After several years of negotiations, Germany and Namibia have been able to agree on a new treaty. In it, Germany also agrees to recognise the acts of war against the Herero and Nama peoples in its former colony of German Southwest Africa as a genocide. Following this, the German Federal President, currently Frank-Walter Steinmeier, is to fly to the Namibian capital Windhoek and make an official apology. In light of these latest developments, it is worth taking a closer look at the relationship between these two states, which has so much potential to offer.
In 1883, a German tobacco merchant acquired vast tracts of land on the coast of what is now Namibia, and following this venture, momentum developed within the German Empire to call for the establishment of a colony in the region. This project was ultimately supported by Bismarck, who was fundamentally sceptical of colonial endeavours and regarded the empire as “situated”. In 1884, what is now Namibia nevertheless became the protectorate of German South-West Africa, and this status was to last until 1915. It was thus one of the first territories that the German Empire was to lose in the course of the First World War, while most other overseas colonies were able to be held until 1919.
Nevertheless, the rule over Namibia plays a greater role in Germany than the other colonies, as it was here that the colonial rulers’ troops fought great wars with the Herero and the Hama, which finally ended in what was probably the first genocide of the 20th century. Since Hannah Arnedt’s influential book on the “Elements and Origins of Total Rule”, German policy towards these peoples has often been interpreted as a blueprint for the later actions of the National Socialists. Without wishing to take a position in this discussion, it does show the strains imposed on these bilateral relations.
Namibia, on the other hand, did not have much luck after the German withdrawal in 1915. The territory was conquered by the South African Union, a British dominion. In 1961, that Union gained its independence as the Republic of South Africa. Namibia was thus subjected to the laws of apartheid for decades, and the country and especially its majority black population were unable to participate in the world’s economic progress. Finally, in 1990, a few months before German reunification, the country gained independence after more than 100 years of foreign rule.
Due to these constellations, close relations between the two countries were not possible for decades. The FRG was focused on Europe and did not see itself in a position to tackle too far-reaching geopolitical projects. And also in the area of coming to terms with crimes committed, the focus was initially on the peoples of Europe including the Jews. Namibia, on the other hand, was not able to pursue an independent foreign policy and concentrated on their struggle for independence, which they took on, also repeatedly from Angola, against the troops of the Republic of South Africa.
From 1990, however, conditions changed abruptly.
After reunification, Germany became by far the largest country in the European Union and the powerhouse of the entire continent. With the nuclear shield of the United States and membership in the military alliance NATO, the security situation was completely secure, and the euro gave the country new influence in the world economy. Namibia, on the other hand, could devote itself to building its own state, freed from the masters of the past. Today, the country is one of the most stable in the whole of southern Africa and was given the status of an incomplete democracy in the Democracy Index of the British Economist 2020, ranking it ahead of the EU member states Croatia and Romania. Freedom House classifies the country as free. Unfortunately, Namibia has not yet managed to achieve a similar rise in economic terms. Competitiveness is not very highly developed by global standards, although it is well above the African average. Unemployment was already over 30% before the pandemic (2018), a significant portion of the population still lives in poverty and HIV remains a barrier to further progress.
Could there be a meaningful point of contact between the FRG and Namibia at this point? A start has already been made. In 1996, then Federal Chancellor Helmut Kohl suggested the establishment of an organisation that would draw the attention of German business to sub-Saharan Africa and anchor it in the planning of German foreign trade. At a conference in Winhoek in 1998, the Southern Africa Initiative (Safri) was finally founded. However, trade between Germany and Namibia is still so small – Namibia ranks 113th among Germany’s most important trading partners in terms of total volume – that coordination from Windhoek does not seem realistic. Trade between Germany and South Africa in particular is many times higher.
However, if one looks at the issue a little less extravagantly and focuses only on Namibia, a different picture appears. There are still many people in the country who speak the German language. The already mentioned advantages in the area of social and economic freedoms are also quite appealing. The time zone, which is at the same level as that of Great Britain, i.e. only one hour away from that of Central Europe, also speaks in favour of cooperation with the German economy. Instead of wasting billions in annual development aid, which in most cases does not contribute to increasing the independence of the affected regions, a new form of cooperation could be tried out here. If German companies invest in Namibia, if Germany also systematically expands the country’s infrastructure, if Namibians can easily study in Germany, one can consider a broader cooperation. Nowadays, the big companies, and not even the global players, are no longer at the forefront in questions of networking on a global scale. States have become much more powerful again as a form of organisation in recent years and it would be foolish to believe that “the market”, and this is even more true in a country’s foreign trade, would be able to resolve such issues of strategic importance itself with an acceptable outcome. The German state must here create the possibilities, sometimes simply opportunities, to come a little closer to this goal.
It is in Namibia’s interest to work with partners who bring the most prosperity to their country. Germany can be such a partner, but in order to do so it must compete with counterparts such as China or USA. To do so, it should concentrate its efforts on a smaller, select number of countries that are also advantageous for Germany’s interests. Namibia could be just such a country. Let’s hope that Windhoek will not leave it at a simple apology, but that the beginning of a new chapter between Namibia and Germany will be initiated.