When cultures of remembrance clash: Contesting memorialization in Namibia’s urban spaces

Roughly a year ago, an online petition brought down a German colonial statue in Windhoek. In November 2023, a privately initiated genocide museum is fighting for officialization in Swakopmund, a city still marked by colonial nostalgia and a memorialization dominated by German-speaking Namibians. This article looks at the current diverse decolonial activisms unfolding in a country which continues to grapple with the pervasive legacy of apartheid and colonialism. How can reconciliation look like and how can social cohesion be fostered after decades of racist oppression?

Illustration: Ditho Design GmbH

Over the last years, colonial statues have been toppled worldwide. On 9 April 2015, the statue of British imperialist Cecil John Rhodes was taken down at the University of Cape Town (UCT), South Africa, following several weeks of student protests. Changing the iconography on campus was only one element of a larger campaign to decolonize South African universities, including curricula, and ensuring representation of Black students and staff in a country still marked by racialized inequality. #RhodesMustFall later merged with other protest movements, in particular #FeesMustFall, which started at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg a couple of months later, putting the spotlight on material inequalities in the higher education system. Together they became known as the so-called »Must Fall« movement, rallying behind the common cause to fight the exclusion of Black students and the ignorance regarding Black experiences in higher education.

The protest against colonial statues as symbols of oppression reverberated globally. At Oxford university, students fought to remove a Rhodes statue in late 2015. Many of the activists hailed from the Southern African region. At the University of Ghana, a statue of Mahatma Gandhi was removed in 2018 following a public debate on anti-Black racism in his writings (#GandhiMustFall). However, the movement did not only impact on academic spaces. In Bristol’s town center, the statue of slave trader Edward Colston was toppled in 2017. Across the US, several confederate monuments were taken down.

Despite morphing into a truly global movement, it is no coincidence that this cascade of removing colonial statues started in the region of Southern Africa. Some commentators have highlighted the parallels between the #MustFall protests and the anti-apartheid protests led by South African students in the 1980s. It was hard for many observers to fathom that the 2015 protests were led by the so-called »born-free«, a generation born post-1994 and thus (supposably) unaffected by apartheid and racial discrimination. So why were they still demonstrating?

Regional activism and Namibian specificities

For the majority of South Africans as well as citizens in neighboring countries, oppression lives on through both symbols and experienced daily reality. The legacy of apartheid persists in Namibia, too. Following German colonialism, which ended with the first World War, Namibia was occupied by apartheid South Africa for 75 years until independence in 1990. During that time, »South-West Africa« was administered as a South African province and apartheid laws were applied. In Zimbabwe, a racist white minority government regime ruled until independence in 1980. However, universities in both countries have not experienced a similar »Must Fall« moment. Namibia’s main university (University of Namibia, UNAM) was founded in 1992, after independence. Instead of white imperialists, the statue of Simón Bolívar, icon of the Venezuelan anti-colonial struggle, has been erected next to the staff cafeteria. In Zimbabwe, an »africanization« of university campuses, staff and student composition had already taken place after independence.

The Namibian experience of double colonization – first by the German Reich, then by apartheid South Africa – has had a profound impact on its society. It has also left highly visible marks in public spaces. The removal of the statue of German colonial officer Curt von François on 23 November 2022 in Windhoek was the first time that a colonial monument was taken down due to civic activism in the country. An online petition under the name »A ›Curt‹ Farewell« had been launched in June 2020 by Namibian artist and photographer Hildegard Titus. It called for the removal of the statue and argued that apart from glorifying colonial violence, the statue erased Black history, in particular the role of Jonker Afrikaner as the rightful founder of the city. Von François was the governor of German South-West Africa from 1891 to 1894 and falsely venerated as »founder of Windhoek«. He was also responsible for the 1893 Hornkranz massacre. The petition managed to gather over 1,500 signatures in just a couple of weeks and was handed over to the city mayor. To the surprise of both the public and the petition’s initiator, the City Council announced at the end of October 2022 that it would take down the statue. Many German-speaking Namibians were outraged. On the morning of the removal day, a small group of German-speaking Namibians came to pay their last respects to von François. Some of his descendants still live in Windhoek. His great-grandson Ruprecht von François criticized the Council’s decision in several interviews. Reportedly, it was difficult to get a crane for the physical removal of the statue as most building companies are owned by German-speaking Namibians, who did not want to appear as »traitors« to their community.

#ACurtFarewell was only one element in a broader, interconnected set of contestations by young activists against both material and immaterial traces of colonialism. During the COVID-19 pandemic when Namibians were subjected to harsh lockdowns, gender-based violence (GBV) worsened, racism and police brutality became evident, and LGBTQ+ discrimination came to the fore. Following several femicides, a petition against GBV under the hashtag #ShutItAllDown was started in October 2020 – a hashtag that was subsequently also used in Nigeria in the context of protests against policy brutality. Several cultural and artistic performances on the day of the von François statue’s removal highlighted the »claiming [of] space for minority cultural groups, women, and queer persons who have been historically excluded from the memory landscape – the memoryscape«, as activist Bayron van Wyk highlights. This intersectional Namibian activism against coloniality – the continuation of racist and sexist hierarchies post-independence – has been described and conceptualized by South African-based social and cultural anthropologist Heike Becker in several of her articles (2020, 2022).

#ACurtFarewell was the first »cultural« petition handed to the Windhoek City Council. Both city administrators and activists entered unchartered territories. While its success was unexpected, the timing was right. Since the 2020 local elections, Windhoek had been governed by a coalition of opposition parties, challenging the South-West Africa People’s Organisation (SWAPO) for the first time, the former liberation movement that has won every national election since independence. Several city councilors were sympathetic to the petition’s cause and publicly supported it. The removal of the statue through a formal petition was a different form of protest to the South African case, where physical attacks (feces were thrown onto Rhodes’ statue at UCT campus in March 2015, which kick-started the protests) played an important role. Such attacks are a common form of protest elsewhere on the continent, too, such as in Douala, Cameroon, where the statue of French colonial general Leclerc was beheaded in 2013 and again (after repairs) in 2019.

Although innovative in many ways, the removal of the statue of von François was not the first time that a German colonial monument had been taken down in Windhoek. The (in)famous Reiterdenkmal, or equestrian monument, was removed in 2013 as space was needed to build a new museum that would exhibit SWAPO’s struggle for independence, today’s Independence Museum. The equestrian monument depicted a German soldier on a horse with a rifle in his hand, symbolizing »German« braveness and a recognition of »German« history. To all other Namibians who were not of German descent, however, it represented the glorification of the killings of their ancestors. Today, the monument is kept in the courtyard of Alte Feste, hidden from the public eye.

The success of #ACurtFarewell has given hope to many decolonial activists. As of November 2022, the pedestal in front of the City Council remains empty. The Council has launched a public call for suggestions on who could be honored in von François’ place. Reportedly, only a few proposals have been submitted. However, many activists are actually happy with an empty pedestal. Arguably, the institution of a stone statue itself has a colonial, if not at least hierarchical and patriarchal character. Who is infallible and will be honored by all generations alike? Where are the female statues in Namibia? Would it not be better to have a piece of art created by the descendants of populations especially affected by colonialism?

The empty pedestal in front of Windhoek City Council following the removal of the Curt von François statue. (© Constanze Blum 2023)

Founding the Swakopmund Genocide Museum: A »revolutionary« action?

A few hundred kilometers west of Windhoek, in Swakopmund, the picture of progress in reconciling different cultures of remembrance is bleaker. Walking through the small city at the Atlantic Ocean is a strange experience. The former logistical lifeline for the German colonial endeavor with its strategic landing bridge is a place of colonial nostalgia par excellence today. Time seems to have stood still. Timber-framed houses, a »Bismarck Apotheke« and »Woermann Haus«, named after the Hamburg-based trading company that supplied military equipment to the colonies, are just a few of the colonial remnants that still dot the city’s landscape in 2023. Woermann & Brock is a popular food store chain in Namibia today. Nowhere on the company’s website is there any reference to the forced labor and slave trade that the company practiced during the colonial era. White-owned and German-named restaurants are commonplace, like the »Altstadt Restaurant«. A copy of the Reiterdenkmal that was taken down in Windhoek was erected at its entrance in 2019. Despite this open display of a symbol for racist oppression, the restaurant is a busy place, frequented by both tourists and (primarily white) Namibians.

Today, about 20,000 Namibians of German origin live in Namibia. This constitutes less than one per cent of the population. However, the culture of remembrance in Swakopmund is still dominated by the German-speaking community. As opposed to other German colonies, Namibia was planned to become a settler colony. This implied particularly violent and extensive land grabbing, forced evictions and displacement of local populations. Where resistance was encountered, it was brutally crushed. Tens of thousands of Herero and Nama were killed following the extermination order by Lothar von Trotha in what has been recognized as the first genocide of the 20th century. Even though several genocide memorials exist today, the German legacy remains more visible than the history of the suffering and oppression of all other Namibian people. Bernd Heyl describes this as an »imbalance« in the politics of remembrance.

Laidlaw Peringanda is one of those who are trying to establish a balance between these different cultures of remembrance and are facing a backlash, particularly from the German-speaking community. A descendant of genocide survivors, Peringanda heads the Swakopmund-based Namibian Genocide Association. The association tries to raise awareness of the genocide, which is still denied by many. It also organizes annual days to take care of the unmarked mass graves next to the Kramersdorf Cemetery. An estimated 3,500 to 4,000 bodies were buried in shallow graves. These stand in stark contrast to the well-preserved and cared-for graves of German soldiers and German-speaking Namibians just a couple of meters away. Previously, tourists on quad bikes and horses, commonly used to explore the nearby dunes, would run past or over the unmarked graves, unaware of or disregarding their presence. A protective wall has recently been built to put a stop to this.

The genocide memorial and mass graves in the background at Kramersdorf Cemetery in Swakopmund. (©Constanze Blum 2023)

Peringanda usually starts his decolonial city tours at the »Marine Denkmal«, yet another violent depiction of a German soldier. Traces of red paint, which was tossed at the statue in 2022 by unknown activists, are still visible today. The government insists that the monument cannot be removed as it has been declared national heritage. However, it may also fear the anger of German-Namibians if it did so. Peringanda has done this work for years: speaking about the genocide and colonial atrocities, to school classes, visitors, politicians, documentary film makers, journalists. Things have slowly started to improve. Some younger German-Namibians come and help with grave maintenance. Recently, the German Embassy has pledged some financial support for taking care of the mass graves. UNESCO has signaled ambitions to declare the mass graves a heritage site. It is also international contacts that create visibility for the association’s cause, for example an online petition in support of the officialization of the Swakopmund Genocide Museum that Peringanda has initiated on his compound in Matutura, which is currently in process. He has faced many obstacles. Complaints have come from some German-Namibians who find the museum uncomfortable. In the past, Peringanda has also received death threats.

SWAPO’s official politics of remembrance

Since independence, SWAPO has crafted an official narrative of remembrance. It primarily revolves around what Terence Ranger has called »patriotic history« in the Zimbabwean context: a glorification of the deeds of struggle heroes during the anti-colonial resistance, which are today members of the ruling party. This dominant narrative comes at the expense of other cultures of remembrance, especially by marginalized groups, which are underrepresented in the ruling party. By consequence, many groups such as the Herero and Nama, feel excluded from both the official public commemoration and the German-dominated memorialization practices.

In 2021, a »joint declaration« relating to the 1904–1908 genocide was issued by the German and Namibian governments. It included an official German apology and a commitment to financial payments. However, the declaration is heavily debated within Namibian society. Affected communities complain that they have not been sufficiently included in the negotiation process. Moreover, victims of genocidal violence that have fled to neighboring countries are excluded from any »reparations«, as they are not Namibian citizens today. Furthermore, funds will be disbursed through development projects and not directly to descendants. Several pressure groups have taken legal action to prevent the declaration from being translated into Namibian law.

Towards »real« reconciliation?

After independence, the Namibian government has taken steps towards racial reconciliation. The first cabinet included several white ministers. The pensions of civil servants remained untouched. However, as opposed to South Africa, the Namibian government did not opt for a formalized truth and reconciliation process, but for »forgive and forget«. Some analysts highlight that the approach to »let the bygone be bygone« was also in the ruling party’s interest, as SWAPO was not particularly keen on digging up own human rights violations committed in exile. Chapter 3 of the Namibian Constitution enshrines private property rights as immutable principles, perpetuating unequal land tenure and ownership. Namibia’s private sector is still mainly white-owned.

How to create social cohesion in a post-apartheid context still shaped by highly racialized inequality? Since taking office in 2015, President Hage Geingob has coined a new terminology in this regard. He speaks of the »Namibian House« in which everyone can find his or her place. »One Namibia, One Nation« has been a central slogan to foster unity in the multi-ethnic country. In its operationalization, however, critical voices claim that the government focuses more on (bogus) patriotism than on policies that actually tackle historical inequalities. The PR campaign »My Namibia, My Country, My Pride« led by the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology is a case in point.

Decolonial and intersectional activists in Namibia fight for a »more inclusive memoryscape«: more inclusive of women, of LGBTQ+, and of descendants of genocide victims. They are thus not only trying to provide alternatives to white remembrance culture(s), but also to the »old guard« of the ruling party. While the »One Namibia, One Nation« mantra is not being questioned, calls for genuine spaces of visibility and representation are getting louder. This is not an easy fight. Whilst #ACurtFarewell got official recognition from the City Council and was a peaceful process, many protesters against police violence, racism, GBV and homophobia have been arrested. But there is reason for optimism. Namibia is a place where experimentation with various activist practices is possible. It might be precisely because Namibia has relatively strong democratic institutions (for the first time, a transgender person won a court case against the state in a police violence case) and is being perceived as somewhat »peripheral« at the same time that things can be moved. With 2.5 million inhabitants and the reputation of being relatively conflict-free and peaceful, not many people pay attention to what is actually going on. Instead, most analysts focus on the politically more turbulent South Africa. In fact, Namibia’s neighbor is commonly used as blueprint to understand Namibia, the assumption being that everything going on in South Africa happens »in small« in Namibia. However, this copy-paste analysis is too simplistic. Despite the historical linkages and the personal connections between activists across borders, it is worth looking at Namibia’s activism in its own right.

Dr. Constanze Blum  is a researcher at the Leipzig section of the Research Institute Social Cohesion (RISC) where she looks at national debates on social cohesion and populism(s) in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Namibia. She is particularly interested in the transnational linkages and exchanges between political parties as well as social movements in Southern Africa.

Diesen Blogbeitrag zitieren
Constanze Blum (2024, 14. Februar). When cultures of remembrance clash: Contesting memorialization in Namibia’s urban spaces. Zusammenhalt begreifen. Abgerufen am 21. Juni 2024, von https://doi.org/10.58079/vtyi

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