Land haunts Germany's effort to atone for Africa genocide

By Joe Brock

Namibia’s Herero people are heartened that Germany is keen to atone for the genocide of their ancestors, but they expect something Berlin says it is not in a position to give.

“What we want is our land,” said 74-year-old Alex Kaubtauuapela, 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 south west Africa which Germany annexed in 1884 is owned by descendants of German and Dutch immigrants, who make up just six percent of the 2.3 million population.

Land used by the Herero, also known as OvaHerero, and smaller Namaqua community for grazing 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, and any reparation agreement for the Herero could set a precedent to other groups seeking redress from European colonial powers.

Momentum for a settlement with Namibia increased last year after Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called Germany hypocritical for recognising massacres of Armenians by Ottoman Turks as genocide but not confronting its dark past in Namibia.

A month later, in July, 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 emphasise 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 centre, for the community, is land.

“We are willing to go and take our land,” said Herero Paramount Chief Ombara Otjitambi, 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,” he told Reuters.

“We won’t wait another 100 years for justice.”



Another Herero group is being consulted in talks but Otjitambi says they are just “puppets” of the Namibian government, which has been dominated by the largest community, the Ovamba, since independence.

This week, a United Nations expert Group on People of African Descent appeared to back him up.

Noting Germany had apologised for the genocide and given aid, it said it regretted Berlin had “thus far not seriously consulted with the lawful representatives of the minority and indigenous victims of that genocide to discuss reparations”.

German Ambassador to Namibia, Christian Matthias Schlaga, acknowledged some Herero groups were not currently engaged in the talks but expressed confidence they could be reintegrated.

“Both governments’ clear intention is to reach a result that will be accepted by the communities in question,” Schlaga told Reuters from his office in Windhoek.

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 Schlaga refers to is the evidence of German forces’ intent to exterminate along ethnic lines.

That was spelled out by German General 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’.



The grave of Samuel Maharero, who led the Herero’s 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 metres 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 symbolises the Herero’s cattle herding heritage.

“The Germans are getting richer and richer from our land.”

Schlaga said Berlin supported efforts by Namibia to redistribute land but it was the responsibility of the Namibian government to resolve disputes between its nationals.

“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 was 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 had failed. The issue would be revisited at a conference this year, he said, but would 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, said he did not think an agreement could be reached unless land was 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 any decisions hereto could have a trickledown effect for others,” he said. “I believe the chances for a deal being reached are very little.”

Related Content

Nigeria removes fuel price cap

Nigeria’s Petroleum Products Pricing Regulatory Agency has removed the cap on the price of Premium Motor Spirit, also known as petrol, giving marketers the freedom to fix the price of the commodity and sell above the price stipulated by the body.

The social and economic toll of COVID-19 on Nigerian households

The National Bureau of Statistics says the experience of economic shocks in the few months after the COVID-19 outbreak in Nigeria has far exceeded the shocks experienced between 2017 and 2019. In its COVID-19 monitoring report released today, the bureau noted that the most widely reported shock experienced by households was an increase in prices of major food items. Meanwhile, OPEC and its allies will meet on Saturday to discuss extending record oil production cuts and to approve a new approach that aims to force laggards to comply better with the existing curbs. Bismarck Rewane, CEO of Financial Derivatives joins CNBC Africa for more.

Unpacking Nigeria’s COVID-19 strategy

With over 11,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases, Nigeria has continued with plans to ease its COVID-19 restrictions. The latest being the move to lift the restrictions in interstate travel as well as domestic Air travel from the 21st of this month. Kyari Bukar, Former Chairman of the Nigerian Economic Summit Group joins CNBC Africa to assess Nigeria’s COVID-19 strategy in amid rising cases.

NAICOM extends insurance recapitalisation deadline to September 2021

Nigeria's insurance regulator NAICOM has extended the deadline for the recapitalisation of insurance companies to September 2021. The recapitalisation process has also been segmented into two phases. Tajudeen Ibrahim, vice-President and Head of Research at Chapel Hill Denham joins CNBC Africa for more.

Subscribe to our newsletter

Sign up for free newsletters and get more CNBC AFRICA delivered to your inbox

More from CNBC Africa

Markets rebound on U.S. job numbers

Joining CNBC Africa for a look at the local markets is Dale Hutcheson, Fund Manager, Absa Asset Management....

COVID-19: Rwanda opens most sectors of the economy

In Rwanda, the country has recorded two death from Covid-19, at a time when the Government has eased the lock-down that had been in place for a month and half by opening up almost all sectors of the economy though with a number of precautionary measures to keep the virus in check. At the same time a French court ordered the Rwandan genocide suspect Felicien Kabuga to be handed over to a United Nations tribunal for trial. Hudson Kuteesa, Journalist with the Newtimes joins CNBC Africa for more....

AfDB Governors back ethics committee agrees to authorise independent review

The Bureau of the Board of Governors of the African Development Bank has agreed to authorize an independent review of the report of the Ethics Committee of the boards of directors. The Bureau notes that it stands by the ethics committee's work as it was performed in accordance with the applicable rule under its resolutions. Ronnie Ntuli, Chairman of Thelo DB joins CNBC Africa for more.

Nigeria removes fuel price cap

Nigeria’s Petroleum Products Pricing Regulatory Agency has removed the cap on the price of Premium Motor Spirit, also known as petrol, giving marketers the freedom to fix the price of the commodity and sell above the price stipulated by the body.

Partner Content


FROM THE MAYOR’S DESK Halfway through the month of May, we had fruitful engagements...

Sanlam Emerging Markets and its partners on the African continent invest over $12 million to fight COVID-19

As we go through this global pandemic together, it is the little things we miss. A high five, a handshake, a walk...

Trending Now

How Pro Sports Leagues Plan To Return

When NBA star Rudy Gobert tested positive for the coronavirus in early March, it set off a chain reaction of professional sports cancellations, the likes of which the country has never seen. Now, three months later, sports are slowly beginning to com

How SA businesses are dealing with financial stress of COVID-19

Most South African companies expect profits to be hit by coronavirus and the carnage the virus will bring to the economy. The degree of stress to the balance sheet however will depend on the overall industry, liquidity and management risk. Joining CNBC Africa to dissect which bottom lines will be most infected by Covid-19 is Phibion Makuwerere, Analyst at Intellidex.

Stonebwoy lends his voice in the fight against COVID-19 & racism

This week the world was united in the fight against two pandemics – the coronavirus and racism. The latter was triggered by the recent death of George Floyd, the latest victim of police brutality in the US, which triggered mass protests against discrimination. One of the individuals that took a stand against both pandemics is internationally acclaimed Ghanian musician Stonebwoy. He put on a show, from his home, to shine the light on Covid-19 and racism, raising money to support homeless youth in Ghana.
- Advertisement -