Professor Paul John Isaak
The story of the 20th century genocide history is vividly alive in post-genocidal Namibia because there is still the “unfinished business”. The aim of this paper is to address this historical event from the perspective of the former colonised and oppressed Namibians.
Thus by reading history from the people’s history there are two key maxims: First, for all the people the facts are hardly in question – words are.
Second, justice delayed is justice denied. Differently expressed, it took more than a century for the German government ministry to finally admit that the genocidal acts in the then German colony of South West Africa (today’s Namibia) was tantamount to genocide.
On the other side on 26 October 2006, Chief Kuaima Riruako tabled in the National Assembly of Namibia the motion dealing with the genocide inflicted by German colonial rule on Namibians a century ago. The motion was accepted unanimously.
Today on such historical grounds words that mentioned “genocide” cannot be trimmed and cropped until they fit the frame of the selective and powerful few decision-makers, whether in Germany or in Namibia. If this happens the eagle with clipped wings can no longer rise and fly to its true genuine demands but be forced to opt for cheap gracious material benefits offered by the German government. Therefore, in the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, one can only talk “while looking the beast in the eye” about reconciliation, forgiveness, and restorative justice.
Against this sobering perspective, one will have to look at the perseverance of the victim groups in Namibia. They have consistently demanded the core demand: reparations from Germany. Fittingly expressed by the then Namibian Prime Minister, Theo-Ben Gurirab in Parliament, we “accept the apology proffered by Mrs Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul on behalf of the German government and its people. Pledges are good, but verification of any commitment must be to ensure follow-up and implementation.”
The apt reply of Chief Kuaima Riruako to Wieczorek-Zeul is exactly in the direction of reparations. He said, “I am not here to refuse your apology and admission of guilt. There must now be dialogue to finish the unfinished business.” His response was a follow-up attempt to link Matthew 6:12 which Wieczorek-Zeul was quoting from the Lord’s Prayer: “and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors”.
This prayer emphasizes “the forgiveness of debts” – which has the sole economic implications from a biblical perspective. Let us reformulate by saying that the letting go [forgiveness] is the first step, and the second step is economic reparations. To paraphrase economist Robert Browne, the ultimate goal of reparations should be to restore black Namibians to the economic position it would have if it had not been subjected to genocide caused by Germany. In short, in line with the Lord’s Prayer as quoted by Wieczorek-Zeul, the following part before “the forgiveness of debts” is central: “give us today our daily bread”, that is our daily bread of restorative justice [reparations].
First, such reparations are necessitated because in October 1904, one of the Rhenish Mission missionaries wrote that the genocide “was not caused by any social evils originated in the colonial administration, but was entirely due to the Namas’ refusal to subordinate themselves to their white rulers”.
The German colonial power interpreted this statement as evidence of the Rhenish Mission Society’s loyal support of the war against Namibians. In short, the German missionaries who started mission work in 1840 in Namibia played a role in the genocide history.
Likewise, the Finnish Missionary Society started its mission work in 1870. Tellingly, on 6 February 1917 King Mandume ya Ndemufayo was killed with more than one hundred fighters of him by a joint South African-Portuguese army and his head was then brought to Windhoek and displayed as a demonstration that resistance against South African occupation forces was futile. The Finnish Missionary Society voiced no protests when King Mandume ya Ndemufayo was brutally assassinated.
Second, the event of Shark Island. Those caught alive were sent to Shark Island at !Nami ≠nüs. Within the first few months the captured Namibians were merely “skin and bone” and on the verge of starvation and many looked like “a broomstick” and were so thin that “one could see through their bones”.
In contrast, Europeans started to develop the theory of their mental superiority over Africans. Before being shipped to Germany, the heads of the Namibians were cracked open in order to remove and preserve the brains. The aim was to find out what similarities there were between apes and Namibians, as well as between Germans and Namibians.
The cruellest side of such shipping was when black Namibian women were forced to boil the severed heads and then scrape them to the bone with pieces of glass. These women were forced to do this, perhaps on their husbands, sons, brothers, comrades, friends, etc. Following the cleansing process, the skulls were sold off to German universities to be scrutinised by professors and their students.
So, today let us tell the future generation the story of the genocide in post-genocidal Namibia. First, the country was conquered with the bible as a tool of colonialism and oppression. Therefore, the Church, especially the Lutheran churches that have majority Namibian Christians, have the special responsibility to answer the question on genocide in post-genocidal Namibia.
Let me note that the International Court of Justice (ICJ) has repeatedly stated that the convention embodies principles that are part of general customary international law. This means that whether or not states have ratified the Genocide Convention, they are all bound as a matter of law by the principle that genocide is a crime prohibited under international law. The ICJ has also stated that the prohibition of genocide is a peremptory norm of international law and consequently, no derogation from it is allowed.
Positively stated, let Namibians finish the final chapter on the “unfinished business.” If not, there is the historical danger of European “divide and rule”; the attempt to find an alternative way of action instead of reparations by offering substantial payments to improve the position of the victim groups in particular. To Namibian ears this hardly conveys the genuine remorse that would have to constitute the grounds of a serious apology that leads to reparations.
In conclusion, the majority of Namibians are landless, without access to natural and mineral wealth, and the image of God violated or as expressed by Bob Marley, “Them belly full but we hungry.” Therefore, in post-genocidal Namibia now is the time for reparations for past crimes. When this happens the famous words of Captain Hendrik Witbooi shall be realised: “The time is fulfilled. The way is opened.”