mid-1975. It then became a bit risky. When leaving I was kept for interrogation in Johannesburg but finally managed to get out. I visited Lusaka, where Hidipo Hamutenya took me to the old farm where Nahas Angula was the headmaster of the school and where I had an emotional encounter with one of my friends from Namibia who had left a few months earlier, and stopped over in Dar es Salaam where I met Jesaya Nyamu and Hifikepunye Pohamba. I was not any longer allowed to return to Namibia (until 1989) and South Africa (until 1993) and could visit the grave of my brother only ten years after his untimely death. TN: Apart from being a member, were your involved in any liberation struggle activities of Swapo? HM: I remained active under the instructions of the resident representatives, first Ben Amathila and then Hadino Hishongwa running the Stockholm office, later Nghidimondjila Shoombe who became head of the Bonn office. I was representing Swapo at local events in West Germany and was occasionally participating in international conferences and meetings, but never in a high-profile political function. In collaboration with Nangolo Mbumba, then Swapo’s deputy secretary for education, I wrote a social studies textbook (‘Our Namibia’) for the Swapo schools in exile and the church schools inside the country after visiting Nyango and the United Nations Institute for Namibia, where Hage Geingob was the director and Mose Tjitendero head of the education department. The book was at independence also published in a Japanese translation. I also edited the first anthology of poetry (‘It Is No More A Cry – Namibian Poetry in Exile’) and published articles and books promoting the anti-colonial struggle. I held a tenure position at a university since 1982, which allowed me to combine scholarly work with political engagement. TN: What is your view on the Ovaherero/Nama genocide case in terms of its validity? HM: There is a popular quote that “The past is not dead, it is not even past”. It also applies to the genocide committed by the German colonial troops among the Ovaherero and Nama (including parts of the Damara). As long as we do not seek to come to terms with this past and its structural legacies, reconciliation in Namibia remains unfinished business. The German-speaking minority can only secure a sustainable future build on a social contract, which acknowledges the consequences of this past and seeks ways to address them. This does not mean to hold us as German-speakers responsible for what happened long before we were born. But one can expect that we accept responsibility to address issues which remain alive and need to be jointly solved, because our forefathers and mothers were the root cause. Unfortunately, neither the German government nor the majority of Namibian German speakers seem willing to fully address the matter in all its dimensions. But without a common search involving the descendants of perpetrators and victims alike we cannot build a shared future based on respect and recognition of the other as fellow Namibian. In addition to the bilateral negotiations, which started in late 2015 between the two governments, the private law suit initiated in a New York court adds an important element to focus on the injustice and sufferings then and the implications it has for the present. It also draws wider attention to colonial annihilation strategies and attracts critical international engagement with the case, not least in other former colonial powers. I therefore think beyond narrow legalistic considerations and independent of the likelihood of being successful, it has already achieved a lot and serves an important function, by further sensitising and alerting us with regard to a history, which casts its shadows over and into the current social realities. TN: Apart from working for NEPRU, you haven’t worked much in Namibia despite your skills and expertise. Why is that so? HM: When being able to return to Namibia with a meaningful professional responsibility I assumed this would be to settle for the rest of my life. The Namibian Economic Policy Research Unit (NEPRU) was established as a think tank at independence and was first headed by Peter Katjavivi, whom I succeeded in 1992 when he became vice-chancellor of Unam. It was tasked to offer policy advice to the government. But I also understood this as a capacity-building mandate, including to share critical information with a wider public too. For me, loyalty to liberation was the task to speak truth to power. This made me increasingly unpopular among some of my comrades. My personal critical engagements risked to damage the institutional reputation. But there were no meaningful alternatives for me to move on. It was almost as if history repeated itself, reminding me of the days when as a young journalist I fell into disgrace. I was deeply disappointed about the failures in our emancipatory project and afraid I might end up as a cynical and embittered person, surviving in isolation as an independent consultant. In this situation the Nordic Africa Institute in Uppsala offered me the new position of a research director. I decided with a heavy heart to relocate in 2000 to Sweden, where I continued a career without turning my back on Namibian affairs. While I was never in demand by local policymakers since then, Namibia remains at the centre of my identities and emotions. Joining Swapo had changed the course of my life, and my daughter Tulinawa (born in 1993) was the greatest gift ever, thanks to her Namibian mother Doufi Namalambo. I cannot imagine a life without Namibia and her people in my mind. TN: Does a position like vice-chancellor of Unam, currently up for grabs, interest you? HM: I am now 67 years old and strongly believe in a necessary generational change. We should since long have handed over the torch. I would find such a position tempting, also as a challenge to pursue a true decolonisation transforming an institution of higher learning. But this is a rewarding task for someone preferably much younger, of a different cultural background and gender. As long as my physical and mental condition allows, I will rather continue trying my best to modestly contribute to the promotion of public awareness and policy decisions, having the ordinary people and their living conditions in mind. Solidarity, freedom and justice were the keywords during our struggle days, and we need to live up to the promise they made.
2018-01-26 10:07:09 7 months ago