Defending the right to one's own existence

A conversation with Nandiuasora Mazeingo of the "Ovaherero Genocide Foundation" on the survival of colonial conditions in Namibia, necessary reparations and a common future.

For decades, the descendants of the victims have struggled for recognition and a thorough reappraisal of the German genocide against the Ovaherero and Nama people in what is now Namibia. From the German extinction order, which cast the violence already taking place into systematic forms, German colonial troops hunted down and murdered up to 100,000 Ovaherero and Nama from 1904 to 1908 and confined the survivors to concentration camps. In total, about 80% of the entire Ovaherero people were killed during this period.

Despite the scale of the crimes, it took until 2015 for the German government to be pressured into beginning an official dialogue with the Namibian government. In 2021, the German Foreign Office announced an agreement: The German government was to acknowledge the suffering and pay money for reconstruction and development. But the signed joint declaration does not meet the demands of the Ovaherero and Nama for reappraisal and reparation. Their representatives do not recognize the agreement and continue their struggle for an appropriate confrontation with the crimes.

 Within the conference “Afrika neu denken 2022” (Rethinking Africa) in October, key actors from the Namibian society came to Frankfurt to discuss how to deal with the genocide in a just way and what this means for German-Namibian relations. The following interview with Nandiuasora Mazeingo, chairman of the Ovaherero Genocide Foundation, took place after the conference. It talks about the omissions in the core of the agreement, the continuation of colonial relations, but also about the possibilities of a shared future.

medico: Why do you and other spokespeople of the Ovaherero and Nama don't recognize the joint declaration from 2021?

Nandiuasora Mazeingo: The struggle of the Ovaherero and Nama people is a struggle that stretches back more than 100 years. It is a struggle in which we as the people, living across multiple territories, are fighting for justice. Carried across generations it is rightfully our struggle. And with the joint declaration, there was an attempt by two governments to wrestle this struggle and heritage away from us. The Namibian and the German Governments negotiated the joint declaration in our name without our participation, but we stay firm in distancing ourselves from such a sham process that intends to solve nothing. It is us as the people who lost land, who lost literally everything because of that genocidal war. And it is a history we still live in today. 

So the first main problem with the joint declaration is that we were not part of the negotiations. The UN convention of 1948 on the “Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide” is very specific to say: Genocide inherently is not a crime against a state but a crime against a specific group of people, for example, tribes and ethnic groups. Despite these definitions, our voices do not get amplified. Instead we, the Ovaherero and Nama people, get silenced through exclusion from the process of defining our own justice, whilst a modern state, which did not even exist when the crimes actually took place, is purporting to own the exclusive right to define said justice without ever asking for a mandate to do so. And more so in the case of Namibia a state that is largely administered by people who don't even come from those communities that are affected. Therefore, the joint declaration dismally falls short regarding perhaps the most important formal indicator: that of being defined by the victims with a view to delivering their justice and importantly ensuring guarantees for non-recurrence. The declaration is not ours and essentially not about us.

Shouldn’t it be possible for Germany to have a process at the state level while at the same time starting a discussion with you, with the descendants of the victims?

Exactly. If we think about the reparations for the Shoah, the German state – to be readmitted into the club of “western civilized states” – spoke to the 23 Jewish committees who had assembled in the Jewish Claims Conference. Because only some of them were Israelis, they could not be represented by the State of Israel but only by themselves. Since similar conditions exist in this respect as in the genocide against the Ovaherero and Nama, the 2006 Namibian parliamentary motion on genocide also calls for rather tripartite talks. It argues that there must be a process where the two governments talk to each other, with the Namibian state explicitly assigned the role of facilitator to help those targeted and affected access these conversations and ensure that their voices are heard. Because there are a lot of people who the Namibian government cannot claim to represent, especially those who live outside of the country. Thus, the negotiations regarding the Shoah should have provided a fitting template. Germany in the end signed two protocols: The first one was signed with the state of Israel, and the second one was signed with the Jewish Claims Conference.

Did the German government at some point try to begin a conversation with you?

Last year the president of Germany Frank-Walter Steinmeier wanted to travel to Namibia to offer his apology in the Namibian parliament. So we were saying: Look, while we recognize that we too are Namibians today, and proudly so, we as a people have our own leadership that is over 150 years old and which has, by and large, singularly waged this struggle. And so we could guide anyone who genuinely wishes to right past wrongs against us to it. So for us, the said case of an apology only before the Parliament is the greatest insult. Because it reflects the same old racist posture, the old attitude of having no regard for us persists. Even the apology for crimes against us is to be transmitted through somebody else because we are not that important to be dealt with directly.

The same thing happened this year when Sima Luipert, my counterpart from the Nama side, came to Berlin. The minister for foreign affairs Annalena Baerbock refused to see us. For a long time, we thought of the Green party as a friend of our cause, so we were very upbeat when they got into government in 2021. We thought that now there would be some kind of opening. But to be honest with you, we were soon reminded of the saying that “once in power, politicians are all the same”. Old friends, but now they won’t even see us anymore? It is very disappointing but perhaps not surprising.

What do you criticize about the content of the joint declaration? 

The 2006 parliamentary motion not only called for tripartite talks. What it also called for was that Germany must admit guilt to the genocide. Genocide is a legal construct with legal capabilities, it is not just a political or moral concept. Once you admit guilt to it certain penalties have to be imposed. But in the joint declaration, Germany denies that, it refuses to admit that guilt. It uses all kinds of statecraft to go around an admission. Germany says it is only defined as genocide in today’s terms which is because at the time the victims weren’t seen as people. This is inherently the same approach that General von Trotha, commander of the German colonial forces, used to kill our people: The racist argument that others are “savages”, they don't deserve their land and we as the “superior race” must take it.

So we reject the joint declaration for two main reasons. The first one is that the process is flawed fundamentally because we were not involved. But more importantly, it is the content or lack of it for which we absolutely reject it. If Germany is denying guilt to the genocide, obviously the whole thing ceases being a discussion about reparations and turns into an issue about development aid. And then what is really there to build upon? You can't build on something that is structurally and fundamentally flawed. We need to talk about reparations, which are a penalty for a crime and have nothing to do with the good will of a voluntary donor.

Compromises like these are the reason for many problems we face today. 1982 in the lead-up to our independence for instance Germany, France, the UK, Canada, and the US entrenched private property rights of white people into our constitution. And that’s why our independence came to us without the right of taking back what we lost during the many years of subjugation, oppression, dispossession, and displacement: First and foremost our land that we were robbed of. So what would be the use for us to enter into a settlement that would not solve any of the problems that we have today and that we have had for over 100 years? 

What does it mean that the descendants of the German settlers are still owning a majority of the land that was stolen from your people?

Today many Ovaherero and Nama people live in poverty due to having been robbed of their land and their other cultural and spiritual possessions. We, the Ovahereros, have historically been pastoralists and cattle herders, and to farm with cattle you need land. After the genocide people were rounded up, thrown into concentration camps. And when the concentration camps were figuratively closed, people were sold off as slaves to the Germans who occupied our land and stole our cattle, which happened not simply by individuals but by deliberate state policies and actions. It is what the German declaration actually imposed on us after the war.

With close to no pay for their work the Ovaherero people were slowly able to rebuild small stocks of cattle over time and once they were let go from these white farms they were thrown into the so-called native reserves: Small pieces of land where the Ovahereros are congested until today while most of their land is still occupied by whites of largely German and Afrikaner descent. And actually, most of them still have their German citizenship, we hear. For them, Namibia is just this little wilderness for safari. Some of them have vast tracks of land, up to several tens of thousands of hectars, that throughout most of the year is uninhibited while the Black majority is cramped onto the native reserves. So this issue of landlessness clearly shows a continuation of colonial attitudes and crimes.

The extermination order is basically still intact today. What does this mean to your people? How do you contextualize these continuations?

The conditions of war have never formally ceased to exist. The extermination order was declared, so the first phase was really one of hunting down our people - who were already unarmed at that time and could just about feed on wild fruits - and killing them militarily. The second phase consisted of concentration camps and working them to death. All of this has led to the current state of poverty, landlessness, and displacement. What happens today are perpetuations of colonialism. When Germany for instance denies us our right to speak for ourselves, for us that remains extermination. Because in their eyes we are a people who do not exist.

How are the people in Namibia feeling about their situation? Is there still anger?

There is a lot of anger. Especially amongst our youth in the native reserves. Because these guys are now coming up and there isn't land for them to even start their own little farming business ventures, they have no prospect. And they're surrounded by vast tracks of lands that are fenced off by white occupiers, most of them who don't even live there, they just keep wild animals as an attraction for fellow visiting white people who come during the cold winter seasons of the northern hemisphere. So there is a lot of anger. Occupier's fences are often cut open as our young folks, out of frustration, would herd their animals into those ancestral lands to graze. They also do this as a form of protest which also underscores that our people have never forgotten the solemn truth: that right across those tall ugly fences lies their land. In our view what Germany is doing in Namibia, is to protect and entrench the economic interest of those few white occupiers of our land, who largely have no regard for our history and continue to deny it.

What perspectives for the future do you see regarding this struggle? And finally, what should the role of German society be regarding this process? 

On the one hand, we just wish that the descendants of white settlers could simply come to the table to begin a conversation with us. Because despite our differentiated histories, we recognize that they too were born in Namibia and that we have a shared future as Namibians. Ultimately the settlement must be about building bridges between our people, it must be about us coming together as people, healing and forgiving whilst not forgetting. So it is not a process between politicians, it is a process between societies and individuals.

So on the other hand German society must understand that this joint declaration is being imposed on us by their representatives. The dirty work they do is in your name, so if you are silent it means that you agree with what they are doing. We as people have lost everything and there is no way that we can forget and forgive and go on unless there is a genuine process of ensuring justice is done without any compromises. If we look at the bigger picture, this struggle should really be about global cooperation, peace, and justice. If we succeed at it, other former colonial powers could also choose to follow the path of Germany and the Ovaherero and Nama. This is a global struggle wherein the future is about cooperation, interdependence, and the indivisibility of the world. It is a struggle for all of us.

The interview was conducted Julia Manek. Translation and editing by Moritz Köhler

Published: 05. December 2022

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