Coming to Terms with the Past
Confronting the Dark Chapter

Two people in front of a commemorative plaque in Berlin for the Congo Conference.
Two people in front of a commemorative plaque in Berlin for the Congo Conference: More than 100 years after the crimes committed by the German colonial power in what is now Namibia, the German government recognises the atrocities committed against the Herero and Nama people as genocide. | Photo (detail): Paul Zinken © picture alliance / dpa / dpa-Zentralbild

Between 1904 and 1908 the colonial forces of the German Reich murdered tens of thousands of Ovaherero and Nama people in what is now Namibia. After more than five years of negotiations between the German and Namibian governments, Germany recognised this as genocide. Political scientist and Africanist Henning Melber discusses the shortcomings of these negotiations, as well as the process of colonial powers coming to terms with the past.

After almost six years of talks with Namibia, Germany announced a reconciliation agreement; it sounds like a fait accompli. How final do you think the negotiations really are?

According to Ruprecht Polenz, the German special envoy responsible for the bilateral negotiations, the agreement paraphrased in mid-May by him and his Namibian counterpart Doctor Zed Ngavirue – who died of COVID-19 – is a final arrangement. This was also affirmed by Federal Minister for Foreign Affairs Heiko Maas in the Bundestag. On that basis there will be no renegotiations. Admittedly the final paraphrasing of the so-called reconciliation agreement at foreign minister level did not take place in June 2021 in Windhoek as originally planned. The reason was the dramatic increase in corona cases in Namibia, but also the fierce protest by the Ovaherero and Nama in the country. The debate in the Namibian parliament was cut short after some animated discussion because of the pandemic and is currently awaiting resumption of sessions so that the agreement can be ratified.

Paraphrasing at minister level is required for the agreement to become legally enforceable. According to unconfirmed reports, the Act is planned for September 2021. The only thing that could thwart this is a fairly unlikely U-turn by the Namibian government. But the ruling SWAPO Party of Namibia, formerly the South West Africa People’s Organisation, has an absolute clear majority in parliament. Their elected members are likely to vote in favour – despite criticism from within the ranks and dissatisfaction with the compromise negotiated.   

What responsibility does Germany have to start up talks again, especially bearing in mind that organisations such as the Ovaherero Traditional Authority (OTA) and the Nama Traditional Leaders Association (NTLA) reject the agreement as it currently stands?

If reconciliation is to be taken seriously, the significant representatives of descendants of people directly affected by the genocide must be involved. This did not happen. This accusation needs to be directed at the Namibian government as well. Unfortunately the results of the negotiations are flawed. However, it would be arrogant for the Germans to demand correction of an omission, even though it had been accepted during negotiations in the interests of both governments. Neither does Germany assume such a responsibility by emphasising the final character of the reconciliation agreement and thereby reinforcing the exclusion of the Ovaherero and Nama representatives.

How do you think they arrived at the sum of 1.1 billion euros that Germany is now supposed to pay Namibia over 30 years?

This amount was the result of haggling. The German government’s opening offer was far lower, according to reports of those involved, whereas demands on the part of Namibia were considerably higher. The economic crisis in Namibia likely benefited the German side during negotiations, which resulted in a figure that’s closer to the original lower amount.

Since 2016 the economy has been in recession, and this has been exacerbated dramatically by the consequences of the corona pandemic. Financially the government is in deep trouble, which without a doubt made them more willing to compromise. The unfettered political hegemony of the SWAPO – a liberation movement that has been in power since independence in 1990 – has also been weakened by loss of votes in the parliamentary and presidential elections in November 2019 and even more so in the regional and local elections in November 2020. The Namibian government might have speculated that they would be able to count the financial contributions they had negotiated as a success. In view of the reaction in the country, this was a misjudgement.

The intention is to use the 1.1 billion euros to fund projects over a 30-year period. In which projects do they plan to invest the money, and who will make this decision? What guarantee can be given that the money will actually be used for that?

0.05 billion euros have been reserved for a foundation for cultural exchange. That’s less than two million euros per year. 1.05 billion euros are being spread over 30 years to fund the infrastructure of seven of the country’s 14 regions. The descendants of communities most affected by the genocide live in these places. Rural development is a priority there, along with education, health, energy and water supply.

More specific details will be provided concerning implementation, including in relation to planning and administration. For this reason there are already fears that the situation could facilitate generation of personal profit for those involved. The extent to which the planned structures will put a stop to that by performing appropriate checks remains to be seen.

Spokespersons from the Ovaherero Traditional Authority and Nama Traditional Leaders Association describe the reconciliation agreement as a “PR coup by Germany”. To what extent is this description justified?

In view of the substantial criticism of the agreement, it’s hardly appropriate to refer to it as a PR coup. It’s more of an attempt that has failed due to inadequacy – which isn’t very likely to be an image booster even if it is achieved. However one positive aspect remains: it’s the first time a former colonial power has confronted the dark chapter – albeit rather half-heartedly. Still, it creates a new point of reference for postcolonial processes in other countries too. This might have a mobilising effect, to exert more pressure on governments to admit to their histories of colonial violence.

The Holocaust is also frequently mentioned in association with this genocide in the international press, for example in the Washington Post and the New York Times, on the subject of dealing with the past in Germany. How is the genocide enacted on the Ovaherero and Nama handled in comparison with other acts of genocide?

I find a comparison with the Holocaust or other genocides far-fetched, if not downright misleading. Every form of mass destruction and genocide has a singular character for those affected. What the Ovaherero and Nama are calling for is unconditional recognition of the crime as well as respect for the suffering it caused, which for them is still in the present today; it’s not history.

The German way of coming to terms with the Holocaust can only be relevant in the sense that it has created forms of remembrance that should similarly be accorded to the victims of German colonialism in today’s Namibia and elsewhere.

International understanding should be practised at a personal level in the countries involved, through a shared remembrance of the atrocities. This calls for reflection as to which efforts are necessary as an expression of regret, as well as a quest for commonality between the descendants of the perpetrators and the victims for a shared future in peace.

Why do you think Germany avoids the word “reparations” and what would change with the use of that term?

The agreement stresses that Germany recognises the genocide in the moral and political sense – but specifically not in a legal sense. The agreed material contribution is termed a “gesture of recognition”. Reparation by contrast is a term with legal connotations. This would open up a dimension that touches on other controversial cases, including war crimes by German soldiers during the Second World War.

In these situations, courts in Greece, Italy and Eastern European countries have conceded compensation entitlement to descendants of the civilians killed back then. Germany always rejected these judgements and took no responsibility for individual war crimes. Reparation payments to the genocide descendants in Namibia would set a precedent that would show this legal issue in a new light. It might also encourage similar demands from descendants of victims in other German colonies.


The interview was conducted by Juliane Glahn.