by Kitty McGirr & Emily Owens
Between 1904 and 1908, German colonial forces conducted a massacre of 110,000 Herero and Nama people in Namibia—the scale and sheer brutality of which constituted the first genocide of the 20th century, and the practices of which laid basis for yet another genocide 30 years later in Holocaust Germany. More than a 100 years after this systematic extermination occurred, Germany has only recently agreed to recognize the genocide in a formal admission of historical guilt. 112 years for an apology. 112 years for acknowledgement. 112 years for no trials, no truth commissions, and most pertinently, no reparations for an annihilation order that wiped out 70% of the Herero and 50% of the Nama tribes’ entire populations. Our first speaker of the week, Uruanaani ‘Scara’ Matundu, a local lawyer and scholar on the Ovaherero genocide, shared with us his conviction that reparations remain the most suitable political response to the mass violence perpetrated by the Germans in Namibia. His was an advocacy radically inclusive in nature. Indeed, as a Namibian born in exile in Botswana himself, Scara was keen to underline to us the necessity of justice being instituted to all Herero and Nama people, irrespective of whether they were living in Namibia or were still residing further afield in the countries to which they had been exiled.
|Mural displayed at the Independence Memorial Museum|
in Windhoek— a space dedicated to the acknowledgement of
Namibian historical events such as the genocide and the
commemoration of Namibia’s journey to independence.
As it stands, Germany is refusing to enter into discussions about the payment of reparations to Namibia, proposing that it provide developmental aid packages as an alternative form of redress for past atrocities instead. The allure of foreign aid has tended to quell any contributions by the Namibian government in furthering reparation initiatives on the ground due to the widely held belief that demanding redress in any other form would threaten the country’s preexisting dependence on foreign monetary support. To compound this lack of official support on an institutional and governmental level, Scara lamented the distinct lack of white, and specifically German, allyship in his and other Herero and Nama-speaking people’s struggle for economic recompense. I felt especially galvanized by the fact that not one German person sat on the reparations committee with Scara. Namibia, in contrast to its South African neighbor, chose to engage in a policy of silent forgiveness subsequent to the overturning of apartheid. No Truth and Reconciliation Project was conducted within its borders after independence. Instead, the common refrain has been one of unity and forgiveness, of inclusive rhetoric that asserts with the utmost conviction “we are all Namibians now.” Yet in spite of black Namibia’s almost supernatural capacity to forgive centuries of white racial violence, the majority of white Namibians have yet to truly earn that forgiveness by struggling to secure justice for their fellow citizens. I am struck by the audacity of white silence and inaction in the Namibian reparation struggle, but I am perhaps more confounded by the sheer consistency of complicity with injustice that whites continue to exhibit in other global contexts, including that of my own home.
As difficult as it can be to admit, we as individuals grapple with these same issues on a daily basis- and oftentimes, we fail to meet them with integrity. We lie complacent in our circumstances of relative privilege and comfort, while simultaneously remaining complicit as beneficiaries of a network of systems that deny so many others the same comfort we enjoy. Communities in the States, particularly white communities, equally fall into Scara’s categorization of inaction: we deny, we sometimes empathize, but very rarely do we act. What do long overdue reparations for communities of color mean for us on an individual level? What do our claims to support racial equity truly mean if our “support” is contingent on our own sense of security in an unwavering systemic advantage? What effect would recognizing the significance of these reparations for ourselves—to move past denial and empathy, into a trajectory of intentional action and solidarity—have on our communities, our societies, our national and global interactions? And beyond clear instances of marginalization and visibly unjust circumstances, just how often do we commit this disparaging complicity within our everyday lives?
Herbert Jaunch, an active force in the promotion of equity within Namibian trade and labor unions, provided our group with yet another avenue for critical thinking on this topic through his presentation on the influence of Chinese foreign investment on both the Namibian economy and labor force. Jaunch cited numerous instances of unethical wages, exploitative practices, and an overall lack of concern for the wellbeing of Namibian citizens enacted in the name of profit and economic growth. These human rights violations are not unique to the case of Chinese investment; when we choose to examine our own government’s foreign investments and even our individual purchases, we easily uncover an ongoing history of corruption- a history which we continue to write through our everyday capitalistic entanglements. Yet again, we are forced to acknowledge the significance behind our silence—while we can profess our disgust toward injustice and exploitation, we are concurrently supporting corporations and labor practices that drive this inequality through actions as simple as visiting the grocery store.
So where does it ever end? How can we even begin to detach ourselves from what seems to be an inescapable network of chaos?
The reality of reconciliation is that none of us truly know the right way to reconcile. We glorify the concept of reparation without ever pausing to acknowledge or attempting to repair the broken perceptions that exist within ourselves. It is when we not only recognize, but push forward through our silence that we begin to combat our own complicity—in turn, ultimately coming to terms with the vital role we each must occupy in shaping a more just global society.
Uruanaani ‘Scara’ Matundu, Namibian lawyer and scholar on the Ovaherero genocide; conversation on September 20, 2016 in Windhoek, Namibia.
Herbert Jaunch, trade and labor union activist; conversation on September 23, 2016 in Windhoek, Namibia.