Reflections on the Namibian Genocide

by Feb 12, 2024Article

We will fully support the Namibian government if it approaches the ICJ regarding the genocide perpetrated in Namibia from 1904 to 1908 by German colonialism. 

The moral victory of the South African government at the International Court of Justice against Palestinian genocide can only be applauded. The symbolic significance of the former apartheid country taking such action is undoubtedly immense. Similarly, Namibia also suffered the scourges of apartheid and genocide, and that government therefore supported the standpoint of South Africa and strongly criticised Germany for publicly defending Israel on 12th January 2024. We will fully support the Namibian government if it approaches the ICJ regarding the genocide perpetrated in Namibia from 1904 to 1908 by German colonialism. In this context, it is relevant to reflect on the history of the Namibian genocide.

1904 uprising was anti-colonial

The anti-colonial uprising by the African people of Namibia on 12th January 1904 was momentous. There was resistance by Otjiherero-speakers and others against the dispossession of their land and cattle. Within a few days, the whole of central Namibia was under their control, and they destroyed most settler farms in the region. 

Samuel Maharero and his sub-chiefs planned the insurrection well and along non-tribal or non-ethnic lines. In his famous letter to the Witboois (Khowesen), the Ondongos and the Basters, Maharero exhorted them “Let us die fighting”. The ‘us’ without a doubt included other language groups. A fundamental point raised by Marion Wallace in her A History of Namibia is that “The diversity of the settlement patterns in central Namibia also meant that, even here, the war was never a purely Herero-German affair”. The Damara and San language groups, for instance, could not avoid the war situation. 

The war was not a tribal/ethnic event, but a regional reality. In any case, mixed-language parentage was already the norm at that time. The false notion of homogenous and undifferentiated social groups was a deliberate divide-and-rule strategy of the colonisers. So, the Namibian war of 1904-1908 cannot simply be called an uprising or rebellion by the Ovaherero and Nama. Couching it in tribal/ethnic terms diminishes its historical significance and mischaracterises it. The German colonisers would obviously not have admitted to the colonial nature of the war, but it is crucial that the formerly colonised must not make the same mistake. The ethnic categories emphasised by the coloniser were to isolate and crush the battles of different colonised groups. The extent of the events and the great loss of life from 1904 to 1908 also suggest that it was indeed a ‘war’ while describing it as merely an ordinary ‘uprising’ or ‘revolt’ might in fact imply that colonial rule was justified. 

Since the Germans were unable to deal with the anti-colonial fighting effectively, the extermination order (like the order against the so-called Hottentots/Khoe in the Cape) was intended to punish the combating group and to send a strong message to all the colonised. The 6,000 fighters of the Ovaherero and others at Ohamakari on 11 August 1904 did not have enough rifles, and therefore the one-sided event was over within one day.  The 4,000 German soldiers had six canons and 14 Maxim machine guns during that massacre. The colonised were always at a disadvantage with conventional warfare. Even so, although the extermination order was formally rescinded in December 1904, the genocide continued in the five concentration camps in Namibia until 1908. 

Prisoners taken during the 1904-1908 war. It was the beginning of the anti-colonial struggle in Namibia, preceding the current national liberation movements in Namibia and South Africa. 

A nation in the making

The South African intellectual, Neville Alexander, in his Three essays on Namibian history maintained that the primary resistance phase of Namibian history ended in 1894 with the defeat of the Khowesen. The 1904-1908 war was therefore the beginning of the secondary phase of the anti-colonial struggle in Namibia, preceding the current national liberation movements in Namibia and South Africa. 

When the great uprising began, King Nehale of the Ondongo immediately attacked the German fort at Namutoni and the Oshikwanyama-speaking fighters prevented the Portuguese colonisers in Angola from coming to the aid of the Germans. In his seminal essay on Marengo, Alexander avers that when Marengo’s fighters launched their guerilla war in July/August 1904, they “delayed and probably prevented the final solution of the Herero problem as the General Staff saw it”.  In other words, Marengo’s armed struggle possibly averted the total annihilation of the Ovaherero. The anti-colonial resistance throughout the country hence embodied a nation in the making. 

Marengo’s guerilla fighters consisted of both peasants and workers and many different language groups. The initial fighters came from the diverse community of Riemvasmaak in the Northern Cape. Altogether, about 2,000 Marengo guerillas – with only a few hundred rifles – kept 15,000 German soldiers occupied for about 3 years with a protracted war strategy, from their internal base in the Great Karasberg mountains. They scored major victories against the German colonisers at Narudas (21 March 1905) and Narus (16 June 1905). The battle at Narudas between Marengo’s guerilla army and the Germans was on the same scale as the encounter at Ohamakari. This time, however, the anti-colonial forces won. And it represents the greatest military victory against colonialism in Namibian history.

Why focus on the Anglo-Boer war

In a remarkable piece in The Journal of Namibian Studies on Edward Pressgrave, the young ‘white’ Australian who fought alongside Marengo, Peter Curson, raises several imperative issues. The number of deaths in the 1904-08 Namibian war of anti-colonial resistance was more than in the so-called Anglo-Boer war (1899-1902). But the focus has been on that South African war (in which many ‘black’ and ‘brown’ South Africans also perished) maybe because it involved the deaths of large numbers of ‘white’ people.

Due to the 1899 war, as many as 2,000 ‘white’ Afrikaners (Dutch colonisers) moved across the Gariep River and worked as scouts and transport riders for the Germans during the 1904 war. Moreover, they also acted as spies and arrested Namibian anti-colonial fighters; and were eventually compensated with farms in southern Namibia.

The British, Dutch, and German colonisers were concerned that Marengo could spark an uprising throughout southern Africa. After his release from Tokai Prison (Cape Town), Marengo was on his way to join up with others to continue the war of anti-colonial resistance. So, when Major Elliot of the Cape Mounted Rifles caught up with him at Eenzamheid in the Gordonia region, the colonisers did not show any mercy: “at one point 60 men unleashed continuous firing on Marengo’s party for ten minutes, firing about 5, 000 rounds.” (Martin Legassick). Marengo (with others such as Abraham Morris) could have militarily defeated the Germans, but the British and the Dutch intervened. 

In the final analysis, Marengo was arguably the main leader of the anti-colonial war, and the confrontation was effectively over when he was killed by the British on 20 September 1907 outside Upington. He had stood out above all the others due to his resolve, audacity, and astuteness. 

Implications for reparations

The 1904 war holds many implications for the reparations debate. Besides the question about whether it might be reparations for colonialism, war or genocide, the discourse about ‘affected communities’ contains tribal/ethnic connotations. These actually weaken the reparations movement and do not make sense in the context of an anti-colonial war that exemplified a nation in the making. 

It would accordingly be more appropriate for reparations to be used to develop the central and southern regions of Namibia first – since the genocide occurred there – and for us to completely discard the ethnic arguments. In fact, it is relevant to ask if the Northern Cape could not be included as a region in this discussion. And why should the demand for reparations be limited to the German government? What about the British government, the descendants of the Dutch colonisers, the private businesses, and the churches? 

Finally, we call on the South African government to locate and repatriate the remains of Jakob Marengo. This is crucial for the Namibian nation to correct her history.

Shaun Whittaker and Harry Boesak are members of the Marxist Group of Namibia. 

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