At the end of October this year a decision was made in Namibia’s capital, Windhoek, to remove the statue of a colonial officer – the purported founder of the city. Heike Becker describes the extraordinary activist campaign to decolonialise public spaces in the country.
By Heike Becker
On 27 October 2022 the Windhoek City Council finally voted to remove the statue of German colonial officer Curt von François, which has been standing on a pedestal outside the Namibian capital’s municipality offices since 1965. With this significant decision the City Council followed up on an earlier resolution in June 2021 to develop an encompassing policy on heritage matters.
Historically, the von François statue symbolises the continuities between the eras of Namibia under its first and second colonial rulers, Germany and (apartheid) South Africa. During the hey-day of apartheid colonialism in Namibia, the all-white City Council decided in 1965 to honour the purported “founder” of Windhoek by erecting a statue in front of the Municipality offices in downtown Windhoek. A South African sculptor was commissioned to model and cast the 2.4 metres high bronze statue.
Bidding ‘A Curt Farewell’
For the first time ever in Namibia there’ll soon be a move aimed at decolonising the public space, which has been brought about by an activist campaign and supported by the current municipal leadership.
Inspired by the global movement against racism following the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, Windhoek activist and artist, Hildegard Titus, started an online petition entitled “A Curt Farewell”, which garnered over 1,600 signatures within three weeks. Considering that Windhoek’s population is less than half a million, and that in 2020 online activism was an entirely new endeavour in Namibian civil society politics, this was quite remarkable.
The petition demanded the removal of the statue celebrating the purported founder of the city; it pointed out that the German officer had only built Windhoek’s Old Fort as a military operation in 1890. The petition insisted further that the statue should be replaced with one to honour Jonker Afrikaner, the Nama leader who first established a settlement in the area of today’s Windhoek around 1840. The petition 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. This colonial monument continues to feed the incorrect narrative that “this land was empty” until he “discovered” it.
It is now time that [the city] … ceases honouring colonial faces.
Curt von François was responsible for the building of the Alte Feste, a military fort meant to protect the interests of the German colonial regime, and that is where his statue belongs. He should be confined within the walls that he built, next to the other statue of a bygone and violent era – the Reiterdenkmal – to contemplate their violent colonial legacies until the end of time.
Three weeks later, on 16 June 2020, about a hundred mostly young Windhoekers called for the removal of the statue during a protest against racism, gender-based violence and police brutality in the midst of the harsh Covid lockdown. The protesters gathered around the monument; some climbing on top of it. When they left, after their unsuccessful quest for a reception by city officials to deliver their demands to have the statue removed, they left behind their posters. Placards read, among others, “Rape culture must fall”, “Legalize Abortion”, “Police Brutality must end”, and “Black Lives Matter”.
Other placards recalled the 1893 German colonial attack by 200 German soldiers on the Witbooi Nama settlement at Hornkranz, southwest of Windhoek. By remembering this brutal act of colonial violence, the demonstrators denounced “white supremacy – an insult to those who water our freedom”, as one eloquent poster alluded to the lyrics of the Namibian national anthem. By recalling the event a direct connection was being made: the Hornkranz onslaught had been led by von François, whose statue was the key target the protest action.
While this demonstration was not the first-ever intervention against remnants of colonialism in Windhoek, previous subversive actions had taken place in the dark of the night, and only surprised passers-by the next morning.
Counter-memorialisation had, in fleeting moments, especially targeted the city’s (then) most notorious colonial memorial, the Reiterdenkmal (literally: ‘rider monument’ and usually referred to in English as the ‘Windhoek Rider’ or the ‘Equestrian Statue’) before its eventual removal in 2009. The horse and rider was a war monument erected in 1912 by the colonial authorities to celebrate the victory against the OvaHerero and Nama people who fought against German rule.
In July 2008, white wooden crosses were planted around the Rider statue, bearing place names and expressions in Otjiherero, the main language spoken by the victims of the genocide that was committed during German colonial rule.
The Reiterdenkmal brought out an aggressive claim to perpetual colonial domination. Since 1912, sitting on a 5m high sandstone plinth, the double life size (4.5 m) bronze statue of a mounted German colonial soldier with rifle had been used in many formats as the city’s iconic image. Its plaque commemorated the German military and civilian casualties during the 1904-7 colonial war. Despite the fact that its location was until 1908 the site of a concentration camp, where prisoners of the genocidal war died, no mention was made of the estimated one hundred thousand OvaHerero and Nama who had been murdered in the genocide committed by the German colonial army.
Interventions that subverted the monument’s colonial claims were credited to activists connected to Ovaherero and Nama victim-descendant pressure groups who have demanded justice for the communities that suffered most during the colonial war and genocide.
Overall, however, until 2020 the decolonisation of the public space remained a project of the postcolonial Namibian state. Windhoek’s German and South African colonial memorials remained largely untouched;instead, government policy was geared at erecting new memorial sites, statues and monuments, which added another layer of commemorative aesthetics and narrative in the public space.
The new structures were constructed as sites for hegemonic state-centred commemorative practices, which celebrate the master narrative of the Namibian postcolonial state, “SWAPO brought us liberation through the barrel of a gun”. Postcolonial structures such as the Namibian Heroes Acre and the Independence Memorial Museum, designed and built by the North Korean company Mansudae Overseas Projects, are distinct from the colonial monuments in terms of aesthetics and historical narrative. Yet the new memorials can just as easily be comprehended as a glorifying history written by the victors.
When protesters climbed right on top of the von François memorial in June 2020, this was the first time that young Namibians of varied ethnic backgrounds came out in a public demonstration for the eradication of colonial symbols in the public space.
More than a bronze sculpture
“It’s never been about the statue” was a frequently heard comment during the 2015 protests against the bronze sculpture of Cecil John Rhodes at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. Of course, in Cape Town as much as in Windhoek, memory and heritage as contested processes of past-based meaning production in the present have played an immense role in activism to decolonize the public space. In this sense, the struggles certainly were about the removal of icons of colonial conquest from public view. There is more to those battles than meets the eye though.
The occupation of the von François memorial on 16 June 2020 pointed out the monument as a painful site of remembrance and memorialisation. It was also the culmination of a remarkable movement of intersectional activism in urban Namibia. Campaigns to decolonize the public space through removing colonial monuments and renaming streets still honouring colonial tyrants have been linked to a range of social and political issues, which have been framed as perpetuated by coloniality.
Leading Namibian activists have expressly pointed out the intersectional nature of the protests (see Hildegard Titus 2021 and Nashilongweshipwe Mushaandja 2021).The movements do not regard the contemporary Namibian struggles as separate from each other. Instead, their struggle for the “full decolonisation of Namibia”, as they have often phrased this, integrates a number of concerns, ranging from the decolonisation of the public space through to matters of economic redistribution, especially regarding land, and state violence. Of special concern, however, have been queer and anti-sexist politics.
Despite the restrictions of the recurrent Covid lockdowns, one month after the protest around von François, protesters took to the streets of Windhoek again. In mid-July 2020 they marched and demanded the legalization of abortion. The pro-choice action was organised by a newly-formed alliance known as Voices for Choices and Rights Coalition (VCRC), which had by then already collected 60,000 signatures (quite a large amount given that Namibia’s population is only 2.5 million) calling for the right to safe abortion and abolition of the country’s Abortion and Sterilisation Act of 1975, a legal legacy of South African colonization.
In October 2020 another movement galvanized an unprecedented number of young people to reclaim the streets, marching and dancing and unleashing incredible creative energy with their performances. Hundreds of Namibian activists, students, working youth, and artists took to the streets of Windhoek and other towns for protests against gender based violence and femicide. The protests, which became known as #ShutItAllDownNamibia, began after the body of a young woman was found murdered in the port city of Walvis Bay.
During this protest, demonstrators blocked busy intersections in downtown Windhoek. They demanded the resignation of the Minister of Gender Equality, Poverty Eradication and Social Welfare, Doreen Sioka. Some carried posters that read, ‘Jou Poes Doreen’ (literally ‘your cunt, Doreen’). This transgressive directive confronted the Minister for her conservative, insensitive and ignorant views around sexual and reproductive health rights. As a leading activist of the protests pointed out in a reflection on protest, performance, publicness and praxis, radical practice was central to the movement’s strategy, “embodied through disruptive politics of public life” (Nashilongweshipwe Mushaandja 2021 and see Heike Becker 2020).
A new generation of young Namibians were challenging the vestiges of coloniality, and raising pertinent questions regarding the politically and socially incomplete liberation of Namibia in 1990.
In 2021 the newly-formed Namibia Equal Rights Movement (known as “Equal Namibia”) campaigned for the abolition of the sodomy law, introduced under apartheid South African colonial occupation and still in force in Namibia. They mobilised public protests around court challenges regarding the recognition of same-sex marriages and queer families with the slogan: “There is no freedom if there is no equality”. In a vibrant social media campaign and through participation in Namibian television and radio shows, queer activists made clear that they regarded homophobia as a segment of coloniality in Namibia.
Unlike during earlier waves of state-induced homophobic campaigns, queer Namibians and their allies were no longer silent; hundreds came out for public protest against openly displayed homophobia by members of the country’s political class. On 17 November 2021 a vibrant queer protest march swept down Windhoek’s Independence Avenue, proudly waving rainbow flags and colourful banners standing up against homophobic utterances by veteran SWAPO politician Jerry Ekandjo during a parliamentary debate.
When in March 2022 young protestors, known as ‘Ama2000’- ‘the people of the 21st century’ – took to the streets again, one activist tweeted that the march targeted the “APARTHEID abortion act of 1975”. The protestor added that, “As Namibia celebrates Independence, we march for freedom from archaic laws!”
The tweet powerfully exemplified how pro-choice and anti-homophobic protestors regarded such persistent concerns as enduring legacies of apartheid and colonialism, rather than simply as issues caused by sexism or patriarchy. In turn, the imminent removal of a South African-created statue of a German colonial officer is significant far beyond just a bronze sculpture.
Heike Becker focuses on the politics of memory, popular culture, digital media and social movements of resistance in southern Africa (specifically South Africa and Namibia). She also teaches in the Anthropology Department of University of the Western Cape.
Featured Photograph: Statue of German colonial officer Curt von François (Heike Becker, 2022).