OKAHANDJA, NAMIBIA – Namibia’s Herero people are heartened that Germany is keen to atone for the genocide of their ancestors, but they expect something that Berlin says it cannot give.
“What we want is our land,” said Alex Kaubtauuapela, 74, whose parents survived the extermination of 80 percent of the community — a precursor to the Holocaust.
She lives much as they did, in a community dependent on cattle herding.
“The Herero are poor because of German people,” she said, hunched over a walking stick as one of her grandchildren chased a stray dog around her crumbling house in the Herero ancestral homeland of Okahandja north of the capital, Windhoek.
About half of the arable land in the country in southwest Africa, which Germany annexed in 1884, is owned by descendants of German and Dutch immigrants, who make up just 6 percent of the population of 2.3 million.
Land used for grazing by the Herero, who also are known as the OvaHerero, and the smaller Namaqua community was seized and thousands were executed after they rebelled in 1904. The rest were driven into the country’s vast tracts of desert to starve.
The call for land restitution by indigenous groups is mirrored in countries across Africa. Any reparation agreement for the Herero could set a precedent for other groups seeking redress from European colonial powers.
Momentum for a settlement with Namibia increased last June after Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called Germany hypocritical for recognizing massacres of Armenians by Ottoman Turks as genocide but not confronting its dark past in Namibia.
A month later, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s office said Germany would acknowledge the genocide of the OvaHerero and Namaqua peoples and offer a formal apology. Five rounds of negotiations have been held since, although German officials emphasize that talks have been going on since 2012.
One difficult issue is how to address demands for the return of skulls of victims that were taken to Germany to try to prove racial superiority. Berlin has given some back but says others are hard to locate. Another sensitive area is calls for monetary compensation.
But front and center, for the community, is land.
“We are willing to go and take our land,” said Herero Paramount Chief Vekuii Rukoro, a former attorney general who says his followers have been excluded from the talks with Germany. “We want to be directly in the room with government at negotiations. If the Germans sign on the dotted line without us, we will consider it as an act of war.
“We won’t wait another 100 years for justice.”
Another Herero group is being consulted in the talks, but Rukoro says they are just “puppets” of the Namibian government, which has been dominated by the largest community, the Ovambo, since independence.
A United Nations expert Group on People of African Descent appeared to back him up in late February.
Noting that Germany had apologized for the genocide and given aid, it said it regretted that Berlin had “thus far not seriously consulted with the lawful representatives of the minority and indigenous victims of that genocide to discuss reparations.”
Germany’s ambassador to Namibia, Christian Matthias Schlaga, acknowledged that some Herero groups are not currently engaged in the talks but expressed confidence that they could be reintegrated. “Both governments’ clear intention is to reach a result that will be accepted by the communities in question,” he said.
Eyeing a possible Namibia deal, Tanzanians have sought compensation from Germany for some 70,000 killed during the Maji-Maji rebellion during colonial rule of German East Africa in the early 20th century.
But Schlaga said any agreement between Berlin and Windhoek would not lead to negotiations in other parts of Africa. “We think the situation in Namibia is very unique,” he said. “This is why we negotiate in this country and nowhere else.”
The unique nature he refers to is the evidence of German forces’ intent to exterminate along ethnic lines.
That was spelled out by Gen. Lothar von Trotha, who was sent by the kaiser to crush the uprising. “I believe that the (Herero) nation as such should be annihilated,” he wrote. “Only following this cleansing can something new emerge.”
Those who were not shot or starved to death in the desert were captured and placed in concentration camps, where many more died of disease, mistreatment or torture. Up to 100,000 Herero and 10,000 Nama were killed, historians say.
Herero and Nama women were systematically raped by German soldiers, and their descendents still face discrimination from members of their tribe who consider themselves pure.
Drawing a line
The grave of Samuel Maharero, who led the Herero fight against the German colonial army before escaping across the border, lies in an almost inaccessible field in Okahandja amid wandering goats and overgrown foliage.
Just a few hundred meters down the road is an impeccably cared-for graveyard for German soldiers killed in the rebellion.
There is no cemetery for the slaughtered Herero, whose bodies were left out in the open.
“We’ve lost our land, our culture, our tradition,” said Sarafina Nbaimbaind, a resident of the nearby township wearing the traditional horned headdress that symbolizes the Herero heritage of cattle herding. “The Germans are getting richer and richer from our land.”
Schlaga said Berlin supports efforts by Namibia to redistribute land but it is the responsibility of the Namibian government to resolve disputes among its citizens.
“Germany has always agreed and supported the Namibian government’s decision … to do a redistribution of land, but based on a principle of willing seller, willing buyer,” he said, noting that land can change hands multiple times over 100 years. “It is very difficult, if not impossible, to draw a line from the events of 1905 and 1906 to 2017.”
Namibian government sources said one idea is for Germany to provide funds for Namibia to purchase land from any owners willing to sell, but that talks on the issue had stalled.
The government’s chief negotiator, Zed Ngavirue, said the ‘willing seller, willing buyer’ system has failed. The issue will be revisited at a conference this year, he said, but will not be part of the negotiations with Germany over the genocide.
Robert Murtfeld, a U.S.-based academic and independent observer in the Namibian talks, does not think an agreement can be reached unless land is included, with implications for other former colonies in Africa.
“Any settlement that would be reached between the German and Namibian governments has to address the issue of land and … could have a trickle-down effect for others,” he said. “I believe the chances for a deal being reached are very little.”