In a cemetery on the edge of the Namibian desert, volunteer Laidlaw Peringanda tends the low dirt mounds where victims of the 20th century’s first genocide are buried.

Tens of thousands of people from the Ovaherero, Nama and San groups died in atrocities committed by German colonisers between 1904 and 1908, some in concentration camps in the coastal city of Swakopmund. Peringanda’s great grandmother was one of those who survived.

“[She] told me they were forced to boil their own relatives” after they died so that the remains could be sent to German museums, said Peringanda, who is chair of the Namibian Genocide Association. The association campaigns for redress for the victims’ descendants, who are some of the southern African nation’s most marginalised people.

The dilapidated state of the Swakopmund cemetery is all the more striking because Europe’s biggest economy last year offered to pay €1.1bn over 30 years as recompense for what Berlin said “from today’s perspective, would be called genocide”. The German deal came amid growing calls for former colonial masters to provide not just apologies for the past, but financial restitution.

Historical reparations were “becoming more and more of an international norm and that’s a good thing”, said Thomas Craemer, a public policy professor at the University of Connecticut and a reparations expert.

But while Namibian president Hage Geingob’s government accepted the offer, parliament did not approve the deal, arguing that the payout was not large enough. Many in the Ovaherero and Nama communities said they were excluded from the talks and doubted that the money would ever reach them. The deal is now on hold.

“We want it [the deal] scrapped, we want a fresh start . . . that deal was never about us,” said Nandi Mazeingo, chair of the Ovaherero Genocide Foundation and an adviser to the Herero leadership. “You destroy two countries [the Ovaherero and Nama], you kill 80 per cent of a community and you tell them that you are going to give them a billion dollars. And that billion dollars is spread over 30 years.” Germany, he said, must talk to communities directly.

The debate over reparations has been reinvigorated by heightened awareness of racial injustice in the wake of the murder of George Floyd by a US police officer. In the US, the debate centres on reparations for slavery, but in Europe it revolves around payments for colonial injustices.

But while Belgium has set up a commission to examine its colonial history and French president Emmanuel Macron has advocated the return of African art that was looted in “colonial pillage”, Germany — which has previously paid reparations to victims of the Holocaust — is the only country to have agreed to make a payment to a former colony.

The impasse over the Namibian deal illustrates the fraught nature of any such agreement. For reparations to succeed, payment should involve descendants of victims and “has to be generous enough to be understood by them as a gesture of reconciliation”, said Craemer. In the German-Namibian talks, these ideas were given “short shrift”, he added.

The German foreign ministry told the Financial Times that it stood by last year’s deal and that communities had been consulted by the Namibian side. “It is now for the Namibian government to decide on the further course of the negotiations,” it added. The Namibian government did not respond to a request for comment.

Namibian groups also voiced anger at the agreement not enshrining a legal obligation to provide reparations, meaning the promise could easily be abandoned. Berlin was wary of setting a precedent for other former colonies or other victims of Nazi war crimes, said analysts.

“They are afraid that if they recognise you have to pay the descendants of survivors for murder committed in the past, they would open the Pandora’s box of World War Two,” said Jürgen Zimmerer, professor of global history at the University of Hamburg and a historian of German colonialism.

Looming over reparations is the issue of land, a major faultline in Namibia’s society and a legacy of the genocide as Berlin seized the ancestral homes of victims and sold the land to settlers.

The descendants of these settlers form an elite in Namibia, which has been a presidential democracy since its independence from South Africa in 1990. In 2018, the Namibia Statistics Agency said that white farmers owned 70 per cent of commercial farmland, while “previously disadvantaged” groups owned 16 per cent. Livestock farming and agriculture are still important parts of the Namibian economy, whose annual gross domestic product totals $10bn.

Colonial expropriation was “the backbone of the wealth that Germans have today” in Namibia, said Mbakumua Hengari, a businessman whose grandfather was imprisoned in a concentration camp and whose family lost their land. “Land is what made them rich . . . for the Herero and Nama, it was the start of trans-generational impoverishment.”

While some white farmers have argued that their German ancestors legally bought their land, “there is no doubt that the land was expropriated after the war by the German government”, said Raimar von Hase, a member of a forum for German-speaking Namibians. Von Hase described the collapse of the deal as “very unfortunate”. About €600mn of last year’s agreement was earmarked to buy commercial farms. Land reform “would be sped up if that German money would be available”, said Von Hase. “Don’t let slip that opportunity.”

Geingob’s government, eager to avoid the violent farm invasions that marred land reform in Zimbabwe in the 2000s, said it would purchase land for resettlement on a “willing buyer, willing seller” basis.

But many in Ovaherero and Nama communities believe that the ruling Swapo party, which has governed since independence, favours other groups such as the Ovambo, the country’s single biggest ethnic group, for resettlement. “We know that our people are very frustrated . . . if the situation explodes, it will explode for all of us,” said Mazeingo.

The calls for Berlin to have direct talks with Ovaherero and Nama representatives also reflect distrust of the ruling party. “We know that Swapo is very corrupt, we know that these things will not reach the community,” said Peringanda.

In contrast to the parlous state of Swakopmund’s genocide graves, there is an immaculate, palm-fronded section in the same cemetery where workers tend the headstones of the city’s former elite.

“It is messed up that we still live in a land of extreme inequality in our everyday living and dying,” said Namupa Shivute, a writer who had come to join the clean-up.

As a child, Peringanda thought his great-grandmother’s stories about the Swakopmund camp were “fairy tales”.

Photographs of the grim truth of the genocide, the skulls and the iron fetters, are now framed in red on the walls of a small museum that Peringanda maintains. “We have to forgive each other and we have to go forward with a new chapter,” he said. “We have to reconcile and work together.”

Letters in response to this article:

Reparation and apology is price UK must pay for colonial sins​ / ​From Bryan Cox QC, Leeds, West Yorkshire, UK

Namibia’s shifting sands reveal its troubled past / From Alastair Holberton, London W8, UK

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