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Namibia: 'let's die fighting rather than die of maltreatment'.

"If we rebel, we will be annihilated in battle since our people are practically unarmed and without ammunition, but the cruelty and injustice of the Germans have driven us to despair and our leaders and our people both feel that death has lost its terrors because of the conditions under which we now live," wrote the Herero chief, Samuel Maherero, in 1904, on the eve of the Herero uprising against German colonial rule. On the 104th anniversary of the rebellion this month, Anna Rosenberg traces native resistance to German rule in South West Africa (now Namibia).


On a midsummer day in early 1913, a German missionary walked down a dusty road in Windhoek, South West Africa (GSWA). The missionary, Gustav Becker, was on his way to hold a wedding in the church of the Namaspeaking parish. He had good reason to anticipate nothing more than an uneventful ceremony for, since his arrival in Windhoek one year earlier, relations with the parishioners had been smooth or at least without audible discord.

"When Becker entered the church, however, he was disturbed by what he saw. He faced a crowd crowned with top hats, despite his order days before not to wear them. He had claimed that the hats made Africans the laughing stock of Europeans, but now he felt little inclination to laugh himself. He reported to his superior that this was 'open resistance'."


The historian, Philip Prein, recounts this incident as an example for how African resistance in German colonial South West Africa continued seven years after the native population had been heavily defeated in war by the Germans. The conflicts of 1903-1907 had killed more than half of the native population and had forced the survivors into a status of semi-servitude, but still their willingness to resist was not broken. The history of Namibia under German colonial rule has often been looked at from the perspective of the victims who died during the Herero Genocide of 1904. But as the story of the top hat-wearing Namas suggests, Africans were not just helpless victims. Colonialism in Africa could not have ended without native resistance. Africans did not just stand by watching while they were gradually dispossessed, enslaved and even killed. Some were victims, some were collaborators and agents of imperialism, but others rebelled.


Since the beginning of the German colonial intrusion into what was then South West Africa, the Africans gave the colonial power a hard time. Between 1884 and 1915, there were numerous rebellions which kept the colonial power in constant fear and alert. Hardly a year passed when the Germans did not have to face an indigenous rebellion of some kind. The resistance came from a profound discontent with the prevailing situation, but different ethnic groups had different motives to rebel.

Economic problems resulting from the gradual expropriation of cattle and land were a driving force. Social factors, like the inequality in treatment of black and whites, maltreatment of Africans and racial and social discrimination were other reasons. Internal power struggles also played a crucial role as did religious motivations.

German colonial ambitions

Europe was in a colonial fever during the 18th, 19th and the first half of the 20th centuries. The possession of colonies was an important manifestation of power, and Germany could not stand idly by. In fact, it did not want to lose its colonial territories to Britain. It had become a matter of prestige to govern over South West Africa.

Initially, German contact with Namibia was confined to missionary activities and trade. As the colony became more and more important to Germany and resistance more threatening, the colonisers had to find means to pacify the country and raise the benefits of trading. Increasing European settlement was to make this possible.

But the natives were highly experienced warriors and would not allow the Germans to seize power so easily. Initially, the Germans tried to gain control by collaborating with different ethnic groups, using the time-tested "divide and rule" tactics or so-called "protection treaties".

As more and more ethic groups realised that they did not gain much from these agreements, the Germans found new ways to forcefully tie them down to the treaties. But the Nama people, led by Hendrik Witbooi, rejected any form of dependence on the German colonial power and opposed the "protection treaties", whereas the Hereros had agreed to German protection already in 1890. Angry about the Hereros' submission to German control, the Nama chief Hendrik Witbooi wrote to his long-time enemy, the Herero leader, Samuel Maharero, taunting him: "I learn ... that you have given yourself into German protection, and that Dr Goring has thus gained power to tell you what to do, and to dispose as he wills over our affairs, particularly in this war of ours with its long history.

"I am amazed of you, and take it very ill of you who call yourself the leader of Hereroland ... Are you still paramount chief of Hereroland? I can't see how you can call yourself that, since you have put someone else over you and have submitted to him and his protection ..."

But gradually all the ethnic groups, even the Witboois in 1894, were forced into the German treaties, which implied that the Africans had to fight on the side of the Germans against "enemies of the German Protectorate, both outside and inside the country".

Feeling that a bigger threat had arrived, the Nama and Herero made peace in 1892 in order to cope with the new situation under the Germans. The Germans knew that the only way to have effective power over the country was to occupy it. European, and especially German settlers were eager to come to South West Africa as they were seeking new economic possibilities outside Europe.

And they went for the land to build their farms. As a result, the natives were expelled from their land on a wide scale. But the land was not always taken forcefully; sometimes it was sold or exchanged by the people living on it. Cattle was another necessity for trading purposes; so more and more astute tactics were employed to get African cattle--sometimes supported by self-obsessed chiefs. The grandfather of Daniel Ndjombo, a 77-year-old Herero farmer, lived under German colonial rule. Ndjombo today tells the story of how his grandfather exchanged a full-grown ox for a fancy colonial firelighter.

The possession of cattle was not only of economic but of social relevance as it determined the social position of Herero men within their society and regulated social relationships. Cattle also played a crucial role in religious rituals, thus the expropriation of cattle did not only have economic implications but also social significance.

The rinderpest (cattle-plague) of 1897 was a major blow for the native population as 50-95% of African livestock died. The settlers did not have to face this situation as they had vaccinations which could save their cattle. The Germans offered these vaccinations to the natives but only in exchange for fertile grazing land or cattle; or by offering credit on usurious terms.

But it was not only economic reasons that drove the natives to rebel. A German missionary wrote at the time: "The real cause of the bitterness among the Hereros towards the Germans is without question the fact that the average German looks down upon natives as being about on the same level as the higher primates and treats them like animals.

"The settler holds that the native has a right to exist only in so far as he is useful to the white man. It follows that the whites value their horses and even their oxen more than they value the natives."

The uprising begins

The historian, Jon Bridgman, writes: "By the end of 1903, the situation in Hereroland had reached a crisis. The seeds of a revolt, sown many years beforehand, had long geminated."

These uprisings have been described in historical accounts by Horst Drechsler, Helmut Bley and Jon Bridgman. The year 1896 saw the first joint Nama and Herero resistance: The Khauas und Mbandjeru also rose against German colonialism over a series of discriminating incidents.

The Herero leader, Samuel Maharero, was openly favoured by the colonial government, whereas the Mbandjeru chief, Nikodemus, was continuously reminded that he was only chief under German conditions and that he could easily be removed from this position. Maharero's claims for land were granted whereas Nikodemus' demands for the township of Gobabis were rejected.

In July 1895, the Germans had agreed with Maharero to a treaty which allowed the Germans to confiscate 5% of all cattle that crossed the frontiers of Herero territory. Half of the profit from the cattle which were sold was then given to Maharero. As thousands of Herero cattle were taken on a raid in November 1895, many Herero chiefs were outraged.


In 1901, the Germans decided to count the amount of horses owned by a small ethnic group called the Grootfontein who interpreted this as the first step to total disarmament. But their rebellion was quickly snuffed out by the German troops. The prisoners were brought to Windhoek to work as labourers; their land, livestock and horses were confiscated.

Elsewhere, the Bondelwart ethnic group had been living in peace with the Germans since the 1890s as they considered their real enemy to be the Nama chief, Hendrik Witbooi. But as the Germans expressed attempts to register the group's weapons in 1903, they, too, like the Grootfontein before them, interpreted the move as a prelude to total disarmament. The Bondelwart rebellion (under their leader Willem Christian) was so successful that all German troops were transferred to the south to fight them, leaving Hereroland empty of German soldiers which provided a perfect opportunity for the Hereros to rise. On the eve of the Herero uprising in 1904, their chief Samuel Maharero wrote to the Nama chief, Hendrik Witbooi: "All our obedience and patience with the Germans is of little avail, for each day they shoot someone dead for no reason at all. Hence I appeal to you, my Brother, not to hold aloof from the uprising, but to make your voice heard so that all Africa may take up arms against the Germans. Let us die fighting rather than die as a result of maltreatment, imprisonment or some other calamity. Tell all the kapteins down there to rise and do battle."


Why Maharero chose to turn against the Germans with whom he had always maintained a good relationship is not clear. Some argue that his position as chief was threatened from within the Herero tribe as internal claims for resistance against German rule were articulated.

The Germans had given him power and wealth; he had worked together with them to eliminate his rivals. He was responsible for helping to dispossess his subjects and now he exploited his people's grievances against the colonial power--which had emerged largely due to his actions--in order to unite the Hereros behind him. As the Germans trusted him, he could prepare resistance without arising suspicion.

Maharero tried to draw all the ethnic groups of South West Africa into this uprising. To the Otjimbngwe, he wrote: "If we rebel, we will be annihilated in battle since our people are practically unarmed and without ammunition, but the cruelty and injustice of the Germans have driven us to despair and our leaders and our people both feel that death has lost its terrors because of the conditions under which we now life."

Maharero wrote more letters to the Ovambo, Orlam, Baster and Nama chiefs. But the Baster chief, Hermanus van Wyk, remained loyal to the Germans and stopped Maharero's letter from going through to Hendrik Witbooi.

The Hereros attacked on 12 January 1904 as the German troops were out of striking distance, trying to fight the Bondelwarts. During the following days, farms and villages were attacked.

The Germans had not expected an uprising, especially initiated by their long-term ally Samuel Maharero. The news of a Herero rising spread quickly. Even Hereros who had been working in the mines of South Africa came back to fight against the colonial power. Over the first few months until June 1904, the uprising was successful as the Germans were caught by surprise and were not prepared for war. Their inability to hold the Hereros was seen as humiliating for the German military. Only the arrival of the ruthless General Lothar von Trotha changed the tables. Von Trotha saw the complete annihilation of the Hereros as the only solution to end the war, and issued his now infamous "extermination order" to spare no Herero.

Driven into the Waterberg, the Hereros were encircled and besieged on 11 August 1904. Those who managed to escape were forced into the Omaheke Desert where they faced death by dying of thirst and hunger. It is estimated that out of a Herero population of 80,000, only 16,000 survived!

But the colony was not appeased yet. Inspired by the Herero rebellion, the Nama took up arms to fight the Germans in October 1904. Nearly half of the remaining ethnic groups joined the rebellion. Five hundred badly equipped Namas faced 10,000 German soldiers who were able to shake colonial South West Africa to its foundations. Over two years the Nama fought a fierce guerilla war which the Germans were unable to pacify. The humiliation for the German army was tremendous. In October 1905 the death of Hendrik Witbooi was to have a major blow on the resistance struggle. Over the next years the natives were defeated.

104 years later

On 7 October 2007, the descendants of Von Trotha arrived in Omaruru in Namibia to apologise to the Herero people for their ancestor's brutality. They expressed deep shame over Von Trotha's actions. "We say sorry, since we bear the name of General Lothar von Trotha. We, however, do not only want to look back, but also look to the future," they told the Hereros.

Which forced the Herero supreme chief, Alfons Maharero, the grandson of Samuel Maharero, to say: "We demand a dialogue with the present German government to obtain restorative justice."

But Ulrich von Trotha, one of the family members who went to Omaruru, said her family was on a private visit and "cannot become involved in the demand for reparations from a government".

Although the German government has expressed "regret" at the massacre of the Hereros, and a visiting German minister apologised in general terms in 2004, Berlin still thinks that a formal apology would lead to demands by the Hereros for reparations.

And so, at the 104th anniversary of the Herero genocide, no formal apology or reparations are likely to come forth from the German capital.
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Title Annotation:Feature
Author:Rosenberg, Anna
Publication:New African
Geographic Code:6NAMI
Date:Feb 1, 2008
Previous Article:Slavery: the case for reparations (2).
Next Article:Why serious visioning and visioners are strangers in Africa.

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