A cold mist stems from the ocean and settles, as it seems to do every morning, on this picturesque town. Born from the churnings of the Benguela this mist creeps over dunes, nourishing the desert life surrounding Swakopmund. Established as an important German port in 1892 the town takes its name from the rarely flowing Swakop River. The area is inhospitable and settlement would have been difficult, except through inconceivable feats of labour. The history of these feats has been neglected with a sinister determination of purpose. Historical distortion among former colonies is not unique to Swakopmund, but this story implores memorialisation.
Peripherally evident in Swakopmund is a bold antiquated architectural style rendered controversial by two world wars. I refer to certain Kaiser-minded motifs of taloned eagles, iron crosses, gothic typeface and the tricolours of red, white and black. Near to the Court House is a blaring reminder of darker aspects of Namibian history: The Marine Monument depicts a schutztruppe (German colonial soldier) guarding the figure of a fallen comrade. The portrayal is absurd. It suggests that Germany lost 50% of her forces in battle. The official biographies of Swakopmund state that the “impressive monument commemorates the deeds and the fallen of the First Marine Expedition Corps during the Herero Uprising in 1904/1905”.
A memorial of greater interest to me can be found where the tour groups do not go. No signposts indicate towards it. One must pass through the graveyard at the edge of town to get there. An abandoned, forgotten area lies ahead. A black slab in the distance reads:
“In memory of the thousands heroic OvaHerero / OvaMbanderu who perished under mysterious circumstances at the realm of their German colonial masters in concentration camps in Swakopmund / Otjozondjii during 1904-1908”.
The land behind the memorial bloats with the mounds of unmarked mass graves. Raised in 2007 by the Herero community, the memorial is one of the only public commemorations to the genocide committed against the Herero by German settler forces. It is the only visible memorialisation of the harsh concentration camps that existed in Swakopmund. The slab is serious enough but the grammar is strained. How would one begin to word a tragedy? A trauma? Unlike at the Marine Monument, wreathes and flowers are not regularly placed beneath the memorial.
The forcing of mostly women and children into the concentration camps in Swakopmund was the result of the swart-gevaar embodied phrase of the “Herero revolt” or the “Herero war”. This conflict culminated at the Battle (massacre) of Waterberg in which a concentrated mass of the Herero people and their cattle were encircled by German forces. Expecting peaceful negotiation the Herero were fired upon by guns capable of ripping through bodies at 3000 rounds per minute. Those fleeing were forced into the Omahekedesert where dehydration killed more than any bullets would have been able to. The massacre was in line with the genocidal aims of German General Lothar Von Trotha to “annihilate them with an instantaneous blow”. Those surviving Herero were “kept in captivity”. This being a euphemistic term for being systematically killed in concentration camps.
Information of what went on in the camps is difficult to come by. The Germans, meticulous archive keepers, had destroyed many records before their fall into South African hands in 1915. The Swakopmund Museum displays old rifles, military uniforms, cavalry sabres, an ox-wagon and other fetishes of colonial militarism. The history of the settlement of Swakopmund is presented with an obvious omission: There is nothing about the camps.
Various historians (such as the authors of The Kaisers Holocaust, 2010) have revealed the nature of camp conditions. Those imprisoned were clothed with hessian sacks. Razor-itch clothing calculated to strip dignity while being inadequate in dealing with the interchanging heat and cold of Swakop. The food provided was alien to the Herero many of whom were forced to eat the rice and flower raw. Disgusting sanitary conditions, medical negligence and failing diets resulted in the spread of illness and death.
Despite being in weakened states, prisoners were made to labour on the construction of Swakop- mund. Timelines show that the town prosperedunder a period of construction during the time that the camps were open. Herero labour was hired out to heartless private contractors and households.
On my visit to Swakopmund I stayed in a house built in 1905. I have little doubt that blood mixed into the mortar. The surviving death register for the Swakop camp indicates that the dominant cause of fatality was labour induced. Somewhere in the murk of the past, lives were tallied in a ledger under the title “death through exhaustion”.
The Herero memorial is a tribute to a concealed past, hidden away in a deserted area. When the mist settles on Swakopmund I can see a different memorial entirely; whereby each building represents a wordless marble slab built by the hands of those forgotten labourers. In this way, the town itself appears as a memorial, but only to those who have come to know the history.
Kyle de Villiers is a rambling South African, after spending some months in Namibia he is currently living and working in Turkey.