‘That’s the bad past we want to forget’
With the first general elections in 1989 and the succeeding independence of Namibia on 21 March 1990, the South African government not only responded to the demands of the South West African Peoples Organisation (SWAPO) and the international pressure from the United Nations but also used the national transition of its former province as a ‘testing ground for multi-racial democracy in southern Africa’ (Lehmann 2011, 143). Namibia’s democratic development has been celebrated as an overwhelming success, and just four years later, in 1994, South Africa joined the Namibian experiment on its own. Given the new national frameworks that both states now operated in, one crucial question repeatedly dominated the realm of cultural memory and national politics: how to come to terms with the legacies of colonialism and the apartheid regime? Unlike South Africa, which institutionalized a post-traumatic dialogue by setting up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Namibia’s political leadership implemented a policy of demonstrative reconciliation and consequently avoided talking about past injustices, also ignoring demands from various victim groups in the country. Over a period of more than 20 years, this forced silence mostly persisted, until a prominent colonial monument in Windhoek’s city centre, the Reiterdenkmal, catalyzed a heated discussion about the problematic inheritances of colonialism and institutional racism. It thus turned the multiple memories and truths of former victims and perpetrators, as well as their descendants, into a battle site of conflicting narratives and demands for recognition. Drawing from my ethnographic fieldwork during this controversy in 2013 and 2014, I will explore Namibia’s way of negotiating the past, challenging reconciliation, and finding multiple truths in one of Africa’s democratic flagship states.