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Namibians want German apology for Herero and Nama genocide

Daniel Pelz
May 9, 2018

Anger is building in Namibia over inaction by colonial-era power Germany, almost three years after talks began about an apology and reparations for the genocide of its indigenous Herero and Nama.

Herero and Nama representatives in front of the entrance to the court building in New York
Image: Picture-Alliance/dpa/J. Schmitt-Tegge

Helin Evrim Sommer is extremely angry. "The secret bilateral negotiations are not transparent, a farce in a sense,” the spokeswoman on development  for Germany's Left party criticized in an interview with DW.

Even members of the German parliament don't know exactly where the talks between Germany and Namibia , once regarded as a prestige project, now stand, the lawmaker said.

Namibians wait for German apology

After tough debate in Germany and abroad, all major parties acknowledged that Berlin should apologize for the genocide in its former colony of "German South West Africa” where tens of thousands of Herero and Nama were killed between 1904 and 1908. 

Namibia is still waiting for that apology. There is no mention of it in the current German government's coalition agreement. 

Enquiries to the foreign ministry are always met with a standard response. The position papers with the detailed claims out of Namibia and the offer out of Germany are both classified.

Whenever delegates meet, the outcome of the negotiation round remains likewise unclear – no more than a brief media statement follows. Consequently, no one in Germany takes notice of these negotiations.

Critics such as Sommer believe the federal government wants to put this matter on the back burner. 

By contrast, in Nambia the issue is boiling over. A few weeks ago German Ambassador Christian Schlaga complained he was once again the target of "false, slanderous, derogatory and insulting statements".

Accusations of genocide denial

A columnist from the government-owned New Era newspaper had accused Schlaga of denying German guilt for the genocide in a speech. The diplomat vehemently denied this.

Reports on the negotiations and the sharp criticism appear regularly in Namibian media. Newspapers report on alleged progress or sticking points in the talks. The reports cannot be verified.

Herero representatives, for example, claim a secret deal has been in place between the two sides since Namibian independence:  Windhoek waived reparations for the genocide and Berlin committed to higher development aid. Both governments deny this.

"Such reports are annoying on the one side because they are false and on the other because they worsen the climate,” Ruprecht Polenz, the German chief negotiator, told DW. 

"The populace is losing patience,” counters Maximilian Weylandt of the Windhoek-based think tank Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR).

An artistic depiction of the Herero Wars in Namibia where German soldiers lunge bayonets at indigenous peoples armed with spears.
The genocide of Herero and Nama people followed disputes with German settlers over land and water in present-day NamibiaImage: picture-alliance/HIP

Germans want closed talks

"After more than two years there is still no outcome, and some people are asking whether Germany is really negotiating in good faith and is prepared to respond to the needs of Namibians,” Weylandt told DW.

On the disputed question of compensation, for instance, an IPPR survey showed two thirds of Namibian respondents are in favor of compensation from Germany, a possibility Berlin had excluded at the outset of the talks.

A pro-active communications strategy could perhaps prevent rumors to a certain exent, but Polenz does not want to break from talks behind closed doors.

"To only way to change that means to discuss each step in the negotiations in public. I think that would make the steps to an agreement harder than they are now, " he says. As Germany's  representative, Polenz often talks to the media.

Namibians are also not satisfied with their own government. Less than half of respondents in the IPPR survey said they believed its negotiations with Germany were good or "mostly good." A little over half want traditional representatives of the Herero and Nama to be involved.

"The actions of some opposition parties in parliament and some of traditional authorities of various ethnic groups have ensured that many Namibians know about the negotiations. Perhaps their views have also been influenced," said IPPR expert Weylandt.

A car marked with the words "Germany must pay" parked at an airport in Namibia's capital Windhoek.
Germany returned the skulls of Herero and Nama people in 2011, a century after they were taken by German colonisersImage: AFP/Getty Images/B. Weidlich

Traditional leaders criticize Windhoek

Some traditional Herero and Nama leaders have long criticized the Namibian government as being too soft on Germany. They are suing in a US federal court to be part of the negotiations between Windhoek and Berlin. 

Germany has brought a motion to dismiss the action, which is being renegotiated in New York this week. A ruling is expected in a few weeks. 

The pressure seems to be having consequences, as the government of Namibia is also publicly showing signs of impatience with Berlin. Last year, the attorney general unexpectedly announced he was investigating a compensation claim against Germany.

Symbolically, too, the government appears to be moving closer to critics among the Herero; Namibia's monuments authority recently said the former German concentration site on Shark Island should be declared a national memorial.

Namibian researcher Albertina Nekongo told DW: " For shark Island to be transformed into a heritage site will be of great importance, most especially to the Hereros and Namas who were involved in the war of 1904 to 1907 where the extermination order was issued to eliminate the Ovaherero people and for the Germans to take over the land'.

Polenz said the German federal government has a big interest in concluding negotiations "as soon as possible". However it is important that it takes as much time as needed. "It is about finding an outcome in Namibia that is acceptable to the government but also approved by the people," he says. 

The talks are on the right track, he said, with individual groups working on the details of the German apology and projects for the affected ethnic groups. But he refused to be drawn on when exactly the next official round of negotiations will take place.

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