A New Era: Making Amends for Colonial Injustices

The long-lasting effects of colonialism on nations and communities worldwide are evident. Colonial legacies continue across social, economic, and cultural structures, leaving severe wounds on afflicted cultures’ collective memory. Addressing the horrors done during colonial periods is critical as we strive for a more inclusive and just global community. It is no secret that the wave of seeking restitution and reparations for colonial crimes committed is now familiar in all parts of the globe. Still, as victims of the cruelty of colonialism, instrumental reparations (Borja et al 2021)  are not enough! Recognising past wrongs through a public apology is critical to healing and peace. Instrumental reparations and public apology must simultaneously work together to ensure post-colonial reconciliation and justice. In a research report entitled “Exploration of the Association Between Apology and Forgiveness Amongst Victims of Human Rights Violations”, co-authors reveal the association between forgiving and four restorative situations, i.e. excuse, admission of guilt, apology, and true sorriness (Alfred. A et al. 2006).  

Brief Historical Context

The colonial era was pivotal in forming many, if not all, of the world’s states today. Significant occurrences, colonisation techniques, and systemic injustices were inflicted on indigenous communities during the colonial era, leaving lasting damage. To exert authority over native people, colonisers used a variety of techniques, including forcible displacement, cultural assimilation, and economic exploitation. The advent of European explorers signalled the start of this age, quickly followed by the creation of commercial routes and colonies. Indigenous lands were taken, often violently, resulting in large displacements and the loss of customary areas. As invaders strove to incorporate local populations into their own, the imposition of foreign laws and traditions undermined indigenous cultures and identities. Furthermore, for the profit of the invaders, the mining of natural resources like minerals and agricultural goods was favoured, maintaining economic inequities and impoverishing indigenous communities. These systemic injustices, founded in racism and a desire for power and riches, continue to define the socio-cultural landscapes of many nations, prompting the need for acknowledgement of wrongs committed,  repentance, and reparative actions.

Global Perspectives on Public Apologies

Surprisingly or not, not every state government or individual holds the same position on publicly admitting wrong and offering a genuine apology. Here, we will examine a few cases of public apologies made by different nations and their impact on healing and reconciliation. 

To begin, we will examine the case of Germany and Namibia on the apology for the Heroro Nama Genocide. The German apology note came in 2021, more than a hundred years after the disheartening  Herero-Nama Genocide from 1905-07. The Heroro-Nama genocide not only violated the (human, cultural, and political) rights of the Herero and Nama groups, it was a perfect example of how destructive and ruthless colonialism entailed.  However, we cannot say precisely that Germany’s acknowledgement of crimes against the Nama and Herero people was a genuine public apology simply because they owned up to the responsibility of the crime and entered into a series of agreements to pay the sum of 1.1 billion for the development of Namibia within 30 years. Without a  shred of doubt, this is a delicate step towards reconciliation. Still, as we stated before, it is very insignificant in terms of the damages caused by the Germans during the genocide. Even Vekuii Rukoro, the Paramount Chief of Herero people, former attorney general, and member of parliament, agrees with this when he says, “Is this the kind of reparation that we are supposed to be excited about? This is just public relations… reparation should be a collective payment to the descendants of those killed and pushed off their land during the genocide,” in an interview with CNN.  

With the spotlight still on Germany and its colonies, we’d like to point out that Tanzania likewise received a formal public apology from Germany. During a recent visit to Tanzania, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier stated, “I would like to ask for forgiveness for what Germans did to your ancestors here; I want to assure you that we Germans will search with you for answers to the unanswered questions that give you no peace…” The president tendered this apology for the gruesome killing of approximately 200,000 and 300,000 Maji Maji locals by the Germans as a result of the 1905 and 1907 Maji Maji uprising. Most significantly, he ended his visit with a promise that Germany would consider “the repatriation of cultural heritage and human remains.” While this is unsettling, the apology is a start in the right direction. It also demonstrates good faith, which other curators of looted cultural material should emulate.

Another striking case to highlight in this paper is that of France and her admitting to France’s involvement (by neglect)  in the 1996 Rwandan Genocide. Thanks to the 2019 Dulcert report, France could publicly apologise to (the Tutsi people of) Rwanda. The French Historian issued this report commissioned by the French president, which reveals the significant role played by France in the escalation of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda due to the negligence of France. It was only in 2021, during a visit to Rwanda, that French President Emmanuel Macron publicly admitted the neglect of France in the gruesome attack that caused the lives of more than 7000 Hutus. Just like other apologies for crimes of humanity, like the Rwandan genocide, is only coming later when the impact of the action has already been felt. Macron admits, “A genocide cannot be excused; one lives with it.” We believe this goes for both perpetrators and, most significantly, the victims and survivors. Thus, the apology is just a first step in the reconciliation process between the two governments. 

Furthermore, France’s apology to Rwanda came after Algeria requested France’s apology for the occupation and violent 8-year war that rendered relations between Algiers and Paris skeletal. In response, Macron apologised, calling the French colonisation of Algeria a “crime against humanity”. These instances are for the apologies of crimes and injustices committed. 

In contrast to the preceding incidents emphasising the importance of a public apology, there is a second school of thought that does not agree on the necessity of a public apology. An example of this faction is a former Australian minister who labelled an apology as “meaningless” and “an empty gesture.” During his tenure as Prime Minister, John Howard refused to apologise to Aboriginal people for the Stolen Generation program of the nineteenth century. He went further to gaslight the Aboriginal people by saying that “the idea of one generation apologising for the acts of another is an empty gesture…If you apologise for your behaviour, that has meaning, but I think it’s an empty thing for one generation to say, ‘Well, we apologise for something done by other people.’ That’s meaningless.” 

Howard believes that “the luckiest thing that happened to this country (Australia) was being colonised by the British,” as he put it. “Not that they were perfect by any means, but they were infinitely more successful and beneficent colonisers than other European countries.” I’m sure you’re wondering how one “benefits” from a scheme like the British Stolen Generations policy, as I am.

Much is yet to be done.

Although there has been an apparent effort in some perpetrators’ encounters with their committed crimes, much is still expected of them. Germany, in particular, is still being probed for colonial crimes perpetrated in Cameroon. Colonial atrocities that have yet to be publicly and heartfeltly apologised for. Cameroon, as a former German colony, was also subjected to severe torture as a result of numerous punitive, anthropological, and missionary German missions. Villages were burnt down, and locals were arbitrarily arrested and imprisoned. All of these necessitate an open and honest apology from Germany, followed by conversations on the restitution of stolen heritage from colonial times now found in Germany.

Restorative Justice and Reparation

Restorative justice is a transformative strategy that prioritises mending the harm caused by a crime or conflict over punishing the offender. It aims to meet the requirements of victims, offenders, and the community. Restorative justice promotes healing, understanding, and reconciliation via discourse, mediation, and accountability. Reparations, conversely, are actions created to compensate individuals or communities for historical wrongs, systemic discrimination, or human rights violations. Financial compensation, land restitution, educational possibilities, and community development projects are all examples of reparations. 

In line with the concept of public apology for prejudice and injustices committed during the colonial era, restorative justice and reparations align well as both seek to admit wrongdoings, foster healing, and move toward a more just and equitable society. Put differently, the intentions of every public apology not followed by restorative justice and reparation can be seen as performance allyship or virtue signalling. 

In closing, while an apology cannot erase the past, it is essential in pursuing justice and restoration. It represents a desire to face our collective humiliation and move toward a more inclusive future. We establish the framework for a society that values equality, compassion, and respect for all by admitting the faults of the past. These apologies provide hope for the affected communities by validating their experiences and allowing their voices to be heard. They are committed to mending the damage done by colonisation, encouraging discourse, and establishing pathways to true reconciliation.

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