Over a century after the massacre and genocide of an estimated 110,000 Herero and Nama people in Namibia by German troops, Germany is set to recognise the massacre as a genocide in an admission of guilt and apologise to Namibia. Germany, however, made it clear that it would not be paying reparations to Namibia but offering development aid instead.

A spokesman for Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government said Germany would formally apologise to Namibia in a landmark admission of historical guilt for the atrocities that took place between 1904- 1908 in German South West Africa (modern day Namibia). The systematic obliteration of 100,000 Herero and some 10,000 Nama people is deemed to be the first genocide in the 20th century and an antecedent to the Holocaust. Thousands were driven out to the desert where they died of starvation and dehydration. Survivors of the genocide – that began when the Ovaherero or Herero people, led by Samuel Maharero and Nama captain, Hendrik Witbooi, rebelled against German colonial rule – were sent to concentration camps where the majority of them died from disease, abuse and starvation.

Many victims in concentration camps were beheaded and their heads sent to Germany for scientific experiments. What began as a fight to tackle a revolt quickly descended to genocide as the killings continued long after the liberation attempt. In a statement that bore a chilling resemblance to the nature of language used in the holocaust, General Lotha von Trotha, the commander of German forces, remarked in 1904 of his policy towards the Herero: “I believe that the nation as such should be annihilated, or, if this is not possible by tactical measures, expelled from the country.”

Germany has been clear in its admission of guilt in the holocaust for a long time and as of June 2, joined more than 20 countries to officially recognise the 1915 Armenian Massacre in the Ottoman Empire as a genocide but, had failed to acknowledge its role in the Herero Genocide until now. Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul, German Development Minister in 2004, described the massacres as ”genocide” on a trip to Namibia but her remarks were not adopted as the official government stance. Foreign ministry guidelines began referring to the massacre as genocide a year ago but it was not until this week that this was confirmed by the government as official policy in a written answer to a parliamentary question. “We seek a common policy statement on the following elements: a common language on the historical events and a German apology and its acceptance by Namibia,” said Sawsan Chebli, a spokesman for the German foreign ministry, on Wednesday.

Action speak louder than words

The acknowledgement of such an atrocity that killed natives in the hundred of thousands and stripped them of property, land, culture and language is the first step to healing old wounds but the German government needs go a step further. While speaking to Aljazeera, German Member of Parliament (MP), Niema Movassat explained that the German government has delayed the acceptance of the Namibian genocide for years, in an attempt to avoid paying money to victims. However, the consequences of the massacre still linger on till this day much like the holocaust. “The wound of dehumanisation and brutality that the Ovaherero and Nama people suffered at the hands of Imperial Germany has never healed, and it will never heal until justice is done,” says Ngondi Kamatuka a descendant of the victims and the head of ‘The Association of Ovaherero Genocide in the United States.’

Many have fled and never returned home meanwhile expropriated Herero land is occupied by thousands of Germans who descended from the perpetrators of this crime. They are demanding reparations as a result. The Ovaherero Genocide Committee secretary, Nokokure Kambanda Veii, says “Germany should provide funds so that the Ovaherero and the Nama people can regain their traditional land by buying it back from the German farmers.” Leaders in the Herero community demand that reparation should come not only in the provision of funds but attention should be paid to the education and health deficits suffered by the Herero and Nama people for generations.

The German government plans to give development aid as opposed to reparation payments and, while this seems like a reasonable tradeoff on the surface, the historical effectiveness of foreign aid in development is sporadic at best. More targeted measures pertaining to the disenfranchised group are more likely to bring about development than aid to the Namibian government.

The Germans have distanced themselves from the horrors that took place in Namibia for decades and while the admission of guilt offers a sense of legitimacy and solace to the victims, the government should go a step further to right its wrongs.

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