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The Reparations Debate and the Herero

By Bhekimpi Tshele

Redressing previous injustice promotes togetherness and healing. In this article, I want to rethink this debate and take up the Herero People’s Reparation Corporation (HPRC) in Namibia. I argue that the Herero case shows that making amends for historical wrongs, thoughts of vengeance and hatred might not thrive. It invigorates the society.

The term ‘reparations’ first meant “the act of making amends for a wrong, especially money paid by a defeated nation in compensation for damages caused during hostilities.”[1] For example, following the 1919 Paris Peace Conference for World War I devastation, Germany paid reparations.[2] In the case of war among nations, this definition excludes intra-national damages or harm resulting from domestic causes.

Reparations thus can be read as a gesture of acknowledging past injustice and making amends for it. They are also ways to re-establish relations that gratify and help victims heal from past wrongdoings. Such a situation creates an environment where people start viewing “the present as a terrain capable of transcending any past,”[3] thereby arriving at a new identity that ignites and preserves love and cultivates a hopeful future.

There are different forms of reparations: monetary, which comes in the form of financial compensation, and non-monetary.[4] The latter includes social welfare programs, amnesty, affirmative action, “religion (confession, atonement, and forgiveness), justice (correction, remedy, and restitution), the emotions (guilt, shame, remorse, and apology), and the economic (compensation, damages).” Compensatory reparations concern individuals and rehabilitative reparations focus on groups, and they seek to repair the cultural integrity of a community or society.[5] The symbolic reparation includes apologies, exhumations, and memorial practices. Reparations in whatever form aim to repair psychological and economic harm.[6] They assist victims in moving beyond anger and “a sense of powerlessness.”[7] Indeed when we recognize acts of mass violence and reconcile with them, it establishes some determination of responsibility in fulfillment of the obligation to repair the harm. The Germans, in this case, took responsibility for their colonial actions to redress the Namibians. Such a gesture eases tension, boosts forgiveness, and cultivates congeniality.

The Herero Genocide of 1904 points to the prevalence of European military campaigns as part of conquest that killed Africans, in this case, Germans killing Namibians. The Germans exhausted Herero’s natural resources, and raped their women, and murdered their men. German war general, Lothar von Trotha declared: “I wipe out rebellious tribes with streams of blood and streams of money. Only following this cleansing can something new emerge.”[8] This colonial legacy has long-term effects, continuing its emotional tolls today in Namibia and beyond. The 1904 genocide thus obliterated the Herero’s sense of self as a people,[9] rebranding them as brutes. The Herero People’s Reparation Corporation (HPRC)[10] movement thus sought reparation against the Germans to compensate for their genocidal campaign of conquest.

German Minister of Economic Corporation and Development, Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul apologized to the Herero on behalf of the German people:” the atrocities committed at that time would today be termed genocide . . . we Germans accept our historical and moral responsibility and the guilt incurred by Germans at that time.” In 2007, the Von Trotha family also apologized to the Herero for the brutal acts of their forefathers.[11] I believe that an apology akin to this one is worthwhile because it establishes an explicit acknowledgment of wrongdoing, without instrumentalizing the process as is the case with monetary relief. This gesture quenches traumatization by clearing off the stigma between the Hereros (victim/survivors) and Germans (victimizers/perpetrators). Though an apology can also stir up anger and frustration because “Memories are their own descendants masquerading as the ancestors of the present,”[12] it nevertheless has the potential of easing tensions between victims and victimizers.

Financial reparations may seem to be the best form of compensation because money has instrumental value. It allows us to do something. But a question remains: who should get the money and how should it be used? In 2001, the HPRC sued Germany, including the Deutsche Bank and Woermann Line in American courts, for $2 billion in damages or about $10.000 for every individual killed in the Herero Genocide and the cost incurred by the colonial government. Herero Chief Kuaima Riruako also requested a “mini-Marshall Plan.”[13] Here, there is the possibility of injecting money into local governments, for community improvement. Given political whims and accountability, what if a corrupt government instead misuses public funds? Establishing eligibility claims of genocide victims after a long time also can be difficult.

In the end, the question remains how do we correct past wrongs in the present? Finding an answer to that question is a predicament that generally muddles the reparations’ conversation. The Namibian government can expropriate the land from the whites who were involved or the direct descendants of the colonialists if there is proof. The former Namibian President Hifikephunye Phohamba indeed proposed the resettlement of white people. Some were directed to sell their land to Black Namibians.[14] The complication is that there may be white people who legally occupy the land because they purchased it from the post-colonial government. It would be a travesty of justice and even morally reprehensible for the Namibian government to confiscate this land. We can make the same argument for the Herero. During the colonial era, the white colonialists forcibly grabbed land belonging to Africans. The Herero can surely reciprocate this transgression, but to what end?

Reparation campaigns are lengthy and with unforeseeable benefits.  The success of reparation campaigns also depends on multilateral relations, and relations with international organizations and those who are sympathetic to the cause. The Hereros unsuccessfully sued the Germans under the contingency of Alien Torts Claims Statute of 1789.[15] Juridical disputes and ever changing legal codes significantly complicate litigation. So, the HPRC no longer pursues reparations claims due to the difficult ligation process and also the general lack of support from Namibian organizations, given the many challenges they face supporting other domestic campaigns.[16]

This case highlights that reparations, however difficult and limited, are achievable if all stakeholders reach an understanding that creates companionship and uplifts society. Learning from the Herero People’s Reparation Movement suggests that historical cases such as this one can assist as we revisit and reconcile with the colonial legacy and transform it into forgiveness and solidarity.

[1] Reparation. 2004. In F. C. Mish & J. M. Morse (Eds.), The Merriam Webster (New Expanded ed., p. 614). Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, Incorporated.

[2] Burns, Cecil Delisle. 1918-1928: A Short History of the World. New York, Payson & Clark, Ltd. Hein Online, https://heinonline.org/HOL/P?h=hein.hoil/tryofw0001&i=33.

[3] West, Cornel. 2008. Hope on a Tight Rope. New York, Smiley Books.

[4] Osabu-Kle, D. T. 2002. The African Reparation Cry: Rationale, Estimate, Prospects, and Strategies. Journal of Black Studies, 30(3), 331-350.

[5]Ibid.

[6] Du Plessis, M. 2003. Historical Injustice and International Law: An Exploratory Discussion of Reparation for Slavery. Human Rights Quarterly, 624(659), 187-199.

[7] Moon, C. 2012. Who’ll Pay Reparations on My Soul?’ Compensation, Social Control and Social Suffering. Social and Legal Studies, 12(2), 187-199.

[8] Melicharova, M. (Ed.). 2002. TALKING ABOUT GENOCIDE: NAMIBIA 1904. Retrieved September 25, 2014, from Peace Pledge Union website: http://www.ppu.org.uk/genocide/g_namibia1.html.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Bargueno, D. 2012. Cash for Genocide? The Politics of Memory in the Herero Case for Reparations. Holocaust and Genocide Studies, 26(3), 394-424.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Supra note 10.

[13] Supra note 10.

[14] Shihepo, Timo. “Nam land Question.” Retrieved September 24, 2019 from: The Southern Times, The Newspaper for Southern Africa, website: https://southerntimesafrica.com/site/news/nam-land-question.

[15] This statute grants jurisdiction to the U.S. Federal courts to take legal action against a foreigner for violating the law of nations or a treaty of the United States. Allen and Overy. (2008, October). The Alien Tort Claims ACT of 1789. Retrieved September 25, 2014, from Advocates for International Development website: http://a4id.org/sites/default/files/user/alien-tort.pdf. See also: Cooper, Allan D. 2007. “Reparations for the Herero Genocide: Defining the Limits of International Litigation,” African Affairs 106, no. 422: 113.

[16] Supra note 13.


Paul Bhekimpi Tshele is a social justice activist, scholar and managing member of Human Rights Care. His academic interests and research include colonialism and its impact in postcolonial societies, gender and sexuality, existentialism and Africana philosophy. He is currently studying law at the University of Cape Town in South Africa.

1 Comment

  1. Very awesome and sophisticated post I’ve seen in a while now. Great job guys! You’ve done some splendid work here I must say that. Thanks 🙂

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