Who will follow Namibia in the reparations game?


In this article, we take a look at the possible domino effect on the world’s former colonies that the German government’s $1.1 billion deal with Namibia could set in motion.

What are reparations?

Reparations are largely viewed as an act of amends for a past wrong-doing, either through monetary compensation, or by other means of assistance, or even through symbolism. Often these are legally mandated, but this is not always the case. One thing is for sure, the nature of and view on reparations are changing. The question is, how?

The reparations of old…

Reparations have broadly existed as long as war has plagued humans. With every end to a war, a victor emerges, and with that a losing nation. The latter has always been expected to pay some sort of compensation, whether monetary or territorial, to the former. An obvious example is World War II. East and West Germany were both required to pay war reparations to the Allied forces. 

As time has passed, the form of reparations has become more complex and diverse to include things like statues, sites of memorialization, and rehabilitative mechanisms. Another new trend has also emerged. We are seeing more and more communities and countries demanding reparations from perpetrators, not immediately in the wake of violence, but rather years later. The latest example of this can be found in the German government’s paying of reparations to Namibia. 

The Herero Genocide

Over 100 years after German troops displaced, tortured, and shot tens of thousands of Herero, the German government has committed to paying reparations. The genocide having taken place between 1904 and 1908, and reparations negotiations beginning in 2015 and concluding only this year in May 2021, the past century has been one of immunity. 

The agreement to pay $1.1 billion is not solely of monetary importance. Rather, it is an omission of guilt. The agreement also detailed the atrocities the Germans have committed against the Herero. This is an act of closure and acknowledgment of pain. In recent years, the Namibian government has also had to negotiate for the skulls of those killed in the genocide to be repatriated back to Namibia. This culminated in the proper burial of the victims on Namibian soil. Again, we see an act of closure. While it is more than 100 years later, it is important still in the bid to heal intergenerational wounds. 

This agreement also sets a precedent. Perpetrators can be held accountable for their crimes of the last century. This then brings into question which other countries will face the same fate as Germany has.  

Will all former colonies start claiming reparations?

The current world order can be seen as a direct result of the relationships between colonies and colonizers. Those countries now considered MDCs were able to create a system in which they benefitted. More specifically, these nations have located resource extraction in LDC economies, and any further value-added processes on their own. This has allowed former colonial powers to maintain their position of power and economic advantage over their former colonies. A classic example can be found in Belgium and its former colony, the Congo. The former’s main export is in fact cars, while the latter’s is petroleum. Here, we see a clear example of how a former colony and now MCD’s economy is grounded in higher-valued added products, while a former colony is left with resource extraction.

Since Germany’s payment to Namibia, the DRC has since made calls to Belgium to follow suit. While King Phillipe of Belgium released a statement regretting the past and vaguely referencing discrimination and racism in response to a public demonstration resulting in the vandalism of a statue of King Leopold II in June 2020, the royal family has not genuinely acknowledged its colonial legacy, nor has it addressed the issue of compensation. King Leopold II having perpetuated so much violence in Central Africa that he earned the nickname The Butcher of the Congo in the wake of 10 million deaths, it seems inconceivable that Belgium has remained so silent. The question then becomes, will there be a domino effect?

I, personally, think it would be naïve to believe that such a monumental act by the German government will not have an impact on other countries seeking reparations. Rather, I think it is a matter of how far this trend will go. In other words, will reparations be reserved for acts of physical and tangible violence in colonial history, or will reparations be extended to the economic implications of becoming a resource-dependent nation because of a world-order borne of colonialism? The latter does not seem inconceivable when looking at the case study of land expropriation in post-Apartheid South Africa. 

Will we see reparations for the slave trade?

A practice very often associated with colonialism can be found in the slave trade. This issue has also been raised in the debate on reparations. In 2001, the UN World Conference on Racism was held in Durban, South Africa. Here, the issue was raised concerning reparations for the Trans-Atlantic Slave trade. These have not yet materialized. 

Many have suggested the conference was overshadowed by the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Since then, the rise of right-wing politics and xenophobia in the West has made the possibility of reparations seem unlikely. However, if we were to see a domino effect of former colonial powers paying reparations to their former colonies in the wake of Germany’s $1.1 billion agreement, it does not seem unlikely that these talks will be revived. 

The ordinary citizen’s role in all of this

Many of us see the process of reparations as being strictly in the government’s domain. However, without civil society’s action, many reparations would have gone unpaid. The Herero community was very active and fought for a number of years leading up to the 2021 agreement. 

The archetypical example can be found in the Comfort Women Movement. This movement refers to the fight for reparations for those largely Korean and Chinese women and girls forced into sexual slavery by Imperial Japan during the Second World War. In recent years, a number of statues have been erected in Seoul outside the Japanese embassy, as well as on buses with routes going past the embassy, in order to draw attention to the crimes committed against these women. Civil society has played a major role in demonstrating and focusing media attention on this act of memorialization. 

Our role must then be acknowledged. If we want to see change, we need to participate and bring a voice to these silenced crimes. Only such action and discourse can really prompt a domino effect of reparations throughout the Continent and world.