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New German special envoy for dialogue with Namibia

Interview: Isaac MugabiNovember 4, 2015

Germany has appointed veteran politician Ruprecht Polenz as special envoy for a dialogue with Namibia. In July 2015, Germany for the first time spoke of an act of genocide against the Herero and Nama people of Namibia.

Namibia deutsche Kolonialgeschichte Kriegsgefangene Herero
Image: Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-2003-0005/Unknown/CC-BY-SA 3.0

"We have been having a confidential dialogue with the government of Nambia about a common approach to the painful colonial past since last year," Germany's foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said on Wednesday (04.11.2015). This dialogue, said Steinmeier, must now be intensified and formalized.

Marred by the killing of up to 85,000 people of the Herero and Nama ethnic groups between 1904 and 1908, Germany's colonial past in Namibia has been a recurring matter of discussion. According to Germany's foreign ministry, the dialogue with Namibia should be based on the guiding principal that: "The war of extermination in Namibia from 1904 to 1908 was a war crime and an act of genocide." Past demands from Herero and Nama groups have included the repatriation of skulls and remains that were taken to Germany for 'research' purposes and reparations for the descendants of the affected groups.

Former parliamentarian and chairman of the Bundestag's foreign affairs committee, Ruprecht Polenz from the Christian Democrats (CDU) has now been appointed Germany's special envoy for the dialogue between Germany and Namibia.

DW: You have been given the mandate to continue the dialogue between Germany and Nambia. How do you intend to handle this task?

Ruprecht Polenz
Ruprecht Polenz is Germany's new special envoy for the dialogue with Namibia.Image: privat

Ruprecht Polenz: We have had talks for quite a while now between the German foreign ministry and the government of Namibia. We are now trying from both sides to reach conclusions regarding our common past and we want to identify roads into the future. Of course, a reliable positive relationship needs a common understanding of what happened in the past.

How did the decision to nominate you as the man to spearhead these discussions between the two governments come about?

You should probably ask the foreign minister because I got a phone call from him and he asked me if I would be prepared to do this. I was a member of the German parliament for nearly 20 years and I chaired the foreign affairs committee from 2005 to 2013. During this time I gained a lot of experience with regard to foreign policy issues. We, the foreign minister and myself, have known each other for quite a long time and I think he trusts me to deal with this 'not easy' topic. 'Not easy' because we need to find a common diplomatic language, a common understanding and conclusions for the future. This is what lies ahead and I am quite confident that we can get to a point where we can say, we are now clear and we can now move towards a very good relationship in the future.

Many representatives of the Herero and Nama people have demanded an official apology. Do you think the time has come for Germany to officially apologize for what happened a hundred years ago?

I am quite sure that we will discuss all the requests from the Namibian side, the Herero side and the Nama side, what they want to address in such a dialogue. I hope that we can find a way which is satisfactory to both sides. I want you to understand that I have just started my personal talks with my counterparts from Namibia. Therefore I cannot spread premature information. We are developing the content of what we are trying to achieve and therefore it is too early to speak about it. I can only assure you of the seriousness of the German government to come to a common understanding of the history between Germany and Namibia. I am personally also very committed to achieving this goal.

Will the content that you are talking about include the issue of reparations?

We, of course, have to discuss the future of the relationship. This can include a lot of different things. I'm ready to listen. The main point of my first visit will be for me to gain a better understanding through listening. I will hopefully get first hand impressions from what I see in Namibia. I have never been in the country. So this is the first step. Then we will move forward. Of course I know what has been negotiated so far. I attended the debates in the German parliament, so I am familiar with the issues. But there is a difference between being part of a parliamentary debate and being a special envoy with the task of bringing the relationship to a stable basis for the future.

Ruprecht Polenz was appointed the German government's special envoy for the dialogue between Germany and Namibia on November 4, 2015.