Sundays in Swakopmund are deathly quiet. Locals and tourists sit down for a lunch of eisbein or schnitzel in pricey, pristine restaurants. The town is colonial in heart and soul, trading on its German past. White Namibians are reluctant to discuss it — after all, colonial genocide might not be a strong drawcard for tourists.
But the recent debate on the Herero genocide of 1904 to 1907 and the fact that the German government has not yet paid reparations to the descendants of the victims may make this town, as well as the rest of privileged Namibia and the German government, wake up. On January 5, in the United States, a group of Herero people brought a renewed lawsuit for reparations, which has triggered renewed interest in this issue.
The Herero and Nama genocide was one of the first of the 20th century, described 100 years later as “the century of genocide”. The first concentration camps of the 20th century were also established in what was then German South West Africa. Of an estimated 80 000 Hereros, 65 000 died. How did it happen that 75% of the Herero people and 50% of Namas were killed?
Shortly after the establishment of German South West Africa, the Germans confiscated Herero land on a large scale. When the Nama rose in revolt, under the leadership of Hendrik Witbooi, the Herero joined them. As punishment, the Germans, under the command of General Lothar von Trotha, violently suppressed the revolt. Von Trotha issued a proclamation: “Any Herero found inside the German frontier, with or without a gun or cattle, will be executed.” Women and children would not be spared.
After the massacre at the battle of the Waterberg, German troops drove the retreating Herero into the desert where many thousands died of exhaustion and dehydration. Survivors were placed in concentration camps such as Shark Island, where large numbers died of disease and malnutrition. Hangings and shootings were common in the camps. Medical experiments, an atrocity later associated with the Nazi Holocaust, were conducted on many of the Hereros.
The German government has been confronted with demands for an apology and for reparations since 1990, but they have not been forthcoming. German Chancellor Angela Merkel admitted only in 2015 that what occurred in German South West Africa constituted genocide. The German government has continually focused, instead, on the large amount of development aid Germany contributes annually to Namibia.
A Namibian delegation with the skulls of Herero and Nama tribespeople taken by German forces in 1904-1908 at a ceremony in Berlin on September 30 2011 to repatriate the skulls. (Sean Gallup, Getty)
But this argument raises problems. One is that the development aid is mostly distributed to Swapo strongholds in Northern Namibia and does not reach the Herero. Another difficulty is that international law imposes the duty to pay reparations directly to those who suffered human rights violations. Germany has paid more than $8-billion in Holocaust reparations, so it’s hard to believe that paying reparations to Namibia’s small Herero population will cripple the German economy.
This is not the first time the Hereros have turned to US courts. In 2001, they filed a claim against Deutsche Bank and Woermann Line shipping company under the Alien Tort Claims Act. This is the same statute the Khulumani Support Group used when it resorted to the US courts to obtain reparations for apartheid atrocities. The Khulumani case ultimately failed.
In the 2001 case, the Herero representatives claimed that the defendant companies and imperial Germany had formed a commercial enterprise that cold-bloodedly employed an extermination policy, which was officially sanctioned, aimed at the destruction of tribal culture and social organisation, imposing forced labour and concentration camps to advance the German companies’ and government’s common financial interests.
The US District Court for Columbia dismissed the case for failure to state a claim. The current case is also likely to be dismissed. The US Supreme Court narrowed the reach of the Alien Tort Claims Act in a 2013 decision, Kiobel vs Royal Dutch Petroleum, stating the statute was presumed not to cover foreign conduct unless there was a clear link to the US.
As in the Khulumani case, which did not receive the support of the South African government until very late in its life, the Namibian government opposed the lawsuit.
But the filing of the lawsuit has some strategic advantages. It has triggered media attention, including op-eds in The Guardian. Such litigation could be a wake-up call that Germany can no longer ignore the Herero genocide and could place pressure on Germany to make reparations.
Regalia commemorating the German South-West Africa government’s genocide of the Herero and Nama people in Namibia at a gathering of descendants on October 4 2015. (Juergen Baetz, DPA)
If the Herero people mobilise successfully for reparations, it could improve the chances of other small and marginalised groups who were victims of colonial genocide and other abuse. The British government announced in 2013 that Kenyans tortured by British colonial forces during the 1950s Mau Mau uprising will receive reparations of £20-million.
The effects of the genocide are still palpable. Hereros in Namibia are still marginalised — politically, economically and socially. Namibia has one of the most extreme wealth gaps in the world. White Nambians enjoy a living standard equivalent to those of Scandinavians, whereas the living standard of black Namibians can be compared with that of people in Sierra Leone.
There are many reasons South Africa cannot wash its hands of the 1904 to 1907 atrocities. During the time it administered South West Africa, South Africa’s policy of establishing native reserves extended to that country. The fact that South Africa’s racist policies further harmed the surviving Hereros places a duty on South Africa to support them in their claim.
It is to be hoped that the high-profile litigation in US courts will at least achieve this: that the Herero genocide is no longer shrouded in secrecy and silence and that the Hereros’ claim, even if unmet this time round, will not go away.
Tourists visiting the pristine town of Swakopmund may become aware that, during the German colonial era, the public hanging of Hereros and Namas were depicted on postcards — one that was very much in vogue at the time showed a line of 10 Hereros dangling from a single gallows.
It’s a long way from the birds and chameleons that now grace Swakopmund’s postcards.
Mia Swart is a professor of international law at the University of Johannesburg.