The Nama and Herero genocide was the result of an ethnic extermination order launched during the German colonial project in Namibia. Yet, 119 years later, the Nama and Herero descendants are still battling to have this genocide acknowledged in the national culture of remembrance. Sadly, the current debate over genocide remembrance in Namibia echoes a questionable national project on memory. Collective conscience in the country echoes long-standing ethnic rivalries, with the Namibian political elite restricting the national historical narrative to the ruling party’s role in the campaign against Apartheid and South African imperial rule. It should be obvious, however, that the issue of genocide remembrance goes beyond political jostling; it poses an enquiry into how the Namibian political leadership has sought to mend the deep wounds of colonialism after independence.
A brief tour of historical memorials in Namibia can begin in the north at the Omgulugonbashe Memorial Shrine – the site of the People’s Liberation Army of Namibia’s first combat during the South African Border War. A little down south, a visitor will find a plaque at Fort Namutoni, honouring Nahale Mpingana’s attack on the Shutztruppe in January 1904. In the capital, the brutalist Soviet-style architecture houses Namibia’s Independence Memorial Museum – where a history of the nation’s anti-colonial and national liberation struggle is etched in bronze. Moving slightly away from the capital, Hero’s Acre burial site magnificently holds the bodies of national heroes and heroines, including Kahimemua Nguvauva, Nehale Lya Mpingana and Samuel Maharero.
Adjacent to the Independence Museum, a genocide memorial statue stands depicting a man and woman in an embrace, which symbolises freedom, with the inscription “Their Blood Waters Our Freedom”. The statue memorialises the ‘untold hardships and suffering’ of the Namibian people at the hands of the Schutztruppe, the troops of the German colonial empire during the 1904–08 war. The territory below the capital Windhoek is the site of various monumental plights against imperial rule. It is, however, left wanting in regard to memory. In Swakopmund, the African Cemetery houses the Swakopmund Concentration Camp Memorial erected by the Ovaherero and Ovambanderu communities, which pays homage to the lives lost in the genocide. Shark Island, the concentration camp where thousands of Nama and Herero were overworked and starved to death, has been distastefully converted into a hybrid memorial with a “camping site” and the infamous “shark island viewpoint”. It is marketed to tourists as a place to view the famous Cape fur seals, frequently overlooking the contemptible history of the site.
Just last month, on the 22nd of April 2023, a new memorial funded by the Society of Threatened People (Gesellschaft für bedrohte Völker-International) was erected on Shark Island. The monument is the first standalone memorial to honour the lives lost and heritages disrupted by the German extermination order, as in other instances such memorials are affixed to a museum or cemetery. However, it currently stands to be removed by order of the National Heritage Council. It also finds itself unveiled amidst an ongoing parliamentary debate about the supposedly “divisive” motion to establish a national day of mourning and memorial for the Nama and Herero Freedom fighters. Opponents of the motion have argued that establishing a remembrance day would cause ethnic tensions in the country, as it frames history as only having affected particular ethnic groups. The weaponisation of the “One Namibia, One Nation” slogan here is largely the problem. It is a failure to understand that while the genocide was perpetrated against two particular ethnic groups, the crime was committed against all Namibians and Africans, and that recognition and remembrance, therefore, would protect all of us against a potential recurrence.
About 119 years after the genocide and 33 years after independence, it is incredibly disheartening to witness the persisting resistance to genocide remembrance.
Genocide remembrance and reconciliation
The transitional era between colonialism and independence was marked by reconciliation – a process by which relationships between perpetrators and victims were reconstructed and improved. However, reconciliation also involves a great deal of internal work, including enacting inclusive national dialogues and the creation of genuine platforms that put the needs and desires of different groups into consideration. These would allow the age-old wounds of the nation to heal. And when it comes to colonial projects, these wounds often run deeper.
From the conventional battlefield annihilation, the extermination order, the cordoning of waterholes, to the deaths in the desert Sandveld, the genocide took the lives of up to 60,000 members of the Ovaherero ethnic groups and around 10,000 members of the Nama. It is estimated that 75-80 per cent of the Herero and 50 per cent of the Nama died during this time. Following the genocide period, the surviving descendants in the territory still continued to suffer from human rights violations, as they were sentenced to concentration camps like the one on Shark Island. Despite the obscene loss of lives and community trauma, the reconciliatory efforts for the affected communities have been dismal. The affected communities have been engaged in a prolonged battle for the official recognition of the genocide – the form of recognition that affords one a national day similar to that of 4 May (Cassinga Day) and 26 August (Heroes Day), and a nationally funded independent memorial that preserves the memories and narratives of the lives and final days of the fallen communities.
Recognition is interconnected with memory; those who are recognised are remembered. The acknowledgment of the significance of the lives lost during the project of anti-colonial resistance shows that lives have not been taken away in vain. It humanises our collective loss.
It also allows the reconciliation process to come to completion as relationships based on equality and respect can grow within the country itself. Those for whom we have to stop our routines and think about, we carry on with us.
Glass houses and genocide dismemory
Kaveire Tujendapi, a fervent voice for genocide remembrance echoes a growing frustration among Namibian youth. She highlights the concerns of many young voices about the absent government initiative on questions regarding the genocide: “Today leaders of the Nama and Ovaherero together with their communities gathered in Luderitz to commemorate the lives lost and brutality that took place on Shark Island during [the] German colonial rule in Namibia. Again without the government, again.”
The truth is that there is a seemingly non-existent united government position on the question of genocide remembrance. From an already signed joint declaration that was negotiated without a significant contribution from affected communities and that holds on to the allusion of intertemporality (aka “Was it really genocide if ‘genocide’ was not a legal term in 1904?”), refusing to use the term ‘reparations’ to a lack of government officials at critical points like the unveiling of the Shark Island Memorial, there is a loneliness to this plight.
All these beg the questions – how much can we demand of the German state in its own projects of memory when our own state is not held accountable for the remembrance of its own people? What to make of our hard-gained independence if our government is more inclined to appease the perpetrator than its own people? The glass house of systemic genocide dismemory has the potential of significantly weakening the potency of the criticism expressed by affected communities towards the joint declaration and Germany’s approach to memory.
Unfortunately, these considerations would force us to consider if there is an asymmetry in the significance of some contributions to liberation over others. It is a distasteful consideration, as their blood waters all of our freedom – each and every one of us. However, the asymmetry in the affordance of energy, resources and consideration has created this ‘dismemory’. This is a term I employ to mean a distortion, whether intentional or consequential, of a nation’s history through the emphasis of one narrative over another.
The way forward
In his interrogation of Jean Said Makdisi’s memoir of the Lebanese Civil War, Saadi Nikro writes “It is customary to speak of memory as an intentional capacity, or else as a possession. The past answers, fits and measures up to, what we set out in the present to remember, to recollect”. There are involuntary and voluntary ways in which memory clasps onto the present – the involuntary, for example, can be the trauma epigenetically transferred down in the community of survivors. The voluntary ways in which we can capture memory are unending – they require conscious and concerted efforts and collective actions.
There is a need to disrupt dismemory in Namibia by having open conversations about the genocide and its lasting effects; be they material, existential, political, traditional or psychological. The generation with a lived experience of the genocide has all but passed, but the generations after them have a moral duty to not let those truths wither away. The nation must embark on a process of (re)collection that brings these stories and memories to the forefront of the collective conscience and the national historic narrative.
Memory can either be a gathering or a scattering of critical histories. What will our memory of the Nama and Herero be, a gathering of homage or a scattering that leaves lost lives unacknowledged and unhonoured?