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Herero who survived the genocide after escaping through the Omaheke desert. Photo from the Galerie Bassenge via Wikimedia Commons.

Namibia’s long fight for justice

Namibia
Germany
Violence

‘Justice now,’ they shouted. ‘Give us an apology’, they said, ‘genocide is genocide,’ they declared.

It was a sunny Sunday afternoon in April, in the German port city of Hamburg. Activists, students and journalists from Germany and the African continent had gathered outside St. Michael’s church, the city’s largest, to begin their protest march around the city.

It was the final leg of a three day transnational conference looking at Hamburg’s colonial legacy, and the role it had played in a genocide committed by Germany more than 100 years ago, in what is now Namibia.

The April conference – along with the announcement later the same month that a campaign by anti-colonial activists in Berlin to change street names to honour the African resistance to German colonial rule – mark a shift in a movement that’s pushing mainstream German society to address this violent yet relatively unknown part of its history.

This is a struggle for justice that dates back to the late 19th and early 20th century, when Germany ruled over large parts of the African continent, including today’s Tanzania, Cameroon and Togo. Their colonial campaign was brutal: built on the idea of white supremacy, their occupation claimed tens of thousands of African lives.

One of their worst atrocities was against the Ovaherero and Nama people from Namibia. In 1904, war broke after the local population decided to fight their occupiers, a move that the Germans violently crushed. Forcing people into the nearby Omaheke desert, thousands would die of thirst and starvation, while thousands more perished in what were Germany’s first concentration camps on Shark Island. In just three years, at least 65,000 Herero people and more than 10,000 Nama people died. It was the first genocide of the 20th century.

Ratcheting up the pressure

The pressure being exerted by this growing network of campaigners – from Berlin, Hamburg and the African countries that Germany once colonized – may be starting to pay off.

Hamburg-based campaigner Jonas Prinzleve, one of the coordinators of the Quo Vadis Hamburg? conference, told New Internationalist: ‘It has taken Germany a long time to face this part of its history and it’s only now that the issue is really rising to the surface. A lot of institutions are feeling pressured to respond to questions from civil society, who ask them about their colonial history or heritage.

Hundreds of supporters and anti-colonial activists marched through the city of Hamburg in April, the first event of its kind in the city.
Hundreds of supporters and anti-colonial activists marched through the city of Hamburg in April, the first event of its kind in the city. Photo:
Anke Schwarzer

‘For descendants of the victims of the genocide, who have been dedicated to this struggle for many decades, the time is now to acknowledge what has happened to them and their ancestors, and to make it right.’

Esther Muinjangue, a member of the Herero community, said the impact of the genocide is still being felt today, with issues – including the return of ancestral land to the community, and unknown family histories – remaining unresolved.

‘I never knew my great grandfather because he was German,’ Muinjangue told New Internationalist. ‘My paternal grandfather was a child of a German [but whether he was] a product of of love or a product of rape, I don’t know.’ She says that as an African, the family tree is very important, but there is a hole for her: ‘one missing piece that will never be felt’.

Muinjangue is part of a wider campaign group, including other descendants of victims and land activists from Namibia, who are calling on the German government to officially acknowledge, apologize and begin repatriations. Kept out of the discussions between the two governments, the delegation has been visiting Germany to raise awareness around the genocide and has tried taking Germany to court in the US – a legal battle that the government has up to now managed to avoid. However, the case went before a New York court on 31 July. It was the first oral argumentation between representatives of the Herero and Nama people and the German government. The Namibians have to demonstrate that the money made from property taken when Germany was a colonial power has a direct link to commercial property in the US. The judge will now consider whether a US federal court has the jurisdiction to hear the case, and will announce her decision in the coming weeks (no date set).

‘It’s a pity,’ Muinjangue says, ‘because as long as they keep denying it, we will not get anywhere.’

But activists are hoping to capitalize on one particular outcome of the Hamburg conference. In what was the first apology to the Ovaherero and Nama from any German official, the city’s Senator for Media and Culture Carsten Brosda, said: ‘Hamburg admits its political and moral responsibility for our shared colonial history… in this spirit, I can only ask for your forgiveness for the suffering caused to your forebears and your peoples in the name of the German people.’

Prinzleve said: ‘They were really important words, and it’s a really important step, but I think what everyone agreed afterwards was that what follows from it will be much more crucial to the success of the campaign. It’s a first step’.

Esther Muinjangue, the chairperson of the Ovaherero Genocide Foundation in Namibia.
Esther Muinjangue, the chairperson of the Ovaherero Genocide Foundation in Namibia. Photo: Lina Kieninger

Now Prinzleve and his colleagues are focusing their efforts on decolonizing the city, which at the turn of the century was a major European colonial hub.

‘What we are working on is the renaming of streets and monuments that glorify colonial perpetrators, and we want to develop a comprehensive memorial programme that takes into consideration the long history of colonialism in connection with Hamburg. We are working with the local Ministry of Culture and Media, as well as Namibian civil society organizations,’ he says.And the news that came from Berlin a week after the conference should only serve to encourage them. After years of campaigning, streets commemorating German colonial leaders in Berlin’s so-called African Quarter will be renamed.

Street names like Peters Allee and Lüderitzstrasse, which honored German colonial rulers Carl Peters and Adolf Lüderitz, will be replaced with names like Cornelius-Fredericks-Strasse, after a Nama resistance leader and Maji-Maji-Allee, commemorating the largest war ever fought against German colonialism in East Africa. Another will be named after Herero freedom fighter Anna Mungunda.

Christian Kopp, an historian with anti-colonial organization Berlin Postkolonial, worked on the street naming campaign, and said he was very happy about the decision. ‘It’s a respectful, symbolic reparation for the resistance movement, which is not talked about at all. Ask people in the street about the African resistance – there’s even the myth that there was no resistance – and hardly anyone would know these names. So I find this very important.’

Another breakthrough, Kopp says, was the recent announcement of a code of conduct for museums for identifying and addressing colonial-era artefacts in their collections – although this came under criticism by some campaigners for not going far enough.

Kopp says their next steps will focus on the eight other street names that they want to see renamed, as well as using the Hamburg apology to exert pressure on the federal government. He added: ‘What exactly are the government up to – was it just a phrase to keep the pressure groups contained and quiet, or might there be something in this? Those of us who have been working on this for a long time felt that we were the underdogs, coming with a dirty subject nobody wanted to talk about. Now it seems to be a noble cause.’

Genocide is genocide

One hundred years after the genocide, grassroots activists and civil society groups are making the genocide and the wider issue of Germany’s colonial crimes too difficult for mainstream society – the media, politicians and institutions – to ignore any longer. Given the strong evidence linking the ideas developed during the nation’s the colonial period – including the use of concentration camps and white racial superiority – to the Nazi era that followed, activists say there is more need than ever to discuss this part of German history.

Prinzleve said: ‘With the history of racism, sometimes you feel that you are running in a circle. So the idea to go back more than one hundred years and look at the origins of racist culture, language and expansion movements is to break that circle. There is the hope that we can learn about that history and see how it has shaped the city we live in today.’

For Muinjangue, the reason is simpler.

‘Today we are still fighting to be heard by the German government,’ she said: ‘This is the same government who has signed various international conventions and laws that protect human rights, yet it’s still denying us that right to talk for ourselves. We want the whole world to know that Germany is continuing to violate the rights of victims of a genocide they committed over one hundred years ago.’

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