Thursday, June 20, 2024

In one part of Namibia, Botswana stands accused of century-old genocide

This is not common knowledge but from the very same Namibian region (Zambezi) that recently lost four men to the machine guns of a Botswana Defence Force patrol team, lives a cultural community that still vividly remembers what it calls the Vagciriku-Lishora Massacre of 1894.

That community is that of the VaGciriku and in 1894, their leader was Hompa (King) Nyangana WaMukuve. One of his neighbours to the south was the Batawana regent, Kgosi Sekgoma Letsholathebe. There are various and in some cases, varying accounts of what actually happened but they all agree on one thing: at Lishora, Letsholathebe tricked Nyangana into disarming his troops. One account is that the two leaders had friendly relations and Nyangana had asked Letsholathebe to give him a war charm.

Letsholathebe then connived with his ngaka (medicine man) who merely passed off pure water as the charm. Another is that Sekgoma himself offered to teach Nyangana bongaka (traditional medicinal science), at the public square, in front of his subjects. When an unarmed crowd gathered to watch what held the promise of an enticing spectacle, Batawana men attacked. Nyangana as well as his wife and child were spared but became Letsholathebe’s subjects. 

As regards Letsholathebe motivation, it has been alleged that some group of Europeans, who had tried unsuccessfully to militarily subdue Nyangana, paid Letsholathebe to do the job. Some other accounts say something else. Whatever happened, Batawana stand accused of being the main culprits in the Vagciriku-Lishora Massacre of 1894 – which the Namibian media writes about from time to time. “Massacre” is the more common word used to refer to this incident but of late, some VaGciriku in the Zambezi region feel that the word is not strong enough to describe what the Batawana troops did.

Some three years ago, these VaGciriku used a stronger word (“genocide”) when making submissionsbefore a parliamentary committeethat had come to the Kavango region that lie along what is the Okavango River in Botswana. Subsequently,New Era, a Namibian paper, published an article headlined “Kavangos bemoan exclusion from genocide narrative.” The context of “exclusion” is as follows: history recalls, in quite elaborate detail about how the Herero and Nama were slaughtered by German forces in what was then called German South West Africa. Some people from those African communities fled into Botswana and ended up making it home. In that regard, when “genocide” is used in Namibia, it is in the context of what theHerero and Nama suffered at the hands of German soldiers.

New Era quotes Romanus Shiremo, a history teacher and local as arguing that “many Kavangos were killed by Batswanas, led by Chief Sekgoma, who was sponsored with guns and ammunition by German agents, such as Georg Reinhardt and others in Ngamiland in Botswana to come and kill the VaShambyu and VaGciriku people, who were accused of having killed a German trader by the name of Phillip Wiessel and a Scottish trader by the name Robert Arthur Faraday in 1892.” VaShambyu are a sister tribe.

Shiremo lamented that this history has never been written and does not form part of the genocide narrative and also implicated the German government in the Lishora massacre. In service of the latter argument, he stated that following the Lishora massacre, Georg Reinhardt sent a report to the German imperial government in Windhoek.

“The definition of genocide has been misunderstood by many Namibians and it is high time people know that the term genocide should not be determined by the large numbers of people killed, but by the act and intention of the perpetrator,” he told the parliamentary committee. “It is very critical that we understand the term genocide.”

More than a century later, genocide is still a heavy subject and one that always makes Germany very uncomfortable. Not only did the German soldiers slaughter Namibian communities at the turn of the 20th century, they also took hard-to-look-at pictures that forever remain as incontrovertible evidence of the crime that was perpetrated on innocent people. Botswana, via the actions of a Batawana kgosi but in a different context, is being associated with this ugly German history. 

The current standard that has been established for acknowledging a genocide is that a culprit nation should first apologise, then pay reparations – at least that is what Germany did with Jews following World War II. In terms of the Reparations Agreement between Israel and the Federal Republic of Germany that was signed in 1952, West Germany agreed to pay Israel for the costs of resettling “so great a number of uprooted and destitute Jewish refugees” after the war, and to compensate individual Jews, via the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, for losses in Jewish livelihood and property resulting from Nazi persecution.

“Persecution” best describes what happened to the Herero and Nama – who have also been agitating for similar reparations. While it couldn’t resist the demands of the powerful Zionist movement, Germany has been able to resist demands of the Herero and Nama. The latter are unrelenting and it is likely that farther down the road, Germany may pay up for its war crimes. VaGciriku are not at that point yet but it is more than likely that they may also ask for reparations. During the consultative process in question, another Kavango resident, Ausiku Ausiku, asked what has to be an ominous question for Botswana: “When they talk about reparations, it is confined only to two groups. Why?”

If a campaign on the Lishora Massacre gains traction, Botswana (alongside Germany whose agents supplied Letsholathebe with armaments) could well be asked to pay up.

Feelings among the Namibian Gciriku illustrate the volume of work that neighbours Botswana and Namibia have to do to mend fences. Botswana won a border dispute over who owns Sedudu Island (Kasikili Island to Namibians) but emotions are still raw among Namibians who live along the border. Continual shooting incidents along the Chobe River are a sore point between the two countries and the latest incident has deepened this problem. Then there is the memory of the Lishora Massacre, which the governments have not sought to address but is a big issue with some VaGciriku. The name itself serves as a permanent of what happened: originally called Shantjefu, the name of the place where the massacre occurred was changed to Lishora – which comes from the RuGcriku word for shooting, the shooting that was done by Batawana.

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