Genocide uncovered

Deeply embedded in the battle for land and pastoral hegemony, the first genocide of the 20th century—Namibia's Herero and Nama tribes by the Germans—continues to escape public scrutiny

By Rajat Ghai
Published: Tuesday 15 November 2016
A photograph taken in 1907 of the Herero tribe who were forced to live in the desert and died of starvation (credit: The association of the ovaherero genocide in USA )
A photograph taken in 1907 of the Herero tribe who were forced to live in the desert and died of starvation (credit: The association of the ovaherero genocide in USA ) A photograph taken in 1907 of the Herero tribe who were forced to live in the desert and died of starvation (credit: The association of the ovaherero genocide in USA )

Even the pope got it wrong on this one. On April 11, 2015, Pope Francis recalled the widespread massacres of the Armenians by the Ottoman Empire during the Great War by calling it “the first genocide of the 20th Century”. A week later, Anglo-Nigerian historian, David Olusoga, writing for The Guardian, pointed out that the pope’s description was simply incorrect. That grim distinction belongs to the genocide that imperial Germany unleashed a decade earlier on the ethnic tribes, Herero and Nama, in the former colony of South West Africa, today’s Namibia.

That genocide resulted in the systematic extermination of 110,000 Herero and Nama tribal people. The German government, after 112 years, is only now beginning to acknowledge the “genocide”. A Transnational Congress on Genocide—organised by the Ovaherero and Ovambanderu Genocide Foundation along with German non-profits—took place in Berlin on October 14-15 this year. But Germany has so far refused to consider any reparation.

Genesis of the genocide

Though the Namibian coast was visited by many European explorers since the 15th and 18th centuries, they did not colonise it because the coastal desert—the Namib—acted as a deterrent. Instead, they headed north (Portuguese Angola) and south (the Anglo-Dutch Cape Colony). In 1883, a German trader, Adolf Lüderitz, bought the coast from the then Nama chief, Josef Frederiks II and named it after himself. A year later, he sold the coast to the Imperial German State under Otto von Bismarck, who proclaimed it a German protectorate, and renamed it the German South West Africa.

The colony soon began attracting large numbers of German settlers, who were farmers and diamond and copper prospectors. Benjamin Madley, a scholar and historian at the University of California, Los Angeles, says acquisition of land was central to the German colonial agenda, and it was an important motive for the German genocides of the Herero and Nama tribes.

Says Madley: “For example, in 1889, the German colonial military commander, Curt von François, warned, ‘That the natives (have) a right to the land...cannot be contested by talk, but only with the barrel of a gun’.” He also refers to Theodore Leutwein, the colonial governor who emphasised in the years after Francois’ statement that “the whole future of the colony lies in the graduate transfer of the land from the hands of the workshy natives to white hands”.

Madley also gives details of a “Commissioner for Settlement” that forced native tribes to withdraw from the pasture lands to allow whites to takeover lands. Killing Herero and Nama tribes, adds Madley, facilitated these clearly articulated goals.

Tactics and suppression

Relations between the Germans and the local tribes began to deteriorate as the settlers grabbed land and livestock, which were the prized possessions of the tribes. Soon revolts began. In January 1904, the GermanHerero Wars began. On August 11, 1904, Lieutenant General Lothar von Trotha and his soldiers defeated the Herero warriors on the plateau of Waterberg.

As the Herero people fled into the desert, Trotha ordered his troops to shoot at sight anyone who attempted to escape. The troops even poisoned waterbodies. In October the same year, when the Nama tribe rebelled, they too were dealt in a similar way.

A majority of the Herero people live on less than US $2 a day even today  (Photo: ISTOCK PHOTO)
Those who survived the wars were imprisoned and sent to an even darker destination—the Shark Island, a small islet in the bay of Lüderitz, where the Germans had set up a concentration camp. Untold atrocities took place there—slave labour, sexual slavery, eugenics experiments and death from starvation and cold. When Germany was defeated in World War I, the camp was closed down. But by then, 80 per cent of the Herero people and 50 per cent of the Nama people had been killed.

The genocide, however, was covered up till recently. The German government, in connivance with the White South African Apartheid Regime—that ruled Namibia till 1990—did everything in their power to suppress any information about the genocide. The Blue Book, which catalogued information about atrocities committed by Germany against the Herero and Nama people was banned, says advocate Vekuii Rukoro, current chief of the Herero people.

Today, the Namibia genocide narrative is stuck: should the Germans pay and compensate the Herero and Nama tribes? “Our culture and traditions stand destroyed. We were dispossessed of our lands and other forms of wealth by force, and we were never compensated for our losses,” says Ngondi Kamatuka of the Kansas-based Association of the Ovaherero Genocide.

The Herero people continue to eke out a living on barren and marginal lands, while the German settlers still enjoy their ill-gotten wealth. Namibia today has one of the worst income distribution rates in the world, with the majority of the Herero and Nama people living on less than US $2 a day. This institutionalised poverty is historical and its origin is the dispossession of land and pastures of the tribes, says Kamatuka.

When Namibia got independence in 1990, some 45 per cent of the total land area and 74 per cent of the potentially arable land was owned by less than 4,100 people, mainly white German descendants. Of the 4,000-odd commercial farms in the country, more than 3,000 of them are still in the hands of the whites. Worse, the Herero and Nama tribes are now engaged in a bitter spat with the Namibian government, which is conducting negotiations with Germany on the cost of reparations. The talks are to end in September 2017.

In the midst of all the political wrangling, what would provide a final closure to the descendants of the genocide? Mari Serberov, an American journalist and author of Mama Namibia, offers an answer. “When Germany finally admits to the Herero and Nama people that what it did a century ago was unequivocally a genocide, it must at last recognise their humanity, their identity as a people and their right to exist as equals on this earth. Only then can the healing begin.”

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