Namibians seek justice
Representatives of communities affected by the 1904-1908 genocide have filed a class action against Germany in the US demanding reparations
EPRESENTATIVES of the communities directly affected by the 1904-1908 genocide in Namibia have taken the German government to court in New York. The plaintiffs are suing Germany for damages to be paid directly to the descendants of the Ovaherero and Nama genocide survivors.
In 1904 and 1905, the Ovaherero and Nama of central and southern Namibia rose up against colonial rule and dispossession in what was then called German South West Africa. The revolt was brutally crushed. By 1908, 80 percent of the Ovaherero and 50 percent of the Nama had died of starvation and thirst, overwork and exposure. The army drove survivors into the waterless Omaheke desert. Thousands more died in concentration camps.
On January 5, Ovaherero chief Vekuii Rukoro and head of the Nama traditional authorities David Fredericks filed a class action lawsuit in New York. They are invoking the Alien Tort Statute, a 1789 US law often used in human rights cases. The case was brought to court in the US because it allows lawsuits that address claims on behalf of entire communities.
If the case succeeds, it will be significant for claims from other genocides committed before the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide came into force in 1951.
In 2004, Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul, then Germany’s Minister of Development Co-operation, attended the Herero genocide centenary commemorations. In her speech she offered an ostensible apology but this was later retracted by the government in Berlin. However, in July 2015, a German Foreign Ministry spokesperson admitted “the war of extermination in Namibia from 1904 to 1908 was a war crime and a genocide”.
For the past year, official Namibian and German envoys have been talking about the way ahead. The negotiations have
Rbeen complicated and contested. Although Germany has officially acknowledged the genocide, a formal apology is still outstanding.
Most controversial is the issue of reparations, which the plaintiffs in the US case are claiming from the German government.
Germany has ruled out direct reparations, preferring payments to the Namibian government in the form of foreign aid.
Rukoro and Fredericks are seeking an order from the court requesting that, as the lawful representatives of the “peoples” directly affected, they be included in negotiations and settlements between Germany and Namibia. Ovaherero and Nama victim groups have objected to the fact tha talks are taking place without delegates from their communities.
But Germany has insisted it won’t negotiate with representatives of the groups. German envoys only talk to the central Namibian government. The Namibian government has also insisted that negotiations only be between the two governments.
In their joint statement, issued on January 5, the chiefs charged that the Namibian government could not adequately represent the interests of the Ovaherero and Nama as “indigenous and minority” communities. Their legal representative suggested if reparations were paid in the form of foreign aid, they might not reach the affected communities.
At issue is Namibia’s fragmented history. The country’s dominant narrative of anticolonial struggles emphasises the role of the once exiled Swapo and, to a lesser extent, the northern Namibian experience of the 19661989 liberation war against South Africa. The early resistance against German colonial rule in southern and central Namibia is afforded a negligible place in the country’s history.
Soon after independence in 1990, people in the southern and central regions complained development efforts mostly reached Swapo’s heartland in the country’s north. Herero and Nama speakers contend that infrastructure is only developed in regions dominated by Owambo communities. Swapo had its historical roots among Oshiwambo speakers.
It took until 2015 for the first non-Owambo, Hage Geingob, to take office as president.
Efforts have been made by Ovaherero and Nama to stake their rightful place in the country’s history of anti-colonial resistance.
In recent months genocide victim groups have become more vocal and persistent. They are demanding an inclusive process under the slogan “not without us”. In October an international civil society congress, under the banner “Restorative Justice after Genocide”, brought together over 50 Herero and Nama delegates and German solidarity activists in Berlin to discuss the way forward.
They held public protests and Herero and Nama delegates held a press conference in the German Bundestag.
The lawsuit filed in New York sends a strong message to Germany and the Namibian government that negotiations “without us” remain unacceptable for those whose ancestors were killed in the genocide.
The German government has said that the governmentto-government negotiations will continue in their present format.
The plaintiffs, on the other hand, are optimistic that international human rights law will be on their side.
If the case succeeds, other claims for genocide damages could follow, including some from indigenous communities in the US, which were decimated during colonisation. – The Conversation Africa
Heike Becker is professor of anthropology, University of the Western Cape
BONE DEEP: A man takes a photo during the handover of 20 skulls to Nambians in Berlin, Germany, in 2011. The skulls of victims of genocide early last century had been taken to Germany for research.
PROTEST: Members of the Council for Dialogue about the Genocide of 1904 march in Berlin, Germany, in 2011. The German and Namibian governments are currently in talks about the genocide.