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Politics of memory in Namibia: Windhoek Municipality removes colonial monument


Since 2020, the city council has been discussing one issue: the removal of the statue of the German colonial officer Curt von François (1852-1931) in Windhoek, Namibia. To mark the 75th anniversary of the establishment of colonial Windhoek, the all-white city council at the time decided to erect a bronze statue in front of the Windhoek Municipality buildings to commemorate the alleged "founder" of Windhoek in 1890. The statue of Von Francois was unveiled in October 1965.  At the time, Namibia was under South African colonial rule.[1] Although it was inaugurated only after the German colonial period in 1965 – it also embodies the colonial oppression and brutality of the former German colonial power towards the people of that time. Yesterday, Wednesday, November 23, 2022, the statue was bubble rapped and removed from where it stood for over 50 years.

 


Curt-von-François-Statue at Independence Avenue. Picture: Kaina Nambunga.
Curt-von-François-Statue at Independence Avenue. Picture: Kaina Nambunga.

The memorial to Curt von François was located in a prominent spot on the intersection of Sam Nujoma Drive and Independence Avenue. He stood in uniform, with hat and sabre on a three-sided pedestal; on each side was a plaque with the same text in German, English and Afrikaans. The German text spoke of him only as “Founder of Windhoek”.

 

 

Curt von François was born in Luxembourg in 1852. From 1891 to 1894 he acted as Landeshauptmann (head of government of a province) in the German colony of South West Africa today known as Namibia. Von François arrived in Namibia in 1889 — a time when German power was largely illusory.[2] Von Francois was responsible for what Namibian historians call the “Hornkranz Massacre”[3]: On 12 April 1893, 200 German soldiers attacked the headquarters of Nama leader Hendrik Witbooi at Hornkranz in the Gamsberg area, under the command by Von Francois. The massacre is now considered to be the most serious crime against the Nama people committed by Germans, as Curt von François’s intentions to destroy the Nama were already exposed and were clearly formulated by him himself. “The task of the force is to destroy the Witbooi’s tribe”[4], was François’s order, according to his own report.


The massacre was preceded by clashes with Captain Hendrik Witbooi (ca. 1830-1905). Witbooi refused to sign “protection treaties” with the colonial officials, and at the same time took part in military clashes with other groups. German officials increasingly saw it as a problem with the aim of making the colony economically viable and of settling potential colonialists
. [5] In 1892,  when Witbooi and Herero’s new captain Samuel Maharero (1856-1923), threatened to cooperate, local officials saw an urgent need for action. In order to get reinforcements for the hitherto small protection force, Curt von François painted a picture of Witbooi in front of the metropolis as a “robber” who was becoming an increasing threat. [6] His request was heard and shortly after the arrival of the reinforcements, the attack on the Hornkranz camp took place without a declaration of war. Even though Captain Hendrik Witbooi and his men escaped, about 80 people were killed, including women and children.

 

Dollar bill with Hendrik Witbooi. Picture: Maren Brugger.
Dollar bill with Hendrik Witbooi. Picture: Maren Brugger.

Witbooi’s' Bible and whip, which were returned to Namibia in 2019, were taken during this massacre. [7] However, thanks to a guerrilla war, the Witbooi managed to organize the fighting in their favour. [8] Today Hendrik Witbooi is revered as a national hero in Namibia, his face can be seen on Namibian dollar bills. [9]

 

A few days later Witbooi wrote the following lines about the massacre in Hornkranz:

 

 

"Captain [von François] attacked us early in the morning while we were asleep unawares, and although I mobilized my men, we could not push them back; and the captain came into the camp and burned it in such a brutal way as I would never have expected a member of a civilized white people to do… But this man put me away. Robbed and killed small children at the mother’s breast, as well as larger children, women and men. He had the bodies of people who had been shot burnt in our grass huts, leaving nothing but ashes of their bodies." [10]

 

Witbooi describes very clearly the brutality of the troops of Curt von François, especially the brutality against women and children.[11] 

 

As early as 2015, there were calls to remove the statue, which gained new momentum following the assassination of George Floyd and the emergence of the “Black Lives Matter” movement in May 2020. [12] A few weeks later an online petition demanding its removal, which garnered 1.666 signatures, was handed to the municipality. The petition was handed over to Windhoek mayor at the time Fransina Kahungu in 2020. The petition demanded the removal of the statue celebrating the purported founder of the city and its replacement with a statue of Windhoek’s earlier founder Jonker Afrikaner, the Nama leader who had first settled in the area of today’s Windhoek. It read: ‘continuing to keep Curt von François on his pedestal at the intersection of Sam Nujoma Drive and Independence Avenue is a painful erasure of the city's history and that of its rightful founder, Jonker Afrikaner’.[13] According to the petition this colonial monument keeps feeding the false idea that “this land was empty” until he "discovered" it. It is now appropriate for [the city] to stop honoring colonial figures. Curt von François was in charge of constructing the Alte Feste, a fortification built to protect the interests of the German colonial rule, and it is there that his statue belongs. To reflect on their terrible colonial legacies, he should be imprisoned inside the walls he constructed beside the other statue of a bygone and deadly era, the Reiterdenkmal.[14]

 

When interviewed by the Namibian newspaper in February 2021, AR spokesperson Simon Amunime claimed that the statue serves no purpose and that the country's administration has been upholding a colonial history and celebrating a German soldier who conquered black people for more than 30 years.[15]

 

On the 27th October 2022, the city council, finally voted in a nine votes to five to remove that monument. [16] Yesterday, November 23, 2022, the statue was bubble rapped and will be taken to the Windhoek City Museum for storage and the re-erecting date will be announced in 2023. [17]

 

In view of the countless colonial traces, this decision can only be a mosaic at first. In Windhoek, many other monuments and street names call for a critical confrontation – such as Bismarck Street or Nachtigal Street.

 

A contribution by Jahanika Hengombe and Maren Brugger

 


Literature:

Grewe, Bernd-Stefan: Restitution aus der Nähe betrachtet. In: Geschichte in Wissenschaft und Unterricht 72 (2021), S. 566–577.

Wallace, Marion: Geschichte Namibias. Von den Anfängen bis 1990, Basel 2015.

 

Links:

Public notice  (Facebook-Accounts City of Windhoek):

https://www.facebook.com/cowmunicipality/photos/a.548007961887567/5897716953583281/ (22.11.2022).

Becker, Heike: Review of African Political Economy: ‘A Curt Farewell’: decolonizing public space in Namibia (03.11.2022), URL: https://roape.net/2022/11/03/a-curt-farewell-decolonizing-public-space-in-namibia/#:~:text=On%2027%20October%202022%20the,capital's%20municipality%20offices%20since%201965 (22.11.2022).

The Namibian: MP demands von François’ fall (10.04.2015), URL: https://www.namibian.com.na/135676/archive-read/MP-demands-von-Fran%C3%A7ois%E2%80%99-fall-SWANU-president (22.11.2022).

 

Footnotes:

[1] Becker, Heike (2022, November 03): Review of African political economy. Retrieved from https://roape.net/2022/11/03/a-curt-farewell-decolonizing-public-space-in-namibia/ (23.11.2022).

[2] Titus, Hildegard (2019). Change.org. Retrieved from https://www.change.org/p/mayor-of-the-city-of-windhoek-fransina-kahungu-a-curt-farewell (23.11.2022)

[3] Cf. Grewe, Bernd-Stefan: Restitution aus der Nähe betrachtet. In: Geschichte in Wissenschaft und Unterricht 72 (2021), pp. 566–577, p. 571.

[4] Cited in: Deutsche Kolonialzeitung v. 24. Juni 1893, p. 90 (Bericht des Hauptmannes v. Francois [sic]), cited after: Grewe, Restitution, p. 571.

[5] Cf. Grewe, Restitution, p. 569 f.

[6] Cf. Grewe, Restitution, p. 570.

[7] Cf. Grewe, Restitution, p. 571.

[8] Cf. Grewe, Restitution, p. 571 f.

[9] Cf. Grewe, Restitution, p. 569.

[10] Lau (ed.): Hendrik Witbooi Papers, p. 126 f., cited after: Wallace, Marion: Geschichte Namibias. Von den Anfängen bis 1990, Basel 2015, p. 200 (here: English translation oft the German quote).

[11] Cf. Immanuel, Shinovene (2015, April 10): MP demands von François’ fall. Retrieved from  https://www.namibian.com.na/135676/archive-read/MP-demands-von-Fran%C3%A7ois%E2%80%99-fall-SWANU-president (22.11.2022).

[12] Cf. Becker: Review of African Political Economy: ‘A Curt Farewell’: decolonizing public space in Namibia (03.11.2022), under: https://roape.net/2022/11/03/a-curt-farewell-decolonizing-public-space-in-namibia/#:~:text=On%2027%20October%202022%20the,capital's%20municipality%20offices%20since%201965 (22.11.2022).

[13] Ndeyanale, Eliaser (2020, September 24). The Namibian. Retrieved from https://www.namibian.com.na/204828/archive-read/Von-Fran%C3%A7ois-family-fears-removal-of-statue (23.11.2022).

[14] Titus, Hildegard(2019). Change.org. Retrieved from https://www.change.org/p/mayor-of-the-city-of-windhoek-fransina-kahungu-a-curt-farewell (23.11.2022).

[15] Nakashole, Puyeipawa (2021, February 12): AR renews call for removal of Von François statue. Retrieved from The Namibian: https://www.namibian.com.na/208655/archive-read/AR-renews-call-for-removal-of-Von-Fran%C3%A7ois-statue (23.11.2022).

[16] Cf. Breaking News of the Namibian Sun’s Twitter account: https://twitter.com/namibiansun/status/1585751311139897344 (22.11.2022).

[17] Cf. Public notice (Facebook account, City of Windhoek):

https://www.facebook.com/cowmunicipality/photos/a.548007961887567/5897716953583281/ (22.11.2022).


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