The issue of the German genocide of the Ovaherero and Nama people and their demand for reparations got some impetus with the return of 20 skulls brought home from Germany last week after more than 100 years, where they were taken for 'scientific experimentation' using discredited race-based theories. Namibia's Ovaherero and Nama communities are seeking compensation from the German government for the suffering endured during colonial rule and the genocide of their ancestors. In this question and answer interview, New Era's Magreth Nunuhe spoke to Festus Muundjua, patron of the Ovaherero Genocide Committee (OGC), on reparations and other related issues.
We have heard a lot about claims for reparations. What exactly is it that the Ovaherero and Nama want in terms of reparations?
"Our demand is not a demand in a vacuum. It is based on other things that we say. I am not sure what we are saying is the same thing our government is saying. As for the German government, I know what we are saying is not what they are saying. We are saying, we would like to prove to the whole world that what happened to us was genocide, and we want to prove there was intent to commit genocide against our people.
"Once we have done those two things, then we would like to know whether Germany has it that way. Do we have a common understanding? The charge is that they have committed genocide against our people. Now, what is it that we want in terms of the tangibles as a reparations package? We have already communicated that to the German government and Cabinet, as well as Parliament, and we have submitted same documents to our Cabinet and Parliament."
Did the document come directly from the Ovaherero Genocide Committee?
"No, it was a joint position paper of the Namas under the leadership of Chief Dawid Fredericks and the Ovaherero under the leadership of Paramount Chief Kuaima Riruako. It is in that document that we say, among others because the document was not all-inclusive, let alone conclusive - we want to put it on the table as a starting point for discussion. We have been saying let's have a dialogue.
"We have now come up with a new terminology, let's have a 'trialogue'. We are moving away from a discussion between two points - the dialogue. We say it must be a discussion involving three stakeholders, perhaps most importantly the Nama and Herero as one group at the negotiating table. But we say we can't do this alone, we have to involve our own government to see how their own citizens are being treated by the third leg, the German government. In the negotiations we can spell that out. But we cannot reach that point unless in the first step, they agree they had committed genocide."
What is this "among others" that you refer to?
"Among others' simply indicates that we have not finalized the list (for reparations). These are only a few of the many things."
Can you mention some of the things that are in the paper (document)?
"Well, in terms of the personalized properties of the Namas and the Hereros these people were not living outside like animals even animals have kraals where they sleep in but they don't own properties inside the kraals. But in our houses, there were personal items, and if you have to put personal value to that, you would ask what happened to the holy fires and the holy artifacts, which are so dear to them? What about trauma, psychological effects of the war on the people and when you look at those pictures it invokes in you some kind of feeling, not a feeling of pleasure. The same was also done to the victims of the Holocaust.
"The Jews demanded reparations for that. We haven't sat down to work on the specifics, the quantifications, etcetera. This can only come once they have accepted they have done wrong and that in principle they are ready to pay - they have accepted, let's sit and talk. Then we know the situation has become serious. Then we will have to go and fine-tune generalized statements to put them in focus."
There is an argument by the German government that they can't accept liability after so many years have passed.
FM: "That international law falls under the Statute of Limitations. According to that United Nations law, there is a time limitation when you can bring charges, I think thirty years or so. Now, that we also know, I think it was the same point I was trying to argue in Berlin as well, that if you are in bondage, you are not a free person to argue under law and there must be a certain coadunation as well. We were under colonial rule, Germany stopped, then our country was recolonised by South Africa, and they only transferred us from one prison to the other. Now that we are free, what we could not say now we are able to say.
"We are not going to argue our case based on international law. When Germany negotiated reparations for the Jews, it was offered by Dr. Conrad Adenauer, the first Chancellor of Germany after the Second World War. He appealed to his own nation to accept responsibility and pay reparations to the Jews. He was even willing to pay reparations to the state of Israel that did not even exist. If we follow the example of that German Chancellor, they could use the precedent of history to pay the Hereros and Namas. The Jews all over the world were not representing a country.
"While foreign citizens of other countries, they took it upon themselves to become a negotiating partner in what is referred to as the Luxembourg Agreement of 1952. That's when they agreed that Germany would pay reparations and after that the Jews put up a list, like the building of new harbours, railways, building of factories, and so on. I see in our case when talking of historical precedent, the same scenario can be played.
Therefore we can do away with international law, because we can't go to an international court as the Hereros and Namas were not a state and we don't know if our government has the backbone to take another government to the international court of law without fearing or antagonizing the German friends with whom they have, as they say, a 'cordial' relationship. Now, this cordiality, because of the foreign aid from Germany, is not reparations. Foreign aid can go on as part of the bilateral agreement between ex-coloniser and ex-colonised, that is a historical relationship that gives the recipient the benefit of preferential treatment."
Hereros took the German government to court in the USA but they did not succeed. How differently are you going to treat this case when you open it again?
"I was not party to the team when the first case was opened (in the US). I haven't even seen the charge sheet against Germany. I haven't even seen the names of the lawyers. If I were to redo it, I would have to do it on different terms of reference. I would have to say, the Namas and Hereros are laying a charge, that's the starting point. Then through the help of lawyers, define and craft the charges, identify the respondents, which court will have jurisdiction to hear this case, can a people such as Namas and Hereros, not a state, have a right under what law to lay a charge against a state?
"In this case I am thinking about the US' Aliens Tort Claims Act of 1798, which has the principle of universal jurisdiction to include any crime against humanity. That law will obligate a United States court to hear the case under universal jurisdiction. It has been used by other nations such as countries in Latin America and individuals who were wronged. That is one possibility to look at. The case did not succeed from what I hear because of legal technicalities and I don't exclude a manipulative involvement of the United States in this case, because they were afraid that precedent could also be used against them."
Don't you think perhaps it is better that although the German government together with our government has not come to the table to have this trialogue, that you define exactly what in terms of reparations (monetary or material) so that the world knows exactly what it is you want?
"Yes, I couldn't agree more. If our two governments cannot come to terms to discuss this issue, the choice for us cannot be 'let's quit'. No, the show goes on.
We are prepared and even if we are not there, the present generation, and even if it should take us a hundred years, we will keep on demanding the same thing. There can be no other demand for generations as if we are talking about another genocide.
We have not listed all the things, we have only scratched the top of the soil. As I said, the list is not all inclusive or conclusive, we leave that open-ended."