Genocide against Herero and Nama: „We know where the land is“

Paramount Chief of Ovahereros explains what's wrong with the Joint Declaration between Germany and Namibia – and what Hereros and Namas demand.

Paramount Chief Mutjinde Katjiua in Berlin, 6/11/2022

Paramount Chief Mutjinde Katjiua in Berlin, 6/11/2022 Foto: S. Memarnia

taz: Professor Katjiua, now Germany and Namibia seem to re-negotiate the Joint Declaration about reconciliation that war initialized 2021 after five years of negotiations. You have had a problem with the whole process right from the start. Why?

Mutjinde Katjiua: In 2006 the National Assembly of Namibia adopted a resolution that was brought to parliament by the late Paramount chief Dr Kuaima Riruako with three key aspects. The first is that Germany must recognize that what it has committed was a genocide. The second one says that there should be negotiations, a dialogue between the affected communities, the Hereros and Namas, and the German government. The third point is the Namibian government, as an interested party, must facilitate the negotiations.

Has the Namibian government followed this resolution?

No. When the Geingob administration took over in 2015, it deviated from the resolution and started a state-to-state negotiation process. We have been making it very clear that we will not accept a discussion about us without us, that we must be present at the table. It is only the Ovaherero traditional authorities and the Nama Traditional Leaders Association that can represent Hereros and Namas at the negotiations. Because we have many Hereros and Namas who are not Namibians, these are groups in South Africa, in Botswana, in the USA, in Canada. The two governments can only speak for people here in Germany or in Namibia. The state-to-state negotiations exclude diasporans.

Both governments argue that you could have been part of the negotiations and that some traditional representatives actually did that. Why did you not?

When we pushed that we should participate then the Namibian government created a forum of Chiefs to advise the negotiations. But they did not participate in the process directly. They did not sit at the table and negotiate. That is why, when the joint Declaration came out, some of those chiefs who were part of the Chiefs forum, were surprised of the declaration- and they pulled out. But the overhelming majority of the Herero leaders and all the Nama leaders refrained from being part of that advisory team from the start. We knew that this was fake.

Let us talk about the Joint declaration itself. What do you think about it?

It's only a declaration and nothing is binding. There is no contractual obligation on any of these two governments because it's an intent. This is the first thing. Secondly, this declaration has deviated from the resolution of 2006 of the National Assembly. Thirdly, this declaration does not speak about reparation. In effect, it says „from today's perspective those events“ – they really speak of events – „can be classified as genocide“. Only from today's perspective! But when it happened it was not a genocide. It was fine to exterminate us, it says. Germany did well. That is why Kaiser Wilhelm II gave the highest military order to General von Trotta who issued the so called „extermination orders“ – for doing a great job!

is the Paramount Chief of the Ovaherero people in Namibia, Botswana, South Africa and everywhere in the world. He holds a doctorade degree in conservation ecology. He was an Associate Professor at Namibia University of Science and Technology. He was elected as Paramount Chief in March 2022 after his predecessor has passed away.

The German government would not say that!

When we went to court in New York 2018 our lawyers were pushing for the application of the Restatement of International Law of 1868, which states that any „extermination, annihilation of a tribe capable of cultures and language would be a violation of international law“. The German lawyers were arguing that we were not protected by the Restatement of International Law because we fall in a category of tribes considered as „wild“, or savages. So from the German point of view we are not part of that protection.

Do you think they did not want to name it genocide because this would mean that you have the right for reparations?

Exactly. If you talk of genocide you also talk of reparation which comes with certain liabilities. Thus „reparation“ is not mentioned in the whole document.

The German government also argued that the term genocide was not yet invented by 1904-1908.

It is correct that the term came in 1948. But it's the same German government that recognized the Armenian genocide of 1915, seven years after ours. It is recognised here in the Bundestag that this was a genocide. So why don’t they recognize ours?

What is it exaclty that you demand from Germany?

Our demands are that they come at the table and we will put our case to them. And we negotiate our case.

And in the end?

It will be an agreement that would result in a reparation of damages, of our sufferings, of our dignity. And it will address the needs of Herero and Nama everywhere in the world, in the diaspora as well as in Namibia.

Is it mainly a question of more money?

No! This agreement between the two governments is looking at money and it is looking at addressing Namibia's five year development programs. And the programs are identified as rural electrification, roads, water infrastructure. But nowhere is it addressing the psychological trauma of Herero and Nama, the loss of language and culture of Herero and Nama in Botswana, South Africa and elsewhere. So those things are not included.

How can you measure such things in money?

That can always be worked out. If you have lost the language and you want to learn it, how much does it cost to teach a language? What sort of programs should be in place for you to be exposed to your lost culture? What sort of improvement do we need to do for your community where they are based? But we can only come to those discussions when we are at the table and can say: Look guys of the needs to address, this is the loss, this is the damage, this is what it cost to repair. And it becomes an issue of negotiations.

The German government also said that a government cannot negotiate with people, with traditional leaders. It could only negotiate with another government.

That's a an excuse. At some point of the negotiations the special envoy of the German government Ruprecht Polenz was saying: We don't know and we don't care who comes to the table – that is an issue for the Namibian government to discuss. So they're contradicting themselves.

In Germany many people think all this is more than 100 years ago, what does it have to do with our present life? And they don't understand what present impacts the genocide still has for your people. Maybe you can explain?

Till to date some Hereros are still being buried at the places where their ancestors were buried at those private farms occupied by Germans. But some of these German commercial farmers in Namibia are prohibiting Hereros to access their holy sites, their sacred sites.

They cannot go to the graves of their ancestors?

And we are a religious group who believes in the life after death and the presence of our ancestors. And the 70 per cent of land that is mainly occupied by the Germans were taken from the Namas and Herero. We know where this land is. We know that the descendants of those who expropriated the land are still on that land. So this long term impoverishment derived from dispossession is still present. Also the lack of culture, the cultural genocide of our people in Botswana, in South Africa, that we are visiting yearly is still a cost to us. So it is very much present. Where I live today is determined by where I moved to when the displacement that had taken place. So it is still present.

At the conference last week in Berlin at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt it was said that something like a truth commission would be helpful or even necessary. What do you think?

It is necessary because it will eliminate this issue of denial. A lot of Germans are sitting on our land enjoying the fruits of our blood. But they're denying that we were on the land when they occupied it, and that we were killed and displaced. But that denial doesn't make the land theirs. So a truth and reconciliation commission or such a framework would be best for people to express their losses, their sufferings, and for others to recognize that the ancestors have contributed to pain in parts of our community as Namibians.

So it would also be important to close the gaps within the Namibian society?

Yes of course! At the moment we have more Germans here who are sympathizing with our case than in Namibia. The Germans in Namiia are all denialists. They are no Germans who are sitting with us and argue for reparation. We are sitting on the other side of the fence. We're sitting outside and they are taking comfort in the SWAPO government because the government also doesn't want us to be paid reparations in nutshell.

And why is that? Why is still 70 per cent of the land in the hand of the Germans as you call them? Didn’t the Swapo government want to make a land reform some years ago?

The reality is that the government that is running the country is dominated by people who have not lost theirs land. So the land reform program is cosmetic. It's basically a settlement program. And they are trying to settle every person without considering the history of land loss or land dispossession. That government is not in the interest of those who have lost land. It is serving the interest of the Germans.

Because they are the economic most powerful group in the country?

No, I think the government itself doesn't want to address our needs. It is probably gaining wealth by marginalizing us. And of course, the Germans development aid that comes to Namibia is to protect the German interests. It goes to the Namibian government and they use it to enrich themselves or to divert it wherever they want it.

Now the Namibian government seems to change its mind. The vice president last week said that they would like to renegotiate the declaration and that no agreement with Germany is made so far.

It's politics. It is only through our efforts, the pressure that we have put on both governments that the German government first moved to say it was a genocide in public. And only then did the Namibian government started to use the same term genocide. So when the government now is saying this declaration ust be renegotiated and that the people in diaspora must be included – it's lip service. It's soon in the election year. I don't think they are genuine in that request, but it has come because those chiefs who are with the government, they also started to say that the diasporans must be included. The negotiation must be start afresh or renegotiated and so forth. So it is that pressure that is cosmetically changing the government's tone. The government basically is trying to use these pseudo chiefs to bargain, to increase its bargaining power to go to Germany and say, increase the money.

So they only want more money?

Yes. And then in the end, when Germany will give some more money, they will sign it.

But the Namibian parliament has to sign, or not?

Well, it's not clear whether parliament will have to sign it. But of course it was in Parliament, it has to go back to parliament. But the president may use his own discretion and the Foreign Affairs Ministry will sign it. I don't know. But we're not going to leave that case there.

I heard that you and some Namibian lawyers want to bring the case to the high court of Namibia, is that correct?

We are in preparation to file the case to the Namibian court.

Do you think that there is a realistic option that you could win?

Courts are courts. Sometimes courts are political instruments. So you may have the best case, but courts make the decisions. But we're always hopeful and will exhaust all legal means. That's our first priority. But as we have always said, if all legal means and all political means come to an end, we know where the land is. We shall mobilize our people to re-occupy their lands.

You would occupy the land?

That's the only thing when all peaceful means do not work.

Do other Namibians support you in that? What does the majority of the Namibians think of all this? I mean the Germans, the whites are only a small minority.

A lot of awareness had to be created. During the second National Land Conference in 2018 a team went around to interview Namibians the majority agreed that the issue of ancestral land must be discussed and agreed that the Herero and Namas, Damaras and San have lost the land. Therefore, that must be discussed and is an issue of interest to those communities. So that came out clear.

In the conference here in Berlin the group Forensic Architecture presented new scientific results that many places of the genocide are lost, unknown or even replaced by present buildings and streets. Why are places of rememberance so rare in Namibia?

It's a thing of the Namibian government for trying to make this genocide very insignificant. You will be surprised that in Swakopmund where we have the mass graves of victims of genocide no single Namibian official has ever visited that site. You'd be surprised that where the extermination order was issued in the Omaheke region for the Herero there is nothing. No Namibian official has ever been there in their official capacity.

Now you are here in Germany to attend the conference about the genocide. And you probably meet politicians who stand at your side and may be can put some pressure on the German government?

We're trying to do that. You know that the Green Party has always been on our side when it was in opposition. And also Die Linke.

Now the Greens are part of the government. Do you see any change since the Greens lead the ministry of foreign affairs?

They adopted the same approach as the government before. They have kept Rupert Polenz as the chief negotiator or envoy, and they are saying they have already signed or initialized the joint declaration and that they are not willing to renegotiate. So the Green Party is as all parties in Germany: The German interest counts more than the interest and justice of Hereros and Namas. That's why they're not willing to start the negotiations afresh. But it has to take place. Whether it's going to take another hundred years, we'll pursue.

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