Was Namibia too quick to forget genocide?

Memorial to Nama and Ovaherero killed at Shark Island. Photo by Matthew Hendricks, used with permission.

On May 28, Namibian Information and Communication Technology Minister Emma Theofelus announced that, from next year, 2025, the 28th of May will be a public holiday, to be known as Genocide Remembrance Day. The day is meant to commemorate all those Nama and Ovaherero people killed during the 1904–1908 genocide engineered by colonial Germany. 

The announcement comes some three decades after Namibia first gained independence from apartheid-South Africa. The question, therefore, emerges: Why did Namibia take so long after independence to commemorate the genocide that wiped out roughly 76 percent of the Nama and Ovaherero people?

The first Europeans to land in Namibia

The first European to “discover” Namibia was Portuguese sailor Diago Cao in 1485. Upon arriving along the Skeleton Coast, now famous for the abandoned shipwrecks littering its coastline, Cao erected a limestone cross and christened the area Cabo da Cruz (Cape Cross).

Another popular tourist site, Diaz Point, marks the landing of Europe’s second traveller to Namibia just two years after Cao. On his way to the Cape of Good Hope, Barholomeu Deus stopped at this site roughly 20 km (12.4 miles) away from the Namibian town now known as Luderitz. 

While Deus went on to “discover” Walvis Bay, still the country’s largest commercial port, in 1487, it was only founded by the Dutch in 1793. The British would then go on to annex the port in 1840 in an attempt to secure their trade route to the Cape of Good Hope in modern-day South Africa. While Namibia was branded German South West Africa from 1884 to 1915, under the control of its namesake, Walvis Bay remained securely in the hands of the British until the country became a South African protectorate as a result of World War I and a subsequent 1920 League of Nations resolution

This, unfortunately, is a rather common tale. Countless countries in Africa, Asia and the Americas have been traded between the Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch and British as early as the 15th century. However, while the likes of the United States became settler colonies as early as 1606, malaria largely prevented Europeans from settling on the African continent — with some notable exceptions such as the malaria-free Cape colony, first established by the Dutch in 1652. Ultimately, South Africa and Algeria would become the countries with the largest number of European settlers on the continent, with Zimbabwe, Kenya, Mozambique, Angola and Namibia being home to much smaller settler colonies. Even smaller colonies, known as regional enclaves, also existed in Tanzania, Congo, Rwanda, and Burundi. What ultimately drew European settlers? The discovery of minerals.

The onset of settler colonialism

When the first prospectors arrived in Namibia in the late 1700s to look for precious metals and minerals, they reported that the Indigenous peoples were already mining, processing, and trading copper in the Otavi region. European commercial mining began later, starting with the Matchless Copper Mine in 1856 and the Pamona Silver Mine in 1864. Diamonds were later discovered in 1908 at what would become Kolmanskop mine, between the towns of Aus and Luderitz. As lucrative as this finding was, railway worker Zacharias Lewala, the man to first uncover diamonds in the region, never saw the millions to be mined. These winnings went rather to his supervisor, August Staunch. 

Ultimately, mining towns popped up all over the country with the discovery of minerals and precious metals.  Approximately 200 mining towns have since been abandoned, leaving behind only shells of colonial towns and their Edwardian buildings. In fact, at the site of the old abandoned town of Kolmanskop, for the price of N$150 (USD 8), you can tour the premises and be regaled with stories of wealthy townspeople eating caviar and drinking champagne imported from Europe in the middle of the Namibian desert — only briefly learning about the 800 or so workers who lived in the off-limits barracks on the opposite side of the highway, mining diamonds by hand and being subjected to regular radiation by the town’s state-of-the-art X-ray machine. 

Those mining towns that have managed to survive are, ironically, more difficult to visit. For instance, the town of Oranjemund, built in 1936 to service a local mine, was privately owned by NAMDEB (A Namibia De Beers partnership) until 2011, only publicly accessible from 2017. Prior to this point, a permit to access the town was required. 

Ultimately, the system of control over Namibia’s natural resources first established during the colonial grabs of the scramble for Africa is still very firmly in place. While this form of structural economic inequality is an injustice, it pales in comparison to the country’s failure to adequately memorialise the world’s first genocide of the 20th century.

The 20th century's first genocide

As European settlers increasingly made their new homes in Namibia, the local groups saw their ancestral lands and cattle confiscated. By 1903, the German colonists had confiscated roughly 130,000 square kilometres of land. This eventually led to an uprising by the Nama and Ovaherero people, killing between 123 and 150 German landowners. The German military response was swift and cruel. Between 1904 and 1908, of the estimated 85,000 Nama and Ovaherero, 65,000 were killed. This works out to roughly 80 percent of all Ovaherero and 50 percent of Nama killed. 

While some died in the Omaheke Desert fleeing German-controlled Namibia for asylum in British-controlled Bechuanaland (now Botswana) from starvation, dehydration and water poisoning, others were killed in work or concentration camps. In Luderitz, between 1,000 and 3,000 people died on what became known as Death Island. This is about 80 percent of all prisoners, who were essentially worked and starved to death. 

Doctors who would later help engineer the Nazi regime and the Holocaust also ran racial experiments on the prisoners. Similar acts were committed in a second concentration camp in Swakopmund. Once killed, the prisoners’ bodies were typically dismembered and their heads removed (to be peeled and boiled by fellow prisoners, usually women). These skulls were then used to conduct racial studies and used a few decades later as the foundation for Aryan superiority. Shockingly, the remains were only returned to Namibia in 2011, exactly 10 years before Germany formally acknowledged moral responsibility for what happened under their colonial rule.

The great camp-washing of Namibia

Despite the atrocities committed, commemoration is sparse. What was once Death Island is now a popular tourist site known as Shark Island. Now a campsite, complete with ablutions, barbeque spots, plug points, and even a beach perfect for swimming,  as a visitor to the island, one looks around at the surrounding beauty and happy campers (many of whom are, ironically, German), mostly unaware of the human rights violations that took place there. That is, until one stumbles across the memorial.

Campers on Shark Island. Photo by Matthew Hendricks, used with permission.

Erected in late 2023, the memorial stone pays tribute to the Nama and Ovaherero people who died on the island. The memorial is scattered amongst others. One commemorates the founder of the town, Adolf Luderitz, and another commemorates the Germans who died in the rebellion led by the Ovaherero and Nama. 

Given that human remains, presumably from those who died at the concentration camp, were found on Shark Island as recently as April this year, more needs to be done to uncover and preserve Nama and Ovaherero history. More importantly, memorials and historical sites must be framed within the context of colonial history, distinguishing very strongly between memorials to genocide victims and those to “battle heroes” who died fighting a colonial and oppressive war. 

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