Across Africa, claims for colonial reparations are proliferating. In August 2022, Ghana led a coalition of countries to renew their demand for compensation for colonization and the slave trade. Since 2020, countries including Burundi, Tanzania, and Cameroon have all called for recompense for the lasting consequences of colonial occupation. These politics are usually seen as a recent phenomenon. Yet Namibians have waged a successful, long-term campaign for justice against their former coloniser, writes Fabian Krautwald.
In 2021, Namibia and Germany concluded the first ‘reconciliation agreement’ between a former colony and a colonial power. The deal referred explicitly to Germany’s genocide of the Herero and Nama between 1904 and 1908. After the Herero rebelled in 1904, German forces drove men, women, and children into the Kalahari Desert. Those who escaped the pursuing colonial troops sought refuge in neighbouring Botswana. Those who did not were either shot or sent to concentration camps, where many died from forced labour and neglect. When the Nama also rose up, they suffered the same punishment. After the war, survivors were deprived of their land and cattle, denying them the opportunity to provide for themselves and their families. Even by conservative estimates, at least one-third of both societies–up to 95,000 people—perished.
A genealogy of repair
Africans had disputed settler encroachment and land theft even before the onset of formal colonial rule. In the nineteenth century, indigenous Namibian leaders petitioned Queen Victoria for British protection to ward off Boer settlers.
After the genocide of 1904-1908, the Herero and Nama used every available opportunity to record their view of what had occurred. In 1917, Namibian witnesses testified under oath to British officials about the horrors of the genocide. The resulting report, known as the Blue Book, helped convince delegates at the Paris Peace Conference in Versailles to deny Germany the return of its former colonies. Although the British and South Africans intended the Blue Book to be a work of propaganda to be used against Germany, its findings on the genocide have since been corroborated by historians.
The victorious allies re-allocated German colonies among themselves and Namibia became a colony of the white settler regime in South Africa, after their forces had occupied the country as part of the British Empire during the war.
Namibians immediately tried to reclaim their stolen lands. In 1919, a coalition of local chiefs declared to the visiting South African Governor General that to be free would mean to have their land again. This claim did not entail a demand for self-determination but referred to the land expropriated under German rule. By 1913, Africans occupied a mere 2.7 million hectares while 42.3 million hectares were reserved for white farmers. Despite an initially lenient approach, the South African administration entrenched white control over land and introduced apartheid in Namibia in 1948.
Indigenous leaders and politicians marshaled the experience of Namibia’s first colonization to criticise apartheid, record the history of the 1904-1908 genocide, and highlight it to international audiences such as the United Nations.
Global memory politics
In 1959, Namibian petitioner Mburumba Kerina told the UN General Assembly’s Fourth Committee, which dealt with matters of decolonization, that during the 1904–1908 war: “The white immigrants had stolen [the Hereros’] land, driven them into the desert, deprived them of their cattle, violated their women and children, starved them and shot them mercilessly.” Together with the anti-apartheid activist Michael Scott, Kerina worked with Raphael Lemkin to lobby governments to criminalise the crime of genocide. Lemkin, who coined the phrase genocide and was responsible for the UN Genocide Convention, incorporated the case of Namibia into his global history of genocide.
To achieve international recognition, Namibians compared their country’s history to other genocides. In 1960, Jariretundu Kozonguizi, the President of the South West Africa National Union (SWANU), told listeners of Radio Beijing that the impact of the war of 1904-1908 resembled the subsequent murder of European Jews: “This extermination resulted in the reduction of one of the national groups [the Herero] there from 100,000 to only 15,000. Of the same savage magnitude known to us was the attempt to eliminate the Jews in Germany.” Kozonguizi’s statement was one of the first in a series of comparisons that Namibians drew between their genocide and the Holocaust.
Recognition and claims for reparations
In 1959, and again in 1960 and 1962, the UN General Assembly’s Committee on South West Africa confirmed that the Herero and Nama lived in Botswana because of the 1904-1908 war. In 1985, UN Special Rapporteur Benjamin Whitaker classified the war as genocide. This recognition would not have been achieved without the work of Kerina, Kozonguizi, and other Namibians.
The 1919 Blue Book, the lobbying by Namibians, and the Whitaker Report became the basis for formal claims for restitution by Namibians to the German government after Namibia’s independence in 1990.
In 2001 and again in 2017, Namibian plaintiffs sued the Federal Republic of Germany and German companies before US courts under the Alien Torts Claims Act. Both lawsuits failed because the judges ruled that Germany was protected under sovereign state immunity. However, under pressure from Herero and Nama groups the Namibian government, which at first had rejected reparation demands, sought state-level negotiations with Germany, which culminated in the 2021 ‘reconciliation agreement’.
The agreement included an apology from the German state and proposals for € 1.2 billion in development aid. But it did not end the debate over reparations. Representatives of the affected communities and the Namibian government have called for a renegotiation of the agreement because Germany refused to recognise the legal right of Namibians to reparations.
Even if the final version of the agreement does not recognise this right, Namibians have already created a precedent for redressing the impact of colonialism.
The example of Namibia shows that African reparation politics, far from being a recent trend, have deep roots going back to colonialism itself. Colonized Africans did not wait for independence to call for the return of stolen land and accountability for colonial oppression.
Current African campaigns for restorative justice are re-ordering the continent’s relationship with the world and offer the potential for new international, regional, and national dialogues about the history of colonialism. A greater awareness of the antecedents of these politics will buttress the moral weight of reparation claims and may also strengthen the legal case for compensation.
Photo credit: Fabian Krautwald
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