The man on the horse and the question of transparency
History has a way of distorting events, and sometimes vivid clarity is lost. In the case of the Reiterdenkmal, the fact that it overlooked the site of a death camp is hardly known. When you walk around that area, you walk on the ground on which some 4,000 Namibians were exterminated in the early twentieth century. The extermination through executions and starvation was calculated.
The excellent though shocking book, ‘The Kaiser’s Holocaust’, documents the genocide in easy prose. I recommend it highly, as it places the site and the statue in a truer context. It also shows clear links between what happened in Namibia and the Nazi genocide. If you wonder what that means, the Nazis learned from Namibia, and applied that knowledge in Europe.
Although some may remember the Reiterdenkmal with the fondness of familiarity, the events have to be remembered. If you know the events, you will probably grasp why I find its presence personally offensive, the same way I would find offensive a statue memorialising fallen members of the SS on the site of Dachau or Auschwitz.
I am tired of the vague mutterings about the statue’s value. I don’t feel a need to question the truth of the history of the site, nor debate my personal feelings.
The removal was done in a way that is worthy of comment. A late removal on Christmas night, with police to block off the road, and denial of access to journalists and the public, had all the trappings of a covert operation planned to thrill someone. It was not handled in a way that was constructive to anyone. In fact, the circumstances were enough to create further unwarranted resistance to its removal, rather than build acceptance.
The correct tactic was to make a very clear statement on why the statue was removed, explaining the other side of what it memorialised, and then remove it, with the press and possibly some reporting on the power of reconciliation after Independence.
This would have deprived the removal of any possibility of debating its value. It would also have been an opportunity for a bit of additional education through retrospective reporting on the events that happened during that period. Any demonstration would then have become a carnival sideshow.
In fact, a simple statement like, ‘we’re moving the statue to the courtyard on the 27th’ would have been enough.
A lack of transparency, particularly refusal to communicate, is an immediate signal that someone wants to hide something. This is a red rag to the bull of public opinion, as it immediately implies wrongdoing and guilt. It has happened time and again across the world, and the lesson that can be taken away from the various incidents is that hiding something complicates matters and diminishes trust.
In these circumstances, future activities become questionable in perceptions. Scrutiny of those activities becomes more intense and justifications and rationales are needed, but probably won’t be believed. One of the core, though flawed, reasons for operating in a secretive manner, is fear that control will be lost through democratisation of the process. In many instances, a public say is not needed, but public affirmation is. In the case of the Reiterdenkmal, nobody with any sense would have wanted to shame themselves by associating with the original purpose of the statue, the commemoration of participants in genocide and the act of genocide itself. If handled well, with complete transparency, the vast majority of Namibians would have affirmed the removal with their approval. The approach should have been simple: report on the problem, solve the problem and state how it can be prevented from reoccurring. This is the second time the statue has been removed. In the early Nineties, it was removed from the label of Export Beer. It’s a pity the statue could not have been removed from the site a couple of decades earlier, as one acquaintance said. Perhaps a memorial to the victims of the genocide would be an appropriate replacement.