Namibia pulls down German colonial statue after protests – who was Curt von François?

ANTI-COLONIAL activists in Namibia – calling themselves A Curt Farewell – have scored a victory after a statue of a colonial German officer, Curt von François, was removed from outside the Windhoek City Council in the country’s capital. Namibia was under German colonial rule before being governed by apartheid South Africa, gaining independence in 1990. We asked Namibian political scientist Henning Melber what all the fuss is about – and who the officer was.

Author
HENNING MELBER, Extraordinary Professor, Department of Political Sciences, University of Pretoria

Why is the statue in the news?

The statue was erected in 1965 outside the Windhoek municipality’s new headquarters at Kaiserstreet (now Independence Avenue), the main street in the capital city. It recognised a German officer and administrator of the 1890s, who played a decisive local role in the early German colonial occupation. Namibia was declared a protectorate in 1884 and occupied for 30 years. Between 1904 and 1908, Germany launched genocidal warfare against the local Ovaherero and Nama communities (decimating the Damara and San in similar ways), who resisted colonial expropriation.

The statue has been controversial for some time as an uncritical commemoration of German colonisation. It wrongly celebrated Von François as founder of the city. It was finally removed on 23 November 2022.

Who was Curt von François?

Von François (1852-1931) was a trained geographer who made a career in the early years of imperial Germany’s colonial expansions. In 1889 he was dispatched to the territory in command of a small military unit, which was the core of the later so-called Schutztruppe.

A bubble-wrapped statue is lifted into the air from its plinth by a crane.
The statue being removed on 23 November 2022. Julia Runge/AFP via Getty Images

In 1890 he established an administrative and military centre in Windhoek, a settlement founded (but later abandoned) by the Nama leader Jonker Afrikaner in the mid-1800s. The Nama were Khoisan-speaking people who during the early 1800s migrated into the territory. Von François initiated the construction of a fortress called Alte Feste for his continued military operations. Von François was, in the flawed colonial perspective, labelled the founder of Windhoek.

Promoted to administrator of the colony in 1891, Von François commanded an attack on Hornkranz in 1893. It was here where the Orlam Nama had retreated, under their legendary leader Hendrik Witbooi, while resisting colonial rule. Some 80 Nama (mainly women and children) were massacred and a similar number wounded. Hornkranz remains a festering wound in Namibian history. It was the prelude to a colonisation based on brute, indiscriminate force. The captured survivors were imprisoned in a camp at the Alte Feste.

Von François was replaced in 1894 and left the country. During his stay he had married princess Amalia !Gwaxas from the local Damara community, who died soon after. They left a daughter. The fourth generation descendants of the princess and Von François were among those trying to rescue the statue from being removed.

Why do activists contest this history?

Von François was an agent for German colonialism who was willing to kill for the establishment of foreign rule, forcing local communities into what was euphemistically called protection treaties. These forced local communities to surrender power to the German colonial administration. As importantly, he was wrongly credited (also by the statue’s inscription) as being the founder of Windhoek, a denial of indigenous history. The location was a residence of communities before his arrival. It was strategically located on a high plateau in the central region of Namibia at the intersection of areas controlled by the Nama and Ovaherero.

An online petition demanding the statue’s removal was initiated in 2020 for “A Curt Farewell”. It had garnered almost 1,700 signatures. It argued:

While we cannot change our city’s dark and violent history, we can change what we commemorate from that history.

Is this part of a broader decolonisation lobby?

There is no well-organised decolonisation lobby in Namibia. But public debates took place earlier over an equestrian monument called the Reiterdenkmal, one of Windhoek’s most prominent symbolic manifestations for more than a century. It was erected in 1912 to honour the German soldiers (Schutztruppe) who died during the colonial wars.

A statue of a man on a horse with a gun.
The Reiterdenkmal statue was removed in 2013. Harald Süpfle/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

After years of discussions, it was relocated closer to the nearby Alte Feste around 2009, to make way for the new Independence Memorial Museum. It was finally removed and provisionally re-erected in the yard of the fortress (which serves as a museum) in 2013.

More recently, a less pompous monument with an unclear history in the coastal town of Henties Bay dubbed the “Gallows” was the subject of much controversy. So are other remnants of the colonial past. But neither official policy nor civil society have so far formulated a plan for coming to terms with this past.

What do you think should happen to the statue?

The Alte Feste displays many artefacts from the German colonial era. Nearby, during the genocide, was a concentration camp. The German extermination strategy has since then been recognised as the first genocide of the 20th century. In controversial bilateral negotiations, which started in 2015, the German and Namibian governments are seeking to address this dark chapter.

Von François would be a well-placed companion to the equestrian monument in the yard of the fortress and in the shadow of the independence museum. Both monuments could – with adequate background information – remain an attraction for local and overseas visitors, offering enlightenment concerning the country’s dark colonial history.

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