#ACurtFarewell & Inclusive Namibian Memory Landscapes

Activists, artists and scholars have started mobilizing against what they describe as the traces of colonialism in postcolonial Namibia.

Bayron Van Wyk

Image: Cartoon by Dudley, as published by The Namibian on 25 11 2022.

On 23 November 2022, the City of Windhoek removed the Curt von François statue in central Windhoek that had stood there for more than fifty years. This move by the city council follows extensive campaigns by activists against the statue. The performer, artist and activist, Hildegard Titus led calls for the removal of the statue as it is a symbol of colonial oppression and started an online petition in June 2020: #ACurtFarewell.

On that day, briefly before the removal of the statue, the artists Muningandu Hoveka and Gift Uzera were performing a “silent ritual” on the 2m high pedestal, at the foot of Von François.

Hoveka was performing the Otjiina, which Ovaherero woman traditionally perform at weddings and other celebrations. Hoveka said that: “It is a dance that takes place in a cow pan – kraal – where a woman normally has a plank situated under her feet and makes several hand gestures to represent the cow.” These performances were a critical intervention in claiming space for minority cultural groups, women, and queer persons who have been historically excluded from the memory landscape – the memoryscape. In this way, they pointed to how the memoryscape has been imbued with European masculinity through the erection of the Von François. 

This opening vignette opens up discussions on struggles against colonial monuments. It points to activists’ dissatisfaction with how women and queer persons have been excluded from Namibia’s memoryscapes.

Activism against coloniality in Namibia

Activists, artists and scholars have started mobilizing against what they describe as the traces of colonialism in postcolonial Namibia1, particularly racist and sexist hierarchies that has endured even after independence. They have therefore argued that vestiges of European colonialism remain and is even further perpetuated in a new postcolonial Namibia – pointing to a situation of coloniality. They have since mobilized in various intersectional struggles aimed at challenging coloniality present in Namibia (Becker 2022). In their struggles they have particularly registered their opposition against colonial monuments and laws which still remain even after independence in 1990, which they argue perpetuates coloniality. 

Through the #ACurtFarewell petition, the activists have specifically rallied against colonial monuments. In their campaigns, they have illuminated how these monuments perpetuates racist and sexist hierarchies that were imposed through European colonization and remain perpetuated in the post-colonial context. In this sense, they were mobilizing against a colonial narrative constructed by the South African apartheid regime that Curt von François, a white male, was the founder of Windhoek. They were particularly concerned with how it has perpetuated colonialism in the city; assisting with erasing the experiences of the city’s black population.

Who was Curt von François?

The statue was erected on 18 October 1965 in front of the City of Windhoek buildings by the city council of that time. There were high-ranking South African colonial authorities present at the inauguration ceremony of the statue, including the South African Vice-Minister J.G.H van der Wath, the Administrator-General of South-West Africa, Wentzel du Plessis, and Windhoek’s mayor, Sam Davis. The artist, Hennie Potgieter was enlisted to design the statue.

The statue was erected in honour of Curt von François who was the Governor of German South-West Africa (1891-1894). The German Kaiser, Wilhelm II sent Von François to Namibia after his predecessor, Heinrich Göring failed to convince the Ovaherero and Nama traditional leaders to accept German colonial rule. Unlike his predecessor, Von François realized early on that the only way Germany could acquire Namibia as a colony was through violence; that is by forcing the black population to accept German colonialism. 

In 1893 Von François attacked the /Khowese Nama Goab Hendrik Witbooi and his followers at Hornkrantz, 120 km south-west from Windhoek. Witbooi was amongst the only chiefs in southern and central Namibia who refused to accept German colonialism in Namibia. Witbooi was therefore regarded as a major threat by Von François and had to be defeated to allow the German colonial regime to take over Namibia (Erichsen & Olusogo 2018). In this attack women, children, and the elderly were killed and also captured and forcefully kept as Prisoners-of-War (POW) at the Alte Feste fort (Van Wyk 2021). Because of the brutality of this attack, some historians have called it the “Hornkrantz massacre” while others (Biwa 2012) point out the obvious connections of this event to the more organized colonial genocide (1904-1908) just over nearly a decade later, in which eighty percent of the Ovaherero and fifty percent of the Nama population were killed.

Von François established himself at Otjimbingwe in central-western Namibia. However, the Ovaherero resisted the German colonial presence there and Von François was forced to leave. In October 1890 Von François moved with his German colonial soldiers to the interior in Windhoek (which became the new centre of the German colonial administration) (Erichsen & Olusugo 2018). In Windhoek he served out his tenure as Governor of German South-West African and started with the construction of the Alte Feste colonial fort in central Windhoek. The fort was completed in 1892. It was on this basis that the South African apartheid government claimed that Von François was the founder of Windhoek.

Intimate encounters and experiences with the Von François statue and Windhoek’s colonial spatiality

Walking down central Windhoek, along its main boulevard of Independence Avenue, is like walking down memory lane. The main street used to be named Kaiserstraβe in honour of the German Kaiser, Wilhelm II, the 19th century ruler of the German colonial regime. While it has since been renamed to Independence Avenue, several small fire hydrants still exist along the street with the erstwhile colonial name of the street. It is one of the longest thorough-ways in the city, stretching across the city centre, Northern Industrial Area, and Katutura – Windhoek’s formerly black-designate township and home to the city’s mostly poor residents.

The city centre of Windhoek is colloquially known as dorp or odorpa [in Afrikaans and Otjiherero for “town”], where residents would often have afternoon picnics in the lush green urban garden of Zoo Park, a colonial recreational park that was established in 1897 on the corner of what are now Independence Avenue and Fidel Castro Street (formerly Peter Mueller Street in honour of a previous Windhoek mayor). In the centre of the park is the Witbooi war memorial, a monument that was erected in 1897 in honour of German colonial soldiers during the Hornkrantz attack against the Nama. A few hundred metres down the road was the Von François statue in front of the City of Windhoek headquarters. 

In 1990, the country was newly emerging from more than a century of colonial violence and subjugation, first by the German colonial empire (1884-1915) and later by apartheid South African colonial regime (1915-1990). Surprisingly though, these feelings of exhilaration remained intact for some time after independence. I was born in 1996 and when I started school in the early 2000s, there was still a great sense of excitement, yet also accompanied with feelings of uncertainty and to some degree naivety in response to the emerging postcolonial situation.


The City of Windhoek votes on the removal of the statue

In June 2022 the city held a workshop with councillors, activists, artists, heritage practitioners, and museum curators. The main purpose of the workshop was to discuss the Von François statue in relation with concerns over the city’s colonial heritage. For this purpose, the participants of the workshop visited several of the city’s heritage sites, including the Von François statue, Owambo Campaign Memorial, and Bittereinder Memorial. A report on the workshop was later submitted to the city.

In dealing with Windhoek’s colonial heritage (especially since the #ACurtFarewell petition was launched) the City of Windhoek held a council meeting in October 2022 to discuss the demands of activists. In the council meeting, Mayor Sade Gawanas (from the Landless People’s Movement – LPM) and Job Amupanda (from the Affirmative Repositioning – AR movement) both aired their frustration over the slow progress of the city at addressing the concerns of the petition. They were adamant that a final decision on the removal of the Von François had to be taken. They therefore proposed for councillors to vote on the removal of the statue. Councillor Fransina Kahungu (from the Swapo party) however opposed their proposals and wanted the vote to be postponed. She cited that the city had engaged in consultations with various actors on the statue, which related more broadly to issues over the city’s colonial heritage.

In the council meeting Kahungu proposed that councillors first discuss the findings of the report before a final decision was to be taken on the removal of the Von François statue. She thought that this would provide a more nuanced understanding around issues related to the city’s colonial heritage. Kahungu further referenced the struggle by the Ovaherero and Nama for reparations and suggested that the statue be used as possible “evidence” in support of their claims. This irked Amupanda who was adamant that the concerns of the activists had to be addressed. He further questioned the sincerity of Kahungu’s arguments and accused her of “politiciking”.

Despite Kahungu’s opposition, the councillors continued to vote on the removal of the statue. Kahungu further preferred not to vote. Councillor Nauyoma (from the Independent Patriots of Change – IPC) requested for a vote by secret ballot. Nine councillors voted in favour of the removal of the statue, while five voted against removing it.

Responses on the removal of the statue

In the media, following the council meeting, several critics came out publicly against the decision of the city to remove the Von François statue. Amongst those who opposed the removal of the statue was Ruprecht von François, the great-grandson of Von François. In a Namibian Sun Evening Review interview Von François emphasized his great-grandfather’s contribution towards the development of Windhoek. He specifically said that “Von François was equipped to draw maps and started with infrastructure development in Namibia. His aim was not to colonize the people but to bring them to a level where they could learn to survive on their own.” On his part, prominent German Namibia lawyer, Andreas Vaatz described the move by the city council as “removing history” and “emotional”. Both Von François and Vaatz further contested that Von François was responsible for the Hornkrantz massacre against the /Khowese Nama in 1893.

In a recent interview with Namibian Sun journalists at the Von François statue, Titus pointed to how colonial views (such as those held by Von François and Vaatz) have resulted in the erasure of the experiences of the black and coloured populations. She therefore emphasized that it was necessary to mobilise against these views to decolonize Namibian history. 

The removal of the Von François state illuminates how colonial spaces were designed along exclusionary lines. The activists linked this to racist and sexist hierarchies. Significantly, Windhoek’s younger population, comprising mostly of sexual and gender minorities, have resisted against the coloniality which they argue persists in public spaces. 

The exclusion of sexual and gender minorities from the memoryscape

Activists are particularly concerned with the exclusion of sexual and gender minorities from the postcolonial memoryscape. Since independence in 1990, the Namibian government has been engaged in efforts at changing Windhoek’s colonial imagery with the construction of the Heroes Acre outside Windhoek and the Independence Memorial Museum (known as the Independence Museum) after the removal of the

 Reiterdenkmal (“Windhoek Rider”) in 2013 at the Alte Feste. However, critics have pointed to an elitist, ethnic and gender bias in the memoryscape – something that activist have argued continues with colonial practices.

This relates with growing concern over sexual- and gender-based violence against women. In October 2020, protests erupted when Shannon Wasserfall’s body was found in the Namib Desert after she went missing for a few weeks. The activists gathered in central Windhoek and other towns such as Lüderitz calling for the tightening of legislation against sexual- and gender-based violence. 

Following the removal of the Von François statue, the weekly Dudley Cartoon in The Namibian newspaper featured a portrait of a woman on a pedestal at the recently completed façade of the City of Windhoek buildings. The woman was portrayed with a raised  arm and closed fist, with a doek [Afrikaans for  “headgear”] and African print necklace – echoing the calls of activists to have more women figures represented in the memoryscape.

Furthermore, queer persons have been excluded from the memoryscape. They are therefore calling for a more inclusive memoryscape that reflects on the experiences of sexual and gender minorities. This relates to historical trends in Namibia and beyond, in which queer persons have seriously been marginalized. The scholar Thomas Dunn (2016) argues that this resulted in silences that evidently came with the erasure of such persons from cultural representations, such as the historical archive – something that Dunns likens to a  “mnemocide”. 

In 2021 activists from the Namibia Equal Rights Movement, a queer rights organization which fights for the recognition of same-sex relationships, painted a sidewalk in central Windhoek with the colours of the Rainbow and Transgender flags. It is located on Tal Street at Brewers Markent (formerly Warehouse Theater) – a queer friendly nightclub and bar.

Image courtesy Namibia Equal Rights Movement

In her analysis of the Rainbow sidewalk, Becker (2022) explains that it challenges conventional forms of memorialisation which seeks to imprint the memoryscape with monuments, statues, and buildings as permanent and lasting features. In this sense, Becker (2022) situates embodied performances centrally in constructing an encompassing memoryscape. Even though these performances were temporary, they powerfully disrupted conventional forms of memorialisation that focuses on honouring mostly male figures.

Therefore, the performances by Hoveka and Uzera are significant in cultivating alternative ways of memorialisation. They are particularly interested in inscribing their (own) narratives on the memoryscape to reclaim the site to represent her Ovaherero cultural origins and as a woman and as a gay man.

The road however to have such narratives of particularly women and queer persons equally represented in the memoryscape, alongside that of other narratives, remains lengthy. This relates to enduring patriarchal and homophobic views that still exist in Namibia. As a case in point, at the Von François statue, Hoveka was confronted with these problematic views when a man threatened to pull her off a ladder that she used to climb on to the plinth of the statue, because as he put it: “an Ovaherero woman may not be raised above a man”.  A few moments later, another man chastised her for not wearing “a proper” Ovaherero dress and told her to take it off. Hoveka left the statue in tears and said: “I was super offended. I was wearing this dress as a performative act. I don’t know if he understands that. I can understand that I wore the dress without other embellishments normally worn by other Ovaherero woman. But why should I though? I don’t think that he should police my body in that way. I can express my cultural heritage in any way that I like.”

In this discussion I elaborated on the #ACurtFarewell petition, that called for the removal of the Von François statue in central Windhoek. I illuminated the significance of the petition in resisting the coloniality present in public spaces, that was imposed through the erection of colonial monuments, such as the Von François statue. The activists have specifically referenced how these monuments perpetuates racist and sexist hierarchies that were introduced through German and South African colonialisms, and that endures to the present. This as I argued resulted in the erasure of blacks and coloureds from the memoryscape. In this sense, activists have pointed to how some histories (particularly those of whites) have found more representation in public spaces than others (blacks and coloureds).

While the postcolonial Namibian government has engaged in efforts at changing this situation, activists however still remain critical such processes. In their campaigns for a more inclusive memoryscape, the activists have pointed out how these efforts have privileged mostly the experiences of men, leaving out women and queer persons. This I argued relates to high incidences of sexual- and gender-based violence in Namibia. 

Through my discussion on several initiatives by activists for more representation of women and queer persons in the memoryscape, I demonstrated how some activists have engaged in memory processes, that particularly draws on embodied performances to disrupt conventional forms of memorialistaion that have dominated the memoryscape. These performances I argue are therefore critical in building a more encompassing memoryscape, that reflects on the experiences of women and queer persons.

1  See my forthcoming thesis on Namibia’s genocide reparations and decolonial movements

Download PublicationDownload Publication