Thursday, December 4, 2014

Decolonizating the Past and Recasting the Present

When I began this project in 2013, the opening post served as a disclaimer.  I have since updated it to reflect the ongoing efforts in Namibia to delist and remove certain national monuments erected during the German colonial period that are now deemed by many Namibians to be inappropriate or insensitive.  The 1912 "Reiterdenkmal" that once stood before the Alte Feste in Windhoek came down from its pedestal over Christmas in 2013, and both the statue of the Schutztruppe horse and rider and commemorative plaque with names of German casualties are currently stored within the courtyard of the old fort.  In its place is a new Namibian Genocide memorial and a statue of founding President Samuel Nujoma holding the Namibian constitution.  Towering over all is the golden Independence Museum.  A greater symbolic contrast before and after would be hard to envision.

Twenty five years after Namibia's UN supported free and fair elections, the injustices of the past still rankle.   Just this past week, one of the younger members of the "old guard" of the liberation movement, 73-yea-old Hage Geingob, was elected President.  Most Namibians, though, were born after Independence (median age 22.8 years), which took place at the end of the Cold War and before the transition to majority rule in South Africa.  Policies of national reconciliation have played out differently in these two countries as well. 

The first time the image of this colonial horse and rider was removed in Namibia actually took place in 1990 when Southwest Breweries became Namibia Breweries and the old logo (above) was updated.  The statue has now been delisted by the National Heritage Council, which stated:

"The Equestrian Statue is viewed to have lost its monumental significance after Namibia gained independence in 1990, therefore, does not have any significance in a liberated Namibia. The public is informed that the National Heritage Council has removed this statue from the National Heritage Register. It is now kept inside the courtyard of the Alte Feste as an ordinary historical object."

How should such an historical object, so laden with highly charged symbolism, be interpreted?  Its placement within the old fort, itself once a museum that held relics including the uniforms of UNTAG soldiers who helped police Namibia in the transition to its first elections in 1990, consigns it to a discredited and dated version of the colonial past.  Yet the very act of removing it imbues it with contemporary political as well as cultural meanings.

Although South Africa was the colonial power in Southwest Africa from World War I until Namibian Independence in 1990, the country retained a strong German cultural presence and visual identity throughout the modern liberation struggle.  Many streets bore German names, though most of these have been successively renamed since black majority rule.  Colonial architecture is a striking feature of towns like Swakopmund and the constituency that was formerly known as Luderitz but was renamed last year as !Nami≠nûs

Decolonization in Namibia is as much about economic disparity as it is about cultural narratives and national identity. Most of the arable land and wealth of Namibia is still held by those of European descent.  Modern South Africa is now an ally and Namibia's most significant trading partner.  While Germany is Namibia's most significant European investor, it is also a lightning rod for the injustices of the colonial past, and a movement to seek reparations and a formal apology from Germany for genocide is ongoing. Efforts to fully repatriate a large number of skulls and human remains from Nama, Herero and Damara prisoners and possibly indigenous San as well who had either been  executed or died under horrible conditions in concentration camps is perhaps the most sensitive element of modern Namibian-German relations.

Namibian historian and former Ambassador to Germany, Dr. Peter Katjavivi, put it succinctly; "With the achievement of independence in Namibia, we declared that we would make every effort to regain our rights, freedoms and our past. The recovery and repatriation of the skulls is an essential component of regaining our past, and consequentially our dignity."

There are dark corners of the Namibian past that cannot be laid solely on the doorstep of the old colonial powers.  Reconciliation in Namibia did not come with a South Africa style Truth Commission which, for better or worse, provided a platform for the public revelation of injustices committed during the apartheid era, sometimes by black South Africans.  Renaming the Namibian panhandle region of Caprivi as Zambezi is resented by some members of the various ethnic groups who identify as Caprivians, but the matter is further politicized by the long running treason trial of Caprivi separatists.  Then, too, there is the unresolved issue of human rights abuses and the alleged murder of SWAPO detainees held in captivity by the liberation movement during the Independence struggle.  These questions have proved intractable and are dismissed by the ruling party as intentionally divisive and disloyal.  For now and for the foreseeable future, these dissenting perspectives are not part of the Namibian creation narrative. 

It is extremely difficult to accept responsibility for one's own offenses when the enormity of the injuries perpetrated by an occupying power is self evident.  Phil ya Nangoloh, himself a SWAPO detainee and Executive Director of the human rights organization NamRights, offered one such statement after it was revealed by founding President Sam Nujoma in 2010 that a German woman, captured during the Ndonga assault on fort Namutoni in late January, 1904, apparently had been given to Ndonga chief Nehale Iya Mpingana as a wife and that her descendants survive today in that region of Namibia.  ya Nangola would later write in 2014:

“As human rights defenders we would fail in our duty to strongly condemn this crime of rape and enslavement. Although quantitatively minimal in comparison to what German troops have done to hundreds of Herero and Nama women, we have found the rape and enslavement of a German prisoner of war (POW) morally and legally indefensible in terms of the very same legal and moral principles under which Germany had to be taken to court to make reparation. What is good for the goose should be good for the gander.

As Namibians, we share the shame and, hence, we unequivocally apologize to the descendant family of the German POW both in Namibia and Germany, not for the attack on Fort Namutuni and or even for the capture of the said girl, but exclusively for the criminal act of rape and enslavement of the POW”

These are powerful stories, hard to verify and steeped in the values of the present day.  There was a long history of raiding for war captives and slaves in the North - driven, to be sure, by the Portuguese demand for slaves in exchange for alcohol.   ya Nangola's is the only modern voice condemning this one obscure act of white slavery during the year 1904 which saw the deaths of tens of thousands of indigenous people in Southwest Africa and an extermination order by German commander Lothar von Trotha that codified what is widely regarded as systematic genocide.  It does not fit comfortably in the prevailing narrative, any more so than the words on the old Reiterdenkmal commemorating those Germans who fought and fell for emperor and empire.  

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