The land that never was

PUBLISHED 16 JAN 2020   

FARM Düsternbrook stands still in the midday heat, only the sheets on the clothing line are blown by the wind. From a distance, one can hear the screams of baboons.

The farmhouse is situated on a hill at the edge of the Khomas hochland mountain range, north-west of Windhoek.

Johann Vaatz (70) is standing on the terrace of his farm in a T-shirt and khaki shorts, looking out over the dry riverbed and savannah.

Vaatz makes a living from overnight tourism and safaris. Guests from Europe come to Düsternbrook to see zebras, giraffes and leopards, or to hunt. A baboon costs N$800, a kudu antelope N$18 000, but trophy hunting is only a fraction of the business. It is part of the guest farm concept that tourists experience everyday farm life in Namibia and listen to the farmer's stories about the drought and the vastness of the country during dinner. Vaatz likes to tell stories.

At the reception of the guest farm, there is a tip box where Vaatz distributes everything that the guests throw in there to his 18 employees. The women who get the most are those who work in the laundry or where the tourists do not see them. The guides, who normally get tips from tourists after the safari, receive the least. “You can never achieve 100% justice, but I try to compensate for that,” says Vaatz. “It works on a small scale.”

When Namibia became independent in 1990 after 30 years of German colonialism and 75 years of South African apartheid, the Swapo government decided to redistribute the land expropriated by whites to black Namibians through land reform. But land reform progressed very slowly. According to a 2018 survey by the Namibia Statistics Agency, 70% of commercial farmland is still owned by white farmers, who make up only a small minority of the Namibian population.

Vaatz learned from his father that you can lose everything in life–your land, your home, everything you have built up. When his parents bought a farm in Namibia in the 1940s, his family had already gone through a land reform. During the October Revolution of 1917, communists expropriated his father's family–Black Sea Germans who had been farming in Ukraine for several generations. The property was divided into collective farms. Later, a famine broke out and millions of people died.

Farm Düsternbrook, which is a 45-minute drive from Windhoek, was bought by Vaatz's parents during the Second World War. They were afraid that the South African government would freeze their money in the bank. Vaatz's father was interned by the South African regime and only returned from the camp after six years.

In the 1960s, they built Namibia's first guest and hunting farm on Düsternbrook. Vaatz was born here and grew up with the farm workers' children during apartheid.

“It was more like an extended family,” he says. “Only the workers lived up there and we lived here.”

He has spent almost his entire life on Düsternbrook, and on a farm that means working seven days a week, from dawn to dusk, checking the waterholes, hoping for rain.

In October 2018, president Hage Geingob announced that the government will expropriate more land owned by whites. The Namibian Constitution allows expropriation with fair compensation. During the election campaigns last October, the question was raised again, whether what was stolen in colonial times should not now be taken back. If necessary, without compensation.

Vaatz says he is not afraid of expropriation. “I am a Namibian citizen, why should I be afraid? I belong to this country. Why should I be expropriated? Just because I am white? That would be racist.”

In principle, he does not think much of redistribution, he continues. “I miss the success stories. So I ask myself: Is it just satisfying ideological justice, or is the ultimate goal to make the population better off?” When asked what justice means to him, he thinks for a moment. Then he says: “The laws of a country must be just, but you can't create artificial justice for a colonial period that was 100 years ago.”

Vaatz's family had bought Düsternbrook from a German captain lieutenant only after the colonial period. The captain lieutenant had acquired the land from the German colonial administration in 1908. The farm is located in the ancestral land of the Ovaherero and Damara. the land had probably been appropriated by the German colonial administration.

In the National Archives in Windhoek are the documents about the land acquisition. every farm has its own file here. The Düsternbrook file contains a purchase contract with a seal and stamp and a sketch of the land. In the contract, it says: “The Imperial District Office of Okahandja sells and hands over to the farmer Robert Matthiessen, subject to the approval of the Imperial Governorate, the farm described in more detail on the attached sketch (...) with an area of about 5 000 hectares.”. The purchase price at that time was 1 mark and 20 pfennigs per hectare, a total of 6 000 marks.

Between the blue file covers, there is also a typewritten letter from 1921 in which the lieutenant captain asks the imperial governor to buy more land. Since his farm consisted exclusively of mountainous terrain, agriculture was only economical with additional farmland, he explains in his letter. “In any case, I feel an urgent need for expansion. This expansion is not a whim, but a matter of life and death for me and my family!”

Namibia's history is marked by displacement and appropriation. When the Germans came in 1884 and founded the colony of German South West Africa, the first thing they did was draw borders.

Before that, there had been no private property. Ethnic groups lived on ancestral land collectively.

Before colonial times, the Damara and San groups had lost land to the Ovaherero. But the borders of the territories were permeable because the nomadic groups moved with the rain. Now the Ovaherero, Nama, Damara and San were displaced further.

Mutjinde Katjiua pins the reprints of two old maps on the wall of his university office. The professor, in a short-sleeved shirt with glasses and moustache, is head of the department of land and property studies at the Namibia University of Science and Technology and secretary general of the Ovaherero Traditional Authority.

“For the dispossessed communities, losing the ancestral land means that they have lost the connection to their ancestors,” he says.

“Land dispossession was accompanied by the loss of livestock and resource rights to mining and fisheries, which continues to perpetuate poverty to this day.”

On one of the two maps, the 'Völkerkarte von Deutsch-Südwestafrika vor den Aufständen 1904-1905', the former territories of the different ethnic groups are marked. With this map, one can get an idea of how the situation in Namibia looked before the German colonial administration drew new borders after the genocide.

The Ovaherero and Namas' struggle for their lost land began with the Ovaherero uprising in 1904, in which about 100 white settlers were killed, and the Nama uprising in 1905.

The extermination order of lieutenant general Lothar von Trotha was the starting point for what is today considered the first genocide of the 20th century.

An estimated 80 000 Ovaherero and 20 000 Nama had died in the desert or in concentration camps by 1908.

Those who survived were expropriated by the order of the colonial administration. The colonial administration parcelled out the land and sold it to German settlers. The expropriations not only gave land to the white settlers, they also forced the black Namibians out of self-employment and into wage labour. And they created a social structure that has hardly changed until today. The Ovaherero and Nama are marginalised minorities in today's Namibia.

In the 1960s, black Namibians were once again driven from their homes. In order to split the black majority of the population and secure white supremacy, the South African administration founded separate homelands for each ethnic group. This time, the expulsion affected all black Namibians.

For Katjiua, the land issue is neither complicated nor sensitive. He believes the dispossessed Ovaherero, Nama, Damara and San ethnic groups must be given priority in the redistribution process.

He emphatically draws lines on a sheet of paper to illustrate what has been said. “The majority in the government is not affected by genocide and expropriation,” he says. “It is a political issue because the government of Namibia in the first place never recognised genocide and land dispossession.”

Since 2015, the German and Namibian governments have been negotiating how to address the genocide. Because they felt excluded from the negotiations and not sufficiently represented by their own government, Ovaherero and Nama associations filed a class-action lawsuit against Germany in New York in January 2017. They are demanding the official recognition of the genocide, an apology and reparations. In the meantime, the lawsuit has reached the court of appeal in New York.

After decades of struggle, however, patience is waning among the descendants of the Ovaherero and Nama.

“We are very peaceful and patient, but if all peaceful ways are in vain, we will return to our country,” Katjiua says calmly. “If all legal and diplomatic processes fail, we will resort to self-liberation, and the German farmers who are sitting on our land will have to pack up and go. Is that what we want?”

At the first national land conference in 1991, a course was set, which contributed to the frustration of many Ovaherero and Nama, who hoped that the historical injustice would be restored. The resolution stated that claims to ancestral land could not be considered because too many conflicts could arise from overlapping territorial claims of different ethnic groups. This particularly affected the population groups that had suffered most from the land dispossession for not all ethnic groups in Namibia lost land during the colonial period.

The Oshivambo-speaking groups from northern Namibia, who today make up the majority of the population, were not affected by the expropriations. In 1991, shortly after independence, it was a political decision not to consider the claims to the ancestral land: after decades of segregation, the newly founded republic could not afford to take on particular interests that could have endangered a still fragile unity.

The fact that the land of their ancestors was also redistributed to black Namibians who had not lost any land,was a further disappointment for the Ovaherero and Nama. Many farms also went to the black elite that had emerged since independence. That is why land reform has now also become a class issue.

It took 27 years for the second national land conference to be held. In October 2018, under pressure from the affected groups and civil society organisations, the government dealt with the question of ancestral land for the first time.

Uhuru Dempers is sitting in the Deja Vu Cafeteria at the corner of Independence Avenue. The cafeteria, in the heart of Windhoek, is busy around lunch time. Many employees meet here during their break.

Occasionally, someone greets the land activist as they pass by. He is well connected and has been engaged in the land reform debate since the early 1990s.

The last few months have been challenging, Dempers says. He is referring to his work on the Ancestral Land Commission, a 15-member commission appointed to remap the colonial borders drawn within Namibia and creating a cartography of the pre-colonial ancestral land.

The commission was appointed by the Namibian president to investigate, for one year, where black Namibians lost ancestral land in colonialism and what claims result from this.

Before the second land conference, Dempers drove across the country for two years, interviewing people about land reform and sleeping in his car at night.

When he talks about his work, he says that he is a pragmatic idealist, willing to negotiate compromises.

That earned him respect, but it also got Dempers caught in the middle. Some traditional authorities of the Ovaherero and Nama and non-governmental organisations boycotted the second land conference because of their lack of involvement.

They criticised the Ancestral Land Commission as a campaign gimmick. “I was even called a traitor,” says Dempers, whose own ancestors are Ovaherero, Nama and Damara.

It is apparent that this hurts him. “I see the work in the commission as just another side of the struggle; just another strategy to achieve what we fought for.”

With the Ancestral Land Commission, Dempers travelled through Namibia for two months, listening, at public meetings, to people whose ancestors were dispossessed under colonialism.

The demand had been overwhelming, he says. “There were people who told us they had waited all their lives for this commission,” Dempers says. He considers it overdue for the government to deal with how people are compensated for the loss of their land.

“It is the first time we, Namibians, have spoken about our history and the loss of our land in this way.”

This has also opened up old wounds that have never healed properly. There were times when sessions had to be interrupted because emotions were boiling up. Some came only to be able to tell their story in public. Some narrated that their great-grandfather had been killed by the farm owner on the farm where he worked, others that their grandmother had been raped by soldiers. An old woman at one of the meetings had told Dempers that she was glad she could tell her story as it had weighed on her for a long time.

Veteran journalist Erika von Wietersheim investigated why land reform is such an emotional topic for many Namibians already in 2008. As part of her research for her book titled:

'This Is My Land', she travelled

5 000 kilometres across the country and interviewed white and black farmers, farmworkers and land ministers. For our interview, Von Wietersheim suggested the café in the backyard of the Goethe-Institut in Windhoek as a meeting place, where the taxi horns can only be heard faintly.

“Being a farmer in Namibia, whether white or black, is a hard business,” she says, “You have to build up and maintain so much with difficulty, be it fences, waterholes or water pumps, and survive periods of drought again and again with new ideas and financial sacrifices. That's why every farmer who lives on a farm for a long time is very closely tied to his land.”

Even those whose ancestors bought farms on the dispossessed land of the Ovaherero and Nama people after four generations have long regarded the land as a kind of ancestral land, she says.

Von Wietersheim knows what she is talking about. For 20 years, she herself lived and worked on a farm in the south of Namibia. When she moved with her husband to the farm of her in-laws after university, she lived with black families for the first time.

Von Wietersheim founded a farm school for the children of farmworkers. While preparing a lesson for Grade 8, she discovered her own history.

“In my childhood, we hardly heard anything about colonialism, and if we did, then [it was] horror stories about the murder of white farmers by the Herero,” Von Wietersheim says.

As she prepared the lesson, she read in horror what had happened in Namibia during the German colonial period: “Above all that on Shark Island, where we played so unsuspectingly as children, there was a concentration camp where hundreds of people died of hunger, weakness and starvation. There was no secret about this island,” says Von Wietersheim with tears in her eyes. “It was erased from the memory of the people, at least the whites.”

In contrast, the descendants of the survivors had the Shark Island burnt into their memories. Sima Luipert, the vice chairperson of the Nama Traditional Leaders Association, remembers how her grandmother told her stories as a child. “When I was sent to town as a young girl to buy bread or salt, the white children threw stones at me,” she remembers. Her grandmother warned her to stay away from those children if she did not want to end up on the island.

It was only later that Luipert understood that her great-grandmother was a survivor of the genocide and was driven from her ancestral land and imprisoned on Shark Island.

Three generations later, Luipert grew up under very modest conditions in a village that was part of a reservation. For the activist, genocide and expropriation are not something that happened 100 years ago, but something that is still felt today.

Namibians of German origin, she says, must begin to understand the extent of the damage that has been done. “We have lost sovereignty, we have lost our livelihoods, and that has never been given back to us. We remain on the margins of Namibian society,” she says, adding that there can be no healing “if we do not solve the land question.”

At the end of March 2020, the Ancestral Land Commission will conclude their work with the final report on the ancestral land issue. “This report is maybe the most anticipated report after independence,” Dempers says. The activists, on the other hand, do not expect so much. They have already seen many commissions come and go without anything having changed.

“We are hopeful that the report will be published and become part of the narrative of who we are as Namibians,” Dempers says.

That something has to change – after all, that's what most people agree on. What divides people is above all the question of who owns the land today and what a fair redistribution should look like.

The barren, dusty land is not just property. For many people, it is the place where their ancestors are buried, a place of belonging–and a place of longing.

* Elisabeth Kimmerle worked with The Namibian last year as part of the International Journalists Programme. This story was originally published by Taz. Die Tageszeitung, a German daily newspaper.