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Namibia still waiting for German apology

Daniel Pelz
September 16, 2019

Political relations have been tense lately, as several German politicians acknowledge, on visits to the country's former colony in Africa, responsibility for the genocide. That is not enough for many Namibians.

Namibia Bundesentwicklungsminister Gerd Müller in Windhoek
Image: Imago Images/photothek/U. Grabowsky

Gerd Müller wanted to set an example. When the German development minister visited Namibia at the end of August, a meeting with representatives of the indigenous Herero and Nama was also on the agenda. Both the state visit and the meeting are not to be taken for granted. The last high-ranking German politician to Namibia was the then Federal President Roman Herzog in 1998.

There is much to talk about, especially with the Herero and Nama. Tens of thousands of members of the two ethnic groups were killed in the genocide in German South West Africa after they rebelled against colonial rule. The Herero and Nama also lost their livestock and land. Until today, many live in bitter poverty.

Active visiting diplomacy

Visits have followed visits: Before Müller, the President of the Federal Council Daniel Günther traveled to Namibia in July. After years of unsuccessful negotiations with the Namibian government on how to deal with the colonial crimes, the visiting diploma looks like a sign: Germany is now ready to address the dark chapter of its history.

US Justiz l US-Richterin verwirft Klage namibischer Volksgruppen Herero und Nama
The Herero and Nama are asking for an official German apologyImage: Imago/IPON/S. Boness

Both politicians openly used the word "genocide" during their visits, a taboo for years for the Berlin government fearing demands for reparations. Günther bowed in front of the memorial for the victims of the genocide in the port city of Swakopmund, where the German colonial troops had once left thousands of Herero and Nama to die in concentration camps.

"In 1904 and 1908, Germany committed terrible crimes, especially against the Herero and Nama, and we naturally bear the responsibility for this — even today," Muller said after meeting with the Herero and Nama. Germany would formally apologize for the colonial genocide.

'Secret mission in Africa'

But the waves are far from being smoothed. Instead, it's a meeting that is causing new controversy. Officially, it is not known who was present from the Namibian side. The participants had asked for it, so too the Ministry of Development. More than one photo does not exist. "Müller's secret mission in Africa," Berlin Tagesspiegel newspaper reported.

Only Herero and Nama who work with the Namibian government were present, says German-Namibian analyst and author Henning Melber. "But not the main representatives of Herero and Nama, who rightly complain that they are not involved in the negotiations. This is indirectly an affront to significant parts of the descendants of the former victims," Melber told DW.

Bundesratspräsident Daniel Günther in Namibia
President of the Federal Council Daniel Günther commemorated the murdered during his visit to NamibiaImage: picture-alliance/dpa/Staatskanzlei Kiel/P. Kraft

"There was no Nama leader at that meeting who represents the interest of the Nama people. We believe that is an objectification of the Nama people," Sima Luipert of the Nama Traditional Leaders Association (NTLA) said in a DW interview. The NTLA, which calls itself the only legitimate representation of the Nama, is one of those associations calling for direct negotiations on the genocide with the German government. They are also attempting to fight for this by bringing a suit before a US court. Other associations — which also claim to be the official representatives of the Nama support the negotiations between the two governments.

Long wait

Moreover, many Herero and Nama are becoming impatient despite those compassionate German words. An official German apology for the horrors of colonial rule remains to be seen — even though Germany and Namibia have been negotiating at government level since 2015.

"We appreciate the fact that in their personal capacity they are asking for an apology, but that is only a personal apology. No number of apologies from any individual will make a difference unless the German government makes an apology on behalf of all the German people," Luipert said.

Kneeling in Warsaw as example

Analyst Henning Melber says: "It would be a long overdue and symbolic gesture for a high-ranking representative of the German side — the chancellor, the foreign minister — to come to Namibia and act accordingly. We know the consequences of Willy Brandt who kneeled down in Warsaw. So there is no need for big words." Foreign Minister Heiko Maas was in Africa around the same time as the development minister, but instead of Namibia he preferred to visit the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sudan.

Massaker deutscher Truppen an Hereros ((c) picture-alliance/dpa/F. Rohrmann)
German troops killed tens of thousands of Herero and Nama Image: (c) picture-alliance/dpa/F. Rohrmann

Nevertheless, according to Müller, the government negotiations are making progress. Both sides had agreed on a joint draft to be submitted to both parliaments. Only the issue of finances was still controversial. He hoped that the negotiations could be concluded after the next elections in Namibia. It remains to be seen whether this will happen. In the past, the German government repeatedly had to adjust its timetables.

It is also unclear how many Herero and Nama will accept the outcome of the talks. "We don't know what the two governments are talking about. They do not inform the Nama leaders; no Nama leader knows the content of the negotiations. We do not even know what will be agreed at the end," said Luipert.