Ancestral land claims must be heard

24 May 2019

In February this year, President Hage Geingob announced a 15-member Commission of Inquiry into Ancestral Land Claim and Restitution.  

The commission emerges from one of the resolutions of last year’s Second National Land Conference and is supposed to focus on forging a common definition of ancestral land rights.  The commission is also expected to identify communities and individuals who were dispossessed of their land and to establish the location and size of such land. More importantly, the commission is supposed come up with alternative measures to give justice to land dispossessed communities.
The President appointed distinguished High Court judge, Shafimana Ueitele, as the chair of the body. With all of the applause, photos on front pages and back slapping done months ago, it seems since the establishment of the commission, insufficient budget has been allocated for the purpose. We believe money talks.  At the end of the day, people always spend money on what they value; things that don’t get funded, aren’t prioritised.  All of the high-minded talk about the ‘important’ potential of the commission is useless if its so-called ‘vital’ work is hamstrung by lack of sufficient money to operate. 
The government cannot make claims from the campaign trail saying “look at all that we’ve done”, when their supposed achievements are in name only.  The public must be vigilant, relentless and demand feedback.  Don’t just read the headlines, read the entire article and ask the right questions.
Ueitele seems to be diplomatically downplaying the seriousness of the threat of impotence, saying the budget for the commission is yet to be determined, despite it having started its work already.  But, he also cannot state the amount of money to be spent on commissioners’ sitting allowances or state the full budget request, saying that the terms of engagement are yet to be set out (three months after the commission was empanelled for a presumptive nine month long assignment.)
Opposition parties are already nay-saying the impacts of the commission, and there are other accusations that its establishment is solely for political value in a recession election year. We feel this should not be the case.  This issue must be taken seriously. 
Commission members include, former Unam vice chancellor, Lazarus Hangula, Chief Immanuel /Gaseb of the !Oe-#Gan community, Nangof’s Uhuru Dampers, former Swapo parliamentarian Willem Konjore and Joseph van der Westhuizen of the National Youth Council and Namibia Agriculture Union (NAU) president Ryno van der Merwe.  
This latter appointment begs the question of why is a representative of the white farmers in the NAU, many whose ancestors may well be the main perpetrators of the theft of the ancestral land of indigenous people, included on the commission charged with exposing those crimes and making a restitution plan?  Perhaps in our court cases in Namibia, the families of the convicted criminals should be given co-responsibilities with the magistrates for deciding the sentences.
Though beset with many difficulties, including insufficient funds, the very existence of the commission holds a small beacon of hope for those with evidence of their communal ownership of ancestral lands in Namibia.  At the very least, those clearer claims can finally see the light of day.  
While the commission’s mandate is daunting, it would be wrong to stop a process because of the difficulty in achieving it.  If a goal is worthy, it must be consistently and aggressively pursued with solutions in mind, not only the problems.  Had our heroes/heroines who fought to free this country given up just because their goal was long, difficult and hard to achieve, then independence would never have come.
The commission could be a leap forward on the path to restorative justice for many Namibians, who are a part of affected communities.   While the consultations between the German and Namibian governments on the issue of reparations are ongoing with likely no short or medium term solution that would satisfy all concerned, that is no reason to stop all agitation about those goals.  History must be told and it does affect the present; the truth will out, if not for this generation, then for the next.
While fair negotiation and compromise (to a certain extent) may be an acceptable preliminary step towards the possibility of restorative justice offered by the commission, completely giving up on a just goal is not an option for those committed culturally and emotionally to issues close to their hearts and minds.
The commission must tackle these realities, stay transparent in its actions, give regular reports to the public (not just in once-off hearings) in consistently scheduled events and entertain differing or supporting opinions from affected communities.  
At the same time, affected communities have in this commission, the golden opportunity, to make their claims heard. Not as pockets of isolation, but in unison and purpose of action. For us, only the affected communities can make or break this commission. This is the time for these communities to see the bigger picture and submit selves to it rather than sticking to their own self-centred parochial interests. 
Communities must understand that 100 percent of what each individual may demand will not likely make its way into the final report.  As affected communities with ancestral land claims are not a monolith, fair hearings for all sides (regardless of the gender of the presenter) need to be catered for.  
Commission members must have the commitment to their mandate and tenacity to fight to actually become a government priority rather than be only called one.  We await their public hearings and preliminary reports.


The Windhoek Observer is an English-language weekly newspaper, published in Namibia by Paragon Investment Holding. It is the country's oldest and largest circulating weekly.

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