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Genocide in Namibia: Germany’s stance on Gaza reopens 120-year-old wounds

The remains of an estimated 70,000 Namibians who perished in what is considered the first genocide of the 20th century lie under the dunes of the sprawling Namib Desert.

Many others were washed into the depths of the ice-cold waters of the South Atlantic Ocean.

This colonial-era genocide of numbing proportions was perpetrated by German forces on the indigenous Herero and Nama people between 1904 and 1908.

As the late President Sukarno of Indonesia would say, “Don’t ever forget the history. It will make and change who we are.”

In 2021, after years of negotiations, Germany formally acknowledged the blot on its colonial history as “a genocide”.

By way of reparation, the European nation agreed to fund projects in Namibia worth US $1.3 billion over 30 years for its role in the mass killings.

But even before the dust could settle on the injustices of 120 years ago, Germany made a decision that shocked Namibia and reopened old wounds.

The German government pledged to intervene on Israel’s behalf in the case brought by South Africa at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague over what is widely regarded as a “genocide” against Palestinians in Gaza.

Double standards

Namibia sees it as a reflection of Germany being less than repentant for its sullied history.

In a statement, Namibia’s President Hage Geingob said that “the German government is yet to fully atone for the genocide it committed on Namibian soil”.

“Germany cannot morally express commitment to the United Nations’ convention against genocide, including atonement for the genocide in Namibia, whilst supporting the equivalent of a holocaust and genocide in Gaza,” he said.

Echoing Geingob’s sentiments, writer and actress Girley Jazama argues that Germany’s refusal to acknowledge the genocide in Gaza implies that “you (Germany) have not taken accountability for what you did to the Namibian people from 1904 to 1908”.

“So, how do we then hold people accountable for their actions? Do we sit aside and let this play out? Does this mean that it was all amnesia? Have they yet to learn from their past?” she wonders.

Although what happened in Namibia and Gaza are separated by over a century, Jazama rues that little has changed.

“It’s so strange to me that in 2024, this is still happening,” she tells TRT Afrika. “I am shocked that Germany does not see what Israel is doing as genocide.”

Hidden from history

Jazama’s Herero ancestors were executed for resisting the German occupation of their land.

“There was an extermination order against my people, and we were driven out into the desert to starve and die of thirst. Today, it is playing out in Gaza, where Palestinians are put under a total blockade,” she says.

Some 13,000 Hereros who survived the horrors of the desert in Namibia were transferred to concentration camps, where they were killed.

“Strangely, not many people know of the Namibian genocide,” says Jazama. “It is hidden from history.”

Some historians even argue that the concentration camps in Namibia seem to have inspired the modelling of the Nazi concentration camps in Germany, where millions of Jews were killed under Adolf Hitler’s regime.

In the wake of the Holocaust in Germany, Britain pledged to establish a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine under the Balfour Declaration.

Post-holocaust flight

As Jewish migration to Palestine gained momentum, their population in Palestine rose from 6% to 33% between 1918 and 1947.

Palestinians were alarmed by the demographic change, and tensions rose, leading to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, which has since become arguably the world’s most intractable conflict.

The latest round of Israeli attacks on Gaza since October 7 last year, have killed more than 27,000 Palestinians, nearly half of them children. Israel claims that its relentless air and ground attacks are a retaliation for a deadly attack by the Palestinian group Hamas.

The Israeli atrocities in Gaza compelled South Africa to take Israel to the dock at the International Court of Justice (ICJ).

But Germany strongly rejects the genocide charges, arguing that Israel was only “defending itself”.

Repeat offender

In Jazama’s eyes, Germany has come a full circle. After committing two genocides in Namibia and on its soil, it is now seen as providing cover for Israel as the latter faces charges of genocide in Gaza.

Some experts view Germany’s stance as an implication of sorts.

“The interpretation is that the Nama, the Herero and Palestinians are not human in the eyes of Germany. Only Jews and other Caucasians are humans and, hence, worthy of a German apology and support,” Everisto Benyera, a professor at the University of South Africa, tells TRT Afrika.

He sees the entire episode as “a textbook case of racism playing out in the international criminal justice arena”.

Benyera says the outcome of South Africa’s case against Israel will be “an evaluation of the international justice system itself”.

The case sets a huge precedent, and the ICJ has to prove itself “impartial”, he says.

“If the court rules in favour of South Africa, that could open the door for us also to take Germany to the ICJ,” says Jazama, noting that justice is still to be served to her people.

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