‘We will go the Zim route’

Windhoek – The return this week to Namibia of the skulls of 20 people killed during Germany’s genocide of the Herero and Nama during colonialism has given vent to many pent up emotions among some sections of the populace. President Hifikepunye Pohamba and Prime Minister Nahas Angula have urged people to be calm and use the return of the skulls as an opportunity for closure with a dark past, but it seems this might take a bit longer than the national leadership would desire. The entire issue rankles among a significant proportion of the populace. For starters, German authorities had indicated they would return 300 skulls, so the return of just 20 has been viewed as a slap in the face. The manner in which German officials conducted themselves throughout the matter has been described as disdainful. But perhaps the most significant development has been that the episode has stirred deep nationalistic feelings in some quarters, with historically disadvantaged groups warning that more should be done to empower the people before the country experiences Zimbabwe-style land reclamations. Professor Hoze Riruako, a senior adviser to the Paramount Chief of the Herero, was quoted by ABC News saying their patience is running out. “If something is not done, we cannot guarantee that you will not see the same kind of land grabs that you see in Zimbabwe. “We are ready for battle! We are going to fight!” Ominously, Herero warriors attended the skulls repatriation garbed in their military uniform. Outside Parliament Garden, following a procession with two of the skulls, a young man reportedly said: “We fought the Germans. We fought the Afrikaners. We are not afraid to take on our own government… “My family only has a small piece of land, too small to run all our cattle, and too small to share among all the sons. There’s no future for me.” Veneruru Korumbo, head of the Herero Youth League, lamented high unemployment and poor housing conditions. Rights activist Phil ya Nangoloh added: “It’s not just the Hereros, but all other ethnic groups that are being marginalized.” Estimates are that the poorest 20 percent of the population earn only 1.4 percent of national income, while the richest 20 percent enjoy nearly 80 percent. PM Angula told the international media that it was understandable that emotions were running high with the return of the skulls. “This history is still fresh in the memory of many people and this is generating an understandable passion and anger.” he said. Earlier in the week, he was quoted saying: “The Namibian nation accepts these mortal remains as a symbolic closure of a tragic chapter.” President Pohamba called on Namibian and German researchers to identify items of Namibian origin that are still in Germany, and which hold historical and cultural significance so that they can be repatriated. “It is our duty to ensure, as far as possible, that the remains of all Namibians who lost their lives during the war of colonial resistance and the modern liberation struggle are repatriated to their motherland. “I have no doubt that the souls of the war victims who were violated by the German imperial forces in such a callous manner and the spirits of our forefathers and mothers rejoice today because we have reunited these mortal remains with the land of their birth.” President Pohamba added that Namibians should continue to promote national reconciliation. “We must continue to maintain peace and stability in our country and reject the vices of tribalism, ethnicity, racism, regionalism and sexism,” he said. But building mutual respect between angry Namibians and Germany could be quite difficult. Saunders Jumah of the Forum for the Future of Africa said, “The inhuman treatment that Germans gave on the handing over of the skulls to the Namibian delegation reminds us of the way these very white people are doing in our continent. “White people are happy and eager to try our African brothers and sisters at the ICC and ICJ for the past mistakes that took place between Africans against Africans, the international media make headlines and sell so much of their tabloids because of African story but when it is the Germans facing justice and truth against Africans of Namibia the media is deaf and mute, the international community is quite as if the skulls aren’t of human beings… “These white people committed terrible and horrible atrocities on African people that included hacking, cutting into parts, beheading, hanging, raping of our grandmothers.” The skulls were ordered around 1903 by Eugen Fischer, the Nazi anthropologist who believed he could prove blacks were inferior to whites by measurements of their craniums. To fill the order, German troops made the Herero dig up the graves of relatives and ancestors. On January 12, 1904 the Herero people – led by Samuel Maharero – rebelled and killed more than 100 German troops. General Adrian Dietrich Lothar von Trotha the declared: “The Herero nation must now leave the country. If it refuses, I shall compel it to do so with the ‘long tube’ (cannon). “Any Herero found inside the German frontier, with or without a gun or cattle, will be executed. I shall spare neither women nor children.” Von Trotha also said: “Every Herero within the borders of the German Suid-West Africa, with or without a gun; with or without cattle will be shot.” Hereros were driven into the desert and their wells were poisoned. Many were bayoneted or burned alive on human pyres. Some managed to escape to South Africa and Botswana while others were spared to serve as slave labour and sex slaves in concentration camps, where thousands more died. In just four years, around 65 000 of 80 000 Hereros had been murdered in what was the first genocide of the 20th century. The Nama people also rebelled against the Germans only to suffer a similar fate, with 10 000 of them perishing. According to Yale University historian Benjamin Madley, in his dissertation titled “From Africa to Auschwitz,” this mass murder of civilians set the scene for Nazism. The 1985 United Nations’ Whitaker Report classified the German activities as an attempt to exterminate the Herero and Nama – something that is recognized as a crime against humanity at international law. It took nearly 110 years for Germany to acknowledge “political and moral responsibility for the past and colonial guilt”. But it still falls short of admitting to genocide and refuses to pay any compensation for its actions in Africa, despite the fact that today it still pays out millions to Jews and others who suffered similar brutality during the two World Wars. With such a history, it is perhaps not surprising that such deep emotions were displayed when the skulls were returned on Tuesday.

October 2011
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