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Namibia: Beware the new scramble for Africa under the guise of reparations for colonial atrocities, warns UJ’s Dr David Monyae

Dr David Monyae, the Co-Director of the University Of Johannesburg (UJ) Confucius Institute (UJCI), penned an opinion article published on the Daily Maverick, 07 June 2021.

Is the German government’s apology to Namibia’s Herero and Nama people for the 1904-1907 genocide just another way to make inroads into the neo-colonialism project through grossly one-sided and unapologetically unfair bilateral and multilateral agreements leveraged off legacy partnerships?

“Inkukhu iyawusola umgqhakazo” – Isisho sesiZulu (“The hen is suspicious of the mielies” – isiZulu saying)

Africans are conflicted. The sweeping trend of finally recognising the social, economic and downright humanitarian damage that colonial powers wreaked in Africa, leaves a bittersweet taste in our mouths.

The unclaimed atrocities such as the Maji Maji massacres in Tanzania, the Mau Mau in Kenya, Bhambatha in South Africa, King Leopold II’s personal ownership of the Congo, and the priceless artefacts from all parts of the African continent that are still marvelled at in European museums and human remains of Africans in the basements of European libraries.

Germany’s move to come to terms with its dark past concerning Namibia’s genocide remains half-hearted and serves as additional insult to the centuries of condescending attitudes towards injustices and degradation of Africans and African lands. In the face of renewed vigour for the mending of relationships that were initially forced violently upon African peoples, it sits a bit too conveniently to be outright trusted as not being prompted by some sort of strategic benefit.

Asian powers are knocking on the door for collaboration with African states over which Western powers previously enjoyed hegemony. They are, now more than ever, forced to manage the reeking problem of the debt of colonial compensation still unserviced by both figuratively and quite literally throwing money at the problem. A few bucks’ hush money sent via a giant cheque and a handshake for the headlines, for broken families, communities and entire societies for material gain. How much in damages is enough?

By the same token, it is vindicating that it is finally being addressed, fault and responsibility allocated, and guilt being accepted for the state of the richest continent on earth being also the one with the most desolate of people.

Emmanuel Macron’s admission of France’s part in the Rwandan genocide, Germany’s apology for the genocide of the Herero and Nama people, and even Joe Biden’s commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa massacre seem to overturn the predominant rhetoric that Africans are responsible for their sad state of affairs. This as the culprits sheepishly claim responsibility and own up to their hand in dividing, destroying and then helping to maintain the state of disaster that exists in African societies the world over, but particularly in Africa itself. Albeit they are very slow and selective in claiming accountability for their transgressions, their admissions are still a welcomed start.

On 28 May 2021, Germany’s foreign ministry announced that it would be providing more than $1-billion in development project finance as compensation for the genocide against the Herero and Nama groups carried out between 1904 and 1907. The genocide took place as a result of the January 1904 Herero people’s rebellion against German settler rule.

General Lothar von Trotha issued an order that all Herero men should be slaughtered and the women and children be driven into the desert. Their wells were subsequently destroyed to ensure that there were no survivors. In October 1904 the Nama people followed suit and rebelled against German rule and a mass extermination took place conducted by the German army.

In May, German foreign minister Heiko Maas said in a statement: “It was, and continues to be, our aim to find a common path towards real reconciliation in the memory of the victims; this requires us to be unreserved and unflinching in naming the events of the German colonial period in what is now Namibia, and especially the atrocities of the period 1904 to 1908. We will from now on officially call these events what they are from a contemporary perspective: a genocide.”

The irony (that has now become expected commonplace) is that this admission of guilt for the attempted ethnic cleansing of African people comes more than 100 years after it was done. However, the public and global recognition and condemnation and unrelenting sense of shame for the Holocaust has become part of contemporary German identity.

When asked why Germany chose 2021 as the right time to offer an apology for the genocide in Namibia, NPR Africa correspondent Eyder Peralta offered the fact that Germany and other European countries consider Africa as a viable emerging market and African states as possible strategic partners. However, this is by no means ground-breaking as far as insights go, as this is the very sentiment that is carried by African scholars and others who have been advocates for the payment of reparations and compensation for the ills and injustices of the past.

One such organisation is the Chief Hosea Kutako Foundation, which instituted a legal claim against organisations in Germany for reparations to the tune of $2-billion in 2001. A further $2-billion was claimed from the German government in the same year for its role in murdering 65,000 Herero during the illegal settlement of German nationals in Namibia between 1904 and 1907.

The killing of the Herero and Nama people was the first genocide of the 20th century, the survivors of which were driven into the desert to die of starvation and the rest put into concentration camps or used as free labour on German farms.

However, when foreign minister Maas said they must be “unreserved” about their apology, they still didn’t mean compensation and reparations for the descendants of the genocide, but instead the financing of infrastructure projects to the value of less than the amount claimed more than 20 years ago. The infrastructure financing will result in a strategic partnership with Namibia for 30 years by their own admission.

So the timing, distribution and tenure of the payment raises the question: Is this truly an apology for the atrocities committed by the German government against the Herero and Nama people, or a coerced bilateral, strategic partnership between two states? If the voice of Sima Luipert, 52, who identifies as a descendent of the Nama people, is to be considered, Germany must come to the Herero and Nama people to offer an apology for the genocide of their people, and not to the Namibian government because Namibia didn’t exist and they are not the ones who were wronged, so they retain no mandate to speak on behalf of these ethnic groups. As she said, “this isn’t about money, it is about human dignity”.

So what is this about exactly? Is this just another way to make inroads into the neo-colonialism project through grossly one-sided and unapologetically unfair bilateral and multilateral agreements leveraged off legacy partnerships? Partnerships such as colonialism, structural adjustment programmes disguised as aid, and corporate and infrastructure financing in exchange for natural resources.

Would this qualify as a gesture of sincerity from people who have always engaged Africans with hidden agendas of extraction and never mutually beneficial relationships, let alone the paying of reparations for transgressions past and present?

Let’s say the Europeans are given the benefit of the doubt, and we take the consciousness sweeping across Europe in earnest. It’s still very difficult to make a case for the renewed interest as sincerely altruistic. Even if it isn’t meant to usher in a renewed scramble for Africa, it is, however, forming strategic partnerships. These are made under the auspices of making inroads into settling financial and emotional debts from victims and survivors

*The views expressed in the article is that of the author/s and does not necessarily reflect that of the University of Johannesburg.

dr david monyae
Dr David Monyae
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