Namibian woman voter casting her ballot for the national elections held in late November 2009. The ruling SWAPO party has won an overwhelming victory in the poll. SWAPO led the country to independence in 1990 after a thirty year struggle for freedom., a photo by Pan-African News Wire File Photos on Flickr.
Why Africa needs reparations
Tuesday, 03 May 2011 21:18
By Mabasa Sasa in WINDHOEK
DECADES after the end of colonialism, mass graves and further evidence of the atrocities perpetrated by Europe in Southern Africa continue to be discovered, raising questions as to why the region has not made any attempt under international law to claim compensation for the brutalities.
To date, only the Herero in Namibia have followed the example of the Mau Mau in Kenya to take Europe to task for genocide and other crimes against humanity in much the same way that the Jews - up to today - are compensated for what Nazi Germany did to them.
On May 4 of every year, Namibia commemorates Cassinga Day. This day, 33 years ago, apartheid South Africa oversaw the massacre of at least 600 people in what was known as Operation Reindeer.
Most of the dead were women and children, and it is the worst massacre since the formation of Swapo to spearhead Namibia's independence in 1960.
On that day, the South African Defence Forces attacked a Swapo refugee camp at Cassinga, in Southern Angola.
The victims were buried in a mass grave at the site of the attack. Across the border in Zimbabwe, the country will on August 8 commemorate Heroes Day, another annual reflection on the tens of thousands of lives lost in colonial massacres.
The country will commemorate the day just a few months after the discovery of a mass grave at Chibondo Mine in Mt Darwin District.
In those mine shafts have been discovered the remains of thousands of people killed by British and American-backed Rhodesians between 1972 and 1979.
Illegal miners in search of gold reportedly stumbled across the remains and subsequent exhumations by the Fallen Heroes Trust of Zimbabwe have unearthed a sight too gory for words.
Villagers in areas around Chimoio and Nyadzonia in Mozambique are also discovering remains of liberation war heroes and heroines in graves dotted across an area that witnessed a lot of atrocities by Portugal, Rhodesia and apartheid's killers.
The Chimoio attack on the dawn of November 23, 1977 resulted in the deaths of at least 1 200 people - again mostly women and children - and their bodies were subsequently buried in mass graves, and at various sites, either individually or in groups across the district.
It is these bodies that villagers are coming across as they go about their daily agricultural activities. Similar discoveries are being made in Zambia and Tanzania.
Apart from the sheer scale of genocide that has been made apparent by such revelations over the past years, the most shocking thing about these discoveries has been the response from some sections of the very communities that were affected by the colonial era murders, rapes and torture: denial.
While it is understandable that the perpetrators of these crimes against humanity would like all evidence swept under the carpet, such a reaction among the victims is quite astounding.
In Zimbabwe, the MDC-T party has tried to claim that the bodies that are being pulled out of the ground at Chibondo are actually the remains of victims of the political violence of a few years ago.
This is despite the fact that MDC-T has claimed about 100 of its supporters were killed in the political violence and, yet the shafts contain thousands of bodies.
This has been latched onto by former Rhodesian functionaries and soldiers - who now wear the respectable garb of Zimbabwean lawyers, human rights activists and historians - who have made the most of such statements to obfuscate the real issue - that crimes of humanity were committed in the land between the Zambezi and Limpopo rivers not too long ago.
In Namibia, there seems to be apathy about the Herero case in which those people are claiming US$4 billion from Germany for the wiping out of two-thirds of their population between 1904 and 1907 by German soldiers.
Historical accounts indicate that about 60 000 of the 80 000 Hereros of that time were wiped out - something that amounts to genocide by whatever definition. Historians say that blood bath more or less cleared the land of blacks and opened it for white colonial occupation.
In the three years since the suit was filed in the United States, it appears there has been no movement on the matter, and it will very well die a quiet death - until another person who feels the injustice acutely enough decides to resurrect it.
In the meantime, the silence in Mozambique, Zambia and Tanzania on the issue of the mass murders perpetrated just a few decades ago is perhaps only superseded by the silence in the mass graves.
It is not that there is no lack of precedence that Africa can draw from in mounting a strong legal challenge to force the West to apologise for its crimes and ultimately to institute some form of recompense. Apart from the Jew-Nazi precedent, Africa can also draw on the example of Italy which in 2008 "voluntarily" paid Libya compensation of US$5 billion for its 30-year colonial rule.
Africa's lack of drive to demand justice from the West for the murder and rape of so many thousands of innocent people is in stark contrast to the depth of anguish that survivors of these massacres and the descendants of the deceased are living with.
In Zimbabwe at Chibondo - which aptly enough means "small bone" - harrowing tales have been told about the way Rhodesian forces conducted the genocide. The Rhodesians would round up entire villages and homesteads and shoot them at point-blank range.
Some did not die in the shootings but all were dumped in the mine shafts and grenades, tear-gas and chemical arms were tossed in after them. The Rhodesians would then "bead" the shaft entrances with grenades, which would then go off resulting in cave-ins to ensure no one left Chibondo alive.
Blacks were used to cart the bodies of the dead and half-dead to the shafts, and they to o were shoved in before the perimeter was "beaded" with grenades.
During a recent tour of Chimoio in Mozambique, a survivor of the attack on what was essentially a war refugee camp, Shadreck Nzounhenda, narrated his enduring pain to members of the Cultural Tourism Journalists Association of Zimbabwe: "When we talk of the liberation struggle and the mass graves here, some people start to say it's Zanu-PF propaganda.
"The truth of the matter is, thousands of Zimbabweans perished at this place, after a surprise attack by the (Ian) Smith regime!
"Comrades buried in these graves were not buried systematically but they are just scattered. You may find a head in one grave, and hands or legs in another grave. It is estimated that more than 5 000 comrades were killed here."
The massacre of 5 000 people in one spot in one raid anywhere else in the world would be viewed as sufficient reason to drag the perpetrators to The Hague and demand justice.
The National Museums and Monuments of Zimbabwe has for years been working to accord such victims of colonialism decent burials. NMMZ executive Director Dr Godfrey Mahachi says their programme - in conjunction with Unesco under the banner of the Road to Independence in Africa Project - also covers Zambia and Tanzania and, that the reburial of fallen heroes is not something that is unique to Zimbabwe.
"The idea is to document personalities involved in the struggle and the places they operated in. This is not a unique project, but it is part of a broader continental programme to retrace the road that led to independence of African countries."
Why then is there apathy towards this crucial aspect of Africa's history and, in the worst cases, an attempt to deny these massacres and erase such crimes against humanity from the collective memory?
A group of survivors of the massacres of the Mau Mau of Kenya by colonial troops between 1952 and 1961 have taken it upon themselves to fight this whitewashing of history by suing the British government. A similar court action has been launched by Hereros in a bid to bring Germany to account.
Since 1945, Jews have been claiming compensation from Nazis, hunting them down to the rain forests of South America and everywhere else they fled to after Adolf Hitler's fall. In fact, the Nuremburg trials set the precedence at international law, giving Africa the legal instruments with which to pursue a case against mostly Europe.
As it was simply put by Mburumba Kerina, a Herero activist, a few years ago: "The concerns of the Herero's must be seen in the same light as that of the Jewish people."
Germany paid reparations to European nations for World War I, but refuses to do so to African nations. Japan did the same for its sins to South Korea in World War II, but Africa's claims are at best filed away in some court clerk's office, never to see the light of day again.
The more robust attempts by Africans to raise this issue have been met by recriminations and warnings not to "live in the past".
But even before these more modern legal guidelines, at the turn of the 20th century, the world had already essentially agreed on what was acceptable and what was unacceptable even in hostile engagements such as war.
On July 29, 1899 The Hague Convention on the Laws and Customs of War by Land was signed and took effect on September 4, 1900. It was intended to regulate modern warfare, and contains several provisions that were openly violated throughout the colonial era.
Article 4 says "prisoners of war in the power of the hostile government . . . must be honorably treated", while Article 7 adds that "the government into whose hands prisoners of war have fallen is bound to maintain them".
Article 23 goes on to say that "it is especially prohibited to kill or wound treacherously individuals belonging to the hostile nation or army; to declare that no quarter will be given; to destroy or seize the enemies' property, unless such destruction or seizure be imperatively demanded by the necessity of war".
Article 46 reinforces it all by stating that "family honours and rights, individual lives and private property must be respected".
None of these articles of the Convention were adhered to by the very same countries that signed them and as such, they are in violation of international law.
Instead, what has come in response to these claims for justice are recriminations by the perpetrators of crimes against humanity that Africa "must stop living in the past".
Observers have noted that the attempt to belittle these massacres should be read within the wider context of the general push to white-wash Africa's history and erase the impact that colonialism has had on the continent's development - or rather under-development.
Sidney Harring, in his article for the West Virginia Law Review in 2002 titled ‘German reparations to the Herero Nation: An Assertion of Herero Nationhood in the Path of Namibian Development?' sums it up thus:
"The concept of reparations is rooted in natural law, the common law, and international law; it is an equitable principle that the beneficiary of an ill-gotten gain should make restitution, both as an act of contrition and good will, but also simply to restore the victim to some part of their previous life".
Southern Times--Additional reporting by Lahja Nashuuta in Windhoek