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Coming clean with Germany's dark past in Namibia

Daniel Pelz March 16, 2016

Germany and Namibia are continuing their dialogue about the genocide German troops committed in the former colony in the early 1900s. Germany's parliament also debated about the issue on Thursday.

Protesters holding a poster: "Genocide does not fall under the statue of limitations."
German protestors recall the genocide at a rally in BerlinImage: Imago/IPON

Namibia's ambassador Andreas Guibeb gets a look at the remnants of Germany's gruesome past every day - he just needs to go to work. The Namibian embassy in Berlin is based at the so-called "Goldstein house." A Jewish businessman built the villa in 1923. Germany's Nazi government expropriated him in 1940. He was deported to a concentration camp.

Another dark chapter of German history is also all too familiar to the ambassador.

Between 1904 and 1908, German soldiers massacred more than 70,000 Herero and about half of the Nama population in what was then the colony of German South-West Africa. German South-West Africa is now Namibia.

It was not until 2015, more than a century later, that the German government used the word 'genocide' in connection with the killings. To date, it has not apologized.

"We've made great progress," Ambassador Guibeb told DW. Since last year, both countries have started a formal dialogue about a recognition of the genocide. The ambassador says he's impressed by how Germany has dealt with the crimes of the Nazi era and apologized to countries and people affected.

Hoping for an apology

"Hopefully, when we move forward, we will follow the same template with regard to Namibia: The president or the chancellor tenders that apology so that there is no more doubt that he or she represents the people and the government of Germany,” he told DW.

Chances are high that Germany will apologize in one way or another for the crimes German soldiers committed in Namibia.

A black and white protograph of German soldiers in Namibia
German troops committed the genocide between 1904 and 1908Image: picture-alliance/dpa/W. Gebert

Germany would have to find a way to express its regrets so that the Namibian side could say, "Yes, this is the word - these are the sentences we've been waiting to hear for so long," Rupert Polenz, Special Commissioner for the Dialogue with Namibia, told German national radio in February.

But some representatives of the Herero community want more.

"Germany has to agree to trilateral negotiations between representatives of the Nama and the Herero people, the government of Namibia, and the German government," Herero Paramount Chief Vekuii Rukoro told German radio.

Do the descendents of the victims have a voice?

The Herero activists have some allies in Germany's lower house of parliament, the Bundestag. "The important question is: Are the descendants of the Herero and Nama victims going to be included in the agreement between the two governments? They have made clear that they are not going to accept an apology that was agreed without them," Member of Parliament Niema Movassat told DW.

His party, "Die Linke" (The Left), introduced a motion that the Bundestag debated about on Thursday. A majority of MPs voted against it.

Civil society activists in chains. They are acting like Hereros during German colonial rule in Namibia.
Namibian civil society is trying to keep the memory of the genocide aliveImage: picture-alliance/dpa/W. Gebert

The motion called on Germany's parliament to apologize for the crimes Germans committed in the former colony, pay compensation to the Herero and Nama and involve civil society in the negotiations between the two governments.

Both the German and the Namibian government do not want to share the negotiation table with the activists. "Negotiations take place between elected government representatives," Ambassador Andreas Guibeb told DW. His government formed a committee that has asked for suggestions from all traditional authorities in Namibia concerning the negotiations.

"We have many traditional authorities in Namibia that are recognized by the government. If you would include them all, you would have a national assembly, negotiations between a general assembly, but that is not how things work," the ambassador added.

Money issues

Opinions also differ about money. Herero Paramount Chief Vekuii Rukoro has already made it clear that he expects Germany to pay reparations. "Die Linke" Member of Parliament Niema Movassat agrees.

"The areas where the Herero live are among the poorest in Namibia. That of course also has to do with the genocide," Movassat told DW.

A road leading into the town of "Lüderitz".
Traces of Germany's colonial legacy are visible all over NamibiaImage: picture-alliance/dpa/T. Schulze

Germany's government has not commented. Since independence, Namibia has received development aid worth almost 800 million euros from Germany. The funds are partially also considered an indirect form of compensation. Germany's commissioner for the dialogue with Namibia did not promise direct payments to the Herero and Nama in his interview with German radio.

With plenty of sticking points, nobody knows when the discussions will be concluded. A spokeswoman for Germany's Foreign Ministry told DW that she was hoping for a speedy conclusion of the talks.