A need to converse
On 25-26 March 2019, the Goethe-Institut Namibia hosted a Symposium “Colonial Repercussions IV - Colonial Injustice – Addressing Past Wrongs”, in conjunction with the Academy of Arts/Akademie der Künste (AdK) and the European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR).
Inevitably, the genocidal war of 1904-1908 in Namibia and the post-colonial call for reparations were at the centre of contributions and discussions, as was already outlined on the welcoming words by Wolfgang Kaleck of the ECCHR. Kaleck and Daniel Stoevesandt (Goethe-Institut) emphasized: while negotiations about the issue between the Namibian and German governments are ongoing – it is crucial to involve civil society in the debate.
Accordingly, victims and their descendants who suffered gross violations of international human rights law have a right to remedy and reparations. In the ensuing discussion, Professor André du Pisani widened the spectrum from legal issues to moral philosophy. He made the point that the international law of the colonial era not only banished Africa into darkness and colonialism, but also banished Africans as moral human beings from the circle of morality, and that “ultimately, genocide is the rupture of humanity itself”.
Over the course of the day, four discussion panels examined colonialism from various angles. The first panel again highlighted international law. In this context, André du Pisani again emphasized the importance of moral philosophy against a narrow understanding of legalistic arguments. He pointed out that even contemporary to the genocide, there were voices in Germany condemning the German conduct of war, citing Moritz Julius Bonn as one of those critics. He reminded there were already internationally recognised rules of conduct of war which, even if they had not been applicable from a narrow legalistic interpretation, should have given a moral guideline.
Matthias Goldmann (University of Frankfurt) likewise argued against the notion that the Ovaherero and Nama were not subjects of international law and therefore not protected by conventions agreed between so-called “civilised” nations. He cited several examples how such an interpretation was not at all undisputed at the time, and that the German Empire itself had recognised this by concluding “protection treaties” that were subsequently disregarded.
Martha Akawa (University of Namibia) cautioned against a narrow definition of “affected communities”, as the war affected San and Damara not only as “collateral damage” but very profoundly through the expropriation of the land that was the basis of their livelihood as well, and the subsequent “native ordinances” that instituted total control over the lives and labour of all “natives”.
Ida Hoffmann (Member of Parliament and activist in the reparations movement) outlined specifically the fate of the Nama people and made an impassioned plead for reparations, illustrating the lack of remembrance - even within Namibia - with the neglect of the cemetery of the Shark Island victims at Lüderitz.
Concluding this panel, Jürgen Zimmerer (University of Hamburg) presented a concise refutation of “four myths” linked to denying and relativizing the genocide. He demonstrated that the colonial project of a settler colony governed by a white master race and based on the labour of an atomised, detribalised, expropriated and de-culturalised black underclass was in its very idea a genocidal project - even without the 1904-1908 war which started as war of resistance against this project.
The third panel about the role of arts in coming to terms with the past began with Namibian artist Isabel Katjavivi asking “Where are the bodies?”, referring to the victims of the war who were never buried; whose bones litter the ground where they died; and whose skulls were abducted to Europe. She described her art installations dealing with this legacy as pieces that demonstrate how “we are treading on our past” and need to confront a common Namibian trauma that has not been dealt with.
Taking the audience into a different colonial context beyond Namibia, Nontobeko Ntombela (Univ. of Witwatersrand) reflected on her work with Congolese art in two contrasting contexts: a museum at Lubumbashi in Congo where the objects originate, and a museum in Johannesburg. She raised questions about curatorial praxis, context, alienation and re-appropriation that are relevant - as well in the debate on repatriation of African cultural heritage from Europe and how to deal with returned objects.
In the fourth panel of “Remembrance and addressing past wrong”, Ellen Namhila (University of Namibia) highlighted the importance and one-sidedness of archives, with examples of how valuable evidence has been preserved, while nevertheless the direct voice of the colonized is mostly missing because it was either destroyed or never recorded. She pleaded for collecting and preserving oral history and whatever evidence can still be gathered. Vepuka Kauari (Association of the Ovaherero/Ovambanderu Genocide in the USA) delivered a concise summary of genocidal conduct in the 1904-1908 war, resulting in demands for apology and reparations from the German government.
It was unfortunate that the lively discussion after this panel, which interlinked the land question with issues including place names, oral history and the need to record and archive it, had to be cut short as the time ran out. This clearly demonstrated the need to continue such public debates. In the evening, the symposium was rounded off by an unforgettable mixed media performance “The Mourning Citizen” by Trixie Munyama. The performance made ingenious use of the eerie street tunnel under Robert Mugabe Avenue and the steps up to the Alte Feste - the genocide monument with a dilapidated façade next to the gloriously gold and towering Independence Memorial Museum- with the Da-mâi Dance Ensemble and a high-profile cooperation of artists and designers.