Namibia: Germany’s Namibian Genocide Apology Could Miss the Mark

Germany has said it will officially apologize for its colonial-era atrocities against the Nama and Herero people. But this apology could fail to placate the anger felt among the descendants, writes Okeri Ngutjinazo.

Growing up, I knew little about the Nama and Herero genocide that took place between 1904 and 1908, which wiped out nearly 80% of Herero people. A group I belong to.

Some may consider Germany’s colonial history in Namibia as “short-lived” in comparison to other European powers but the bloody aftermath of German colonialism, and the destruction it wrought on Herero and Nama communities, went far beyond the 1904-1908 time frame that Germany has said it is apologizing for: it changed the trajectory of how Nama and Herero groups would exist up to the present day in Namibia.

After German forces put down the Herero and Nama rebellions, and even after Germany’s colonial empire crumbled as a result of World War I, German settlers remained in Namibia, on land they had conquered, while most of the Nama and Herero people were displaced with a few remaining working under them as a conquered people. My parents spared me the details, but I knew I had a small percentage of German in my blood from my great-grandfather who was born in 1914. His mother was raped while she worked as a kitchen help for a German master.

Words matter

The apology and admission of the genocide makes some strides in healing the wounds. Germany is revisiting its role in colonial era crimes (as opposed to other colonial powers) and agreeing to a deal which is by many accounts the first of its kind between a colony and its former colonial power. But Germany seems to be taking more steps backwards by refusing to call the aid “reparations.”

Although the Namibian government has detailed what the aid would be used for (building rural roads, water supply and land acquisition), for some Hereros it falls far short both in terms of actual money, but more importantly, in meaning.

Calling the €1.1 billion ($1.3 billion) package financial aid makes it equivalent to the considerable amounts of money Namibia has been receiving from Germany since independence. Such terminology sanitizes the seriousness and nature of the crimes the German government is admitting to. It raises the question: how can Germany really be ready to accept its role in Namibia’s colonial past if it refuses to call this financial settlement “reparations?”

Germany’s unwillingness to use the term “reparations” for legal reasons are well-documented. But the affected groups are not interested in Germany’s foreign policy strategy to avoid setting a legal precedent for further claims: They want to be sure Germany is genuine in its apology for crimes it says it committed.

Exclusion hurts healing process

Many Chiefs representing the Herero and Nama people have rejected the offer by the German government saying the amount offered was “an insult.” Additionally, the strategy of both governments to negotiate bilaterally rather than Germany directly with the Herero and Nama groups has created a sense of exclusion for the descendants of the victims This will hinder any reconciliation between Germany, the Nama and Herero groups, and the descendants of German settlers that in many cases still own land acquired during colonial times.

There is also a lack of trust from the Herero and Nama people that the aid will fully be used for its intended purposes and not be siphoned off for nefarious purposes.

Considering the immense economic and political leverage that Germany enjoys over Namibia, the financial aid Germany is offering could be interpreted as a patronizing and charitable “gift” to all the victims of the genocide. This is something Germany says it wants to avoid.

Germany’s apology could be a step in the right direction, but there should be no illusions that it could be enough to close this painful chapter. Far from it: There are plenty of young Namibians today like myself whose families’ trajectories were directly and irrevocably made worse by the brutal actions of colonial forces. There will be pain for generations to come.

The feeling of exclusion by the victims, and the reference to “aid,” ruins the chance of Germany’s apology making real amends to the victims of its colonial conquest.

Unless both parties meet on an equal footing, this apology may ring true for Germany, but remain hollow for Nama and Herero communities.

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