African viewpoint: Remembering German crimes in Namibia

This photo, taken during the 1904-1908 war in Namibia, shows a soldier, probably belonging to German troops, supervising Namibian war prisoners. Germany refuses to pay reparations for crimes committed during colonial rule

In our series of viewpoints from African journalists, film-maker and columnist Farai Sevenzo asks why there are no memorials to those killed in Namibia during German colonial rule.

According to The Namibian newspaper, there was a 2.8% decrease in the number of tourists visiting Namibia last year while some 984,099 visitors had gone through Windhoek airport in the year of Africa's football World Cup in neighbouring South Africa.

When I read these figures, I assumed the slight decrease could only be due to the depressing global economic climate - for anyone who has seen the beauty of this stunning African nation would gladly return there were it not for the cruel fate of the gods of credit, who have ordered the tourists to stay at home instead of travelling to faraway lands.

After all, an elephant in the bush may look better in high definition television.

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German descendants still farm on land that was forcefully taken from the murdered”

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But as we were reminded in the last week, 107 years before this year's high definition nature programmes, a different kind of visitor had been in South West Africa - as Namibia was known before its independence in 1990 - in search of conquest, not elephants.

Between 1904 and 1908, German occupiers systematically massacred ancestors of the Herero and Nama people for daring to rebel.

Under the leadership of Lieutenant General Lother von Trotha, the rebelling groups were killed or driven into the desert, where thousands died of thirst - all normal practice at the time for conquering armies.

But it was what followed which has cast a century-long shadow over German-Namibian relations.

'Gruesome experiments'

Not content with mere conquest, the Germans placed the survivors in concentration camps, built their colony with slave labour and then shipped off thousands of heads belonging to the dead to Berlin - for the totally barbaric aim of proving the inferiority of the defeated Africans in dubious medical experiments.

Fast forward to free Namibia, which had been demanding the return of these skulls, lost to German storage units.

Namibians celebrate after the return of skulls from Germany (4 October) Namibians have campaigned since independence for the skulls to be returned

It is a fact of life that we all value our dead, that the living wish to honour the departed and the ruthless disregard for the humanity of the owners of these heads would weigh heavily on any African.

Much had been written about the parallels of the Namibian genocide with its gruesome experiments surrounding the African dead and the subsequent Nazi holocaust of World War II.

Modern German politicians were quick to offer their regret for the sins of their forefathers and claimed to accept "moral responsibility" for the genocidal crimes of the past.

But no reparations were to be paid to the Herero and Nama descendants of this bloody history.

Instead, the German government says it already pays through development aid and recently announced about $173m (£110m) in aid for 2011-2012.

'Prayer and anguish'

Despite the fact that the Namibian victims of this crime see it as genocide, Germany has never acknowledged it as such and the scars of the past remain fully visible in the present day.

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For those of us with such short histories, the past is a permanent shadow, forever by our side or right behind us. ”

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Namibia is not a poor country - fish and beef exports, diamonds and uranium - should be supporting 2.1 million people.

Yet the legacy of German colonialism has left hundreds of thousands without land and German descendants still farm on land that was forcefully taken from the murdered.

It is not difficult to imagine how such a situation may end, particularly as a tiny fraction of the population continues to run the economy and the landless remain without land.

As 20 skulls from the thousands that were taken arrived in Windhoek last Thursday, many voices were raised in prayer and anguish and, Africans being as close to their dead as they imagine their dead are to them, a deep sense of gravitas seemed to overlay proceedings.

A skull on display in Windhoek on 4 October Germany has handed back 20 skulls but others remain

But no firm answers were given on the issue of reparations - nor when the Herero and Nama can expect the rest of their ancestors' heads to be returned.

And in present day Namibia, frequented as it is by hundreds of thousands of tourists - German and other kinds - there is no standing memorial to the Namibian dead, no plaque at Luderitz, Swakopmund or Shark Island to mark the sites of German concentration camps or the mass graves of those who died.

Why should such a story matter? For those of us with such short histories, the past is a permanent shadow, forever by our side or right behind us.

Just 27 years before South Africa's Nobel laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu - 80 last week - was born, a German army commander was issuing orders, in writing, to exterminate Namibians, drive them into the desert and poison the wells.

There are volumes of records in the Windhoek Archives detailing the massacres and recording every death of enslaved labourers.

Of course, there are those who say we must move on, we must close the chapters on tragic histories.

It is our lot on this continent to forever be urged to forget the past when such a past is so near and is as tangible as a four year old's skull in a medical laboratory far from African lands.

No amount of development aid could erase that.

If you would like to comment on Farai Sevenzo's column, please do so below.

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  • rate this

    Comment number 35.

    There should be a memorial of some sort in all these places. In Zimbabwe the Shangani Monument (commemorating the deaths of Rhodes murdering henchmen) still exists. How then can one not remember the deaths of free men massacred for their land?

    Development aid is a totally different matter. PC is one thing, denying history is quite another.

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    Comment number 31.

    Those who remember living under the colonial apartheid system can fully appreciate that this skull thing could only be initiated after we had gained full emacipation from minority rule. This was no other time in history to do that until after 1990. The grieviance had always been there but with limited recourse for redress. This is what we've been at since 1994.

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    Comment number 28.

    You simply can not take today's overly PCized mindset and apply it to 100+ years ago. No Appology due but, for goodness sakes, give the skulls back so people can have something of their grand to great grand parents to bury. We do this far too often, take the modern PCized mindset and then feign outrage over past 'wrongs' the strong oppressed the week for centuries that was life, now PCism is life.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    Why should only Germany pay reparations? UK is responsible for millions of deaths in their former colonies (indigenous Americans, Indian famine, China, and all over Africa) and even sent gunboats to defend their opium dealership in Hong Kong! Back to Namibia which is controlled by Ovambo people that came from Central Africa. They, and even the Hereros,
    were also colonizers and just as brutal!

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    When will the UK receive compensation from the Italians/Danes/etc who caused much suffering 2000 and 1500 years ago when they invaded the UK? And what about compensation from Tunisia for Hannibal's mistreatment of the Roman empire?

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    it is important to set precedents for future international norms. Therefore, by redressing Namibia and its people, we can create a common ground on how to perceive these cases, and socially expect redress and apologies to occur. As a powerful nation that inhibits a strong connotation of the word "democracy" and respect for human rights, Germany can set a good example to other nations.


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