University of Johannesburg: Germany’s genocide reparations to Namibia face acceptance test

​Professor Adekeye Adebajo is Director of the University of Johannesburg’s Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation. He recently penned an opinion article that first appeared in the Business Day: 13 September 2021.

As some world leaders gather in New York for their annual United Nations General Assembly rituals, the 22 September debate on “Reparations, Racial Justice, and Equality for People of African Descent” to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the 2001 Durban Racism Conference, will be particularly significant. One of the most important recent developments is the agreement by the German government, in May, to pay Є1.1 billion in compensation for the genocide in its then colony of Southwest Africa (Namibia) between 1904 and 1908.

In January 1904, reacting against the theft of their land and cattle by German citizens, the Herero killed 100 white settlers during an uprising. In response, psychopathic general, Lothar von Trotha, issued a Vernichtungsbefehl for the extermination of the Herero. The indigenous group waged a courageous resistance, but was simply overpowered by Germany’s machine guns, cannons, and bayonets. The Herero were defeated at Waterberg, resulting in floggings, mass executions, and hangings. Forced into the Kalahari Desert, many died of starvation and thirst. The survivors were carted off in cattle trucks to concentration camps, where thousands died from slave labour. Eugenics policies were initiated, with inmates forced to scrape the flesh of kinsfolk and boil human skulls, about 3,000 of which were sent to Germany for pseudo-scientific experiments.

The Nama uprising was equally ruthlessly quashed, with the rebels locked up in cold death camps on Shark Island. By 1908, an estimated 90,000 people – 80% of the total Herero and 50% of the Nama population – had been massacred in the 20th century’s first genocide. Many historians regard the Namibian genocide as having been a grisly dress rehearsal for the Jewish Holocaust two decades later.

On the centenary of the start of the massacres, Berlin offered an apology to the Herero for these crimes. After 108 years of denial and equivocation, Germany finally conceded, in 2015, that these acts constituted “a war crime and a genocide.” The governments of Namibia and Germany thereafter took six years to negotiate a joint agreement. Berlin agreed to pay Є1.1 billion in aid over 30 years in the key areas of land reform, rural infrastructure, healthcare, energy, education, and vocational training. These crimes were, however, described as genocide “from today’s perspective,” suggesting that international law did not apply to its African victims. Berlin also stressed that the accord should not open the door to any “legal request for compensation,” fearing similar claims from Poland, Greece, and Italy for Nazi crimes.

Germany refused to include the word “reparations” in the joint declaration. Windhoek was widely seen to have been outmanoeuvred in this negotiation of unequals between the government and its largest aid donor. The main challenge in implementing this historic accord will be how to convince Herero and Nama leaders to accept it. Several have complained that most of their leaders were not represented in the negotiations, and voiced vociferous hostility to the deal. The distrust of indigenous groups relates largely to what many see as their continuing marginalisation within Namibian society, as well as their criticisms of what they regard as a corrupt elite in Windhoek that can not be relied on to spend aid money honestly and equitably.

Former European colonial powers like France, Britain, Belgium, Portugal, and Spain have yet to come to terms with atrocities that they committed in Africa: one million Algerians died in the savage Gallic war of 1954-1962; while British troops killed about 25,000 Kenyans and detained 100,000 without trial during the Mau Mau uprising of the 1950s. Belgium stands accused of the death of half of the Congolese population of 20 million people during King Léopold’s brutal reign of murder and mayhem. Will these European powers follow Berlin’s lead in offering a full-throated apology for their colonial crimes, and make amends to repair this enduring damage?