How much is a life worth? Germany and Namibia are reportedly discussing reparations for the massacre of around 65,000 Herero and 10,000 Nama people by the Germans between 1904 and 1908. The discussions will culminate in the former colonial power also issuing an official apology before June 2017. Germany had refused to acknowledge the killings as genocidal until Social Democrat foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier’s political guideline rightly said the massacre had to be referred to as a war crime and genocide. European colonialists have been reluctant to admit to the systemic exploitation and killing of native populations and some “experts” have even claimed reparations are impractical. All this has been done in an attempt to run away from shouldering responsibility for the strife some communities are living in even now. Contemporary Western privilege is an institution supported by a history of oppression and genocide, stating otherwise is insulting and undervaluing millions of African lives lost when colonialism was imposed.
The 20th Century’s First Genocide
Germany annexed the area now known as Namibia in 1884. Land already occupied by native people was forcefully taken, livestock plundered and the people subjected to violence. Naturally, the natives protested resulting in an uprising that claimed 123 Germans sparing women, children and missionaries. According to Michigan State University’s genocide portal, Hereros attacked those who raped their women while housekeepers killed their German employers while they were asleep. This is when events took a dangerous turn. An “annihilation order” was issued by the German General, Adrian Dietrich Lothar von Trotha. It read in part, “Within the German borders, every Herero, with or without gun, with or without cattle, will be shot. I will no longer accept women or children. I will drive them back to their people or I will let them be shot at.”
The order was later rescinded but with the Germans under Trotha, Herero workers were imprisoned while gallows were set up and many natives hanged. Others were pushed into the Omaheke desert where they were left to die of starvation and thirst. Around 3,000 skulls were taken to German for tests to prove the racial superiority of white people. Until this day, most of those have not been returned
A Culture of Colonial Amnesia and Denialism
There is a Zimbabwean proverb that roughly translates to: Only the axe may forget, but never the tree. It is only the victimiser who may forget the ills of the past but the victim will always remember. Some countries which benefited from the ills of colonialism have chosen to pretend they are not beneficiaries of violent racism and this is only normal but Africa cannot possibly forget. In 2005, one Caroline Elkins published a book that exposed the truth on the violence of the British Empire in pre-independence Kenya. That violence had led to the death of thousands of people but some experts still labelled her self-aggrandising and her work, dubious. Elkins, in her book, Britain’s Gulag wrote, “I’ve come to believe that during the Mau Mau war British forces wielded their authority with a savagery that betrayed a perverse colonial logic. Only by detaining nearly the entire Kikuyu population of 1.5 million people and physically and psychologically atomising its men, women, and children could colonial authority be restored…”
The British government only reluctantly admitted to the violence of its imperial past. However, when one Shashi Tharoor demanded a token £1 reparation (at the Oxford Union reparations debate) from the UK for the exploitation of India, the “experts” like Professor MacKenzie again rushed in to give reviews brimming with praise for imperialism thus downplaying the evils of imperialism. In the minds of people like MacKenzie, colonialism was a favour done to the colonised and benefited them more than it did the coloniser. The erosion of cultural heritage, dignity and personality of the colonised is all conveniently forgotten in MacKenzie’s narrative. While the Herero people like Esther Muinhague, an activist and social worker at the University of Namibia cry foul about the systematic erosion of culture, MacKenzie calls the imposition of English (a coloniser’s language) a unifier which “has helped the survival of democracy”. Esther on the other hand said to The Guardian, “We are talking now about the lives that were lost, the land that was taken, the cattle that was killed, the rape, the lost dignity, the culture that was destroyed. We cannot even speak our language.”
Though English may have its benefits, these do not justify its imposition. The denialism, outright arrogance and convenient colonial amnesia exhibited by the West is insulting. Countries like Belgium have even refused to acknowledge the violence they used against native populations. Belgium’s rule in the Congo for example being reported to have claimed almost 10 million people. The honourable thing to do is to apologise and pay reparations as a sign of good faith.
Money will not undo the violence colonial powers used against Africans. Money will not bring the hanged and starved back to life but it is a sign of good faith and an acknowledgement of the past. This contemporary world order is built on top of a bed-rock of racial violence; denialism only makes that worse. Beneficiaries of Western privilege should have the decency to admit the past. Hopefully, many other countries will follow the honourable route Germany is considering.
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