Namibia’s long fight for justice


‘Justice now,’ they shouted. ‘Give us an apology’, they said, ‘genocide is genocide,’ they declared.

It was a sunny Sunday afternoon in the German port city of Hamburg. Activists, students and journalists from Germany and the African continent had gathered outside St. Michael’s church, the city’s largest, to begin their protest march around the city.

It was the final leg of a three day transnational conference looking at Hamburg’s colonial legacy, and the role it had played in a genocide committed by Germany more than 100 years ago, in what is now Namibia.

The April conference – along with the announcement later the same month that a campaign by anti-colonial activists in Berlin to change street names to honour the African resistance to German colonial rule – mark a shift in a movement that’s pushing mainstream German society to address this violent yet relatively unknown part of its history.

This is a struggle for justice that dates back to the late 19th and early 20th century, when Germany ruled over large parts of the African continent, including today’s Tanzania, Cameroon and Togo. Their colonial campaign was brutal: built on the idea of white supremacy, their occupation claimed tens of thousands of African lives.

One of their worst atrocities was against the Ovaherero and Nama people from Namibia. In 1904, war broke after the local population decided to fight their occupiers, a move that the Germans violently crushed. Forcing people into the nearby Omaheke desert, thousands would die of thirst and starvation, while thousands more perished in what were Germany’s first concentration camps on Shark Island. In just three years, at least 65,000 Herero people and more than 10,000 Nama people died. It was the first genocide of the 20th century.

Ratcheting up the pressure

The pressure being exerted by this growing network of campaigners – from Berlin, Hamburg and the African countries that Germany once colonized – may be starting to pay off.

Hamburg-based campaigner Jonas Prinzleve, one of the coordinators of the Quo Vadis Hamburg? conference, told New Internationalist: ‘It has taken Germany a long time to face this part of its history and it’s only now that the issue is really rising to the surface. A lot of institutions are feeling pressured to respond to questions from civil society, who ask them about their colonial history or heritage.

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