Dr Olaf Ihlau
D – 20457 Hamburg Windhoek, 23 July 2004
Article ‘Kriegstrommeln in Südwest’, Spiegel No 28/2004, “War Drums in South West”
Dear Dr Ihlau,
We are pleased to see that you sent a journalist to Namibia for researching his story first hand. In the light of pressures on the German advertising market and widespread retrenchments in editorial offices we do not take it for granted at all that a magazine like Der Spiegel is willing to spare no expense in order to gain its own picture of Namibia and its problems.
On the other hand we are deeply shocked. As longstanding readers we know and appreciate Der Spiegel. We would not have expected to find an article like Thilo Thielke’s ‘Kriegstrommeln in Südwest’ in this magazine.
We are shocked that the article is one-sided, that Der Spiegel turns into the mouthpiece of a very small group within the Namibian population, and that the picture portrayed of the people, the government and the country does not correspond with reality. Most of all, however, we are shocked because the article does not even attempt to understand alleged ‘irrational’ actions of individuals or the government. It seems as if you were neither aware of your responsibility as a source of information, on which more than five million readers have come to rely, nor of the impact which your report brings on in Namibia.
Let me explain.
One-sidedness – On the farm of Andreas Wiese, who is of German descent, a dead goose-chick causes conflict with the labourers living on the farm. The dispute escalates into legal action. In his article, Mr Thielke fails to mention that farmer Wiese expels the labourers and their families from the farm, and that there had already been similar cases of sending labourers off on other farms as well. Irrespective of who is to blame or what the court decided, one surely has to wonder how it was possible for a situation to escalate to such an extent and why people treat each other in this way. One should think that a journalist would feel compelled to make both sides heard. Thielke, however, gives an account of developments and motives from the farmer’s perspective only. The other side – the labourers and the union – does not feature at all.
The same is true for his representation of the land reform, where only the arguments of critics are brought forward while the other side is totally ignored. Furthermore, Thielke fails to point out that there is broad consensus in Namibia about the necessity of redistributing land. Not only President Sam Nujoma and his ruling SWAPO (election 1999: 76%) have been calling for the land reform, but also most of the opposition parties, including the Congress of Democrats (just under 10%) which is not mentioned in your article, and the Democratic Turnhallen Alliance (9,5%) which in your article is listed as a critic.
Mouthpiece – The incident is recounted from the farmer’s perspective, which grammatically would require the use of the subjunctive. However, the indicative mood is used, which elevates the farmer’s view into fact, and his voice is blended with Thielke’s. Also, the term ‘South West’ in the headline rather sounds like the language of a small group of Namibians of German origin, than that of an independent journalist. In today’s Namibia this terminology from German colonial times is mainly used by people with a yearning for those times.
The beer fumes of drinking companies made up by these very people literally ooze from the passage in which Thielke degrades the obelisk at the memorial site for victims of the liberation struggle into the President’s ‘memorial phallus’. And with the clear intention to make the opinion of a marginal group look like general consensus he adds: ‘“Nujoma’s last erection”, Namibians scoff’. But in contrast to his claim this blunder is not at all making the shoulder-slapping rounds among all Namibians. Most of those of German descent would also turn away in embarrassment. Journalist Thielke and Der Spiegel, however, dedicate a whole carefully worded paragraph to this gross obscenity, thereby stooping to the level of the ultra-right corner of the political spectrum and turning into its well-disposed champion.
Wrong picture – Thielke suggests that the land question is merely used for purposes of electioneering (‘elections will soon be held in Namibia and therefore the government started months ago to promise the redistribution of land to its people’). He fails to point out that the land reform has been going on for years – on the basis of a law which became effective already in 1995.
Thielke also suggests that the land reform consists of ‘dividing agricultural land into small plots which are to be given to labourers for their use’. This is not the case, of course, as becomes apparent immediately when taking a closer look at this central aspect of the land reform: candidates for receiving land are citizens of Namibia who do not own any or only unsuitable land and have been historically disadvantaged. In very few cases are labourers who live on the farm in question the recipients. This discrepancy has been pointed out for years by expert Wolfgang Werner who is quoted in your article. Sum total: the ones who suffer as a result of the land reform are not first and foremost the farmers, who after all are compensated according to market prices (land and equipment are paid for, other than in Zimbabwe), but it is the labourers and their families who in many cases have been born on the farm and not only lose their home but their daily bread as well.
Composition and linguistics of the article show that Thielke is a master of his journalistic trade. In the course of his research he will doubtlessly have stumbled across this central aspect of the land reform. We therefore come to the conclusion that he misrepresents it knowingly. Especially, since he partly contradicts himself in other places: ‘In Namibia, too, deserving heroes of the liberation struggle are to be rewarded with expropriated land - like in Zimbabwe’. This does not correspond with the facts either. In the past, veterans themselves have repeatedly demanded jobs, not land.
Why then spread false information deliberately? Because otherwise it would have become obvious that the chosen example of farmer Wiese in fact has nothing to do with the land reform concept. This is exactly what critics justly reproach the government with when they point out that the reasons for the expropriations currently under discussion are labour disputes instead of the established criteria for land redistribution. But Thielke desperately needs this example for emotionally biasing the reader against land reform. This calculation clearly comes through in the manner in which the beginning and end of the article are composed: the first sentence (‘Farmer Andreas Wiese has lost his home’) with the emotionally charged word ‘home’; the first paragraph with the moving description of the moment when farmer Wiese received the letter of expropriation; and the heartbreaking scene at the end when farmer Wiese ‘looks out of the window’ to see ‘his employees camping on the farm grounds, waiting for him to finally leave’.
The grief of farmer Wiese is real and tangible. Therefore it has to be condemned all the more that this grief is put into the wrong context and misused for Mr Thielke’s own agenda. He also misuses the example of farmer Wiese to draw a parallel between Namibia and Zimbabwe, where the government tolerated the occupation of ‘white’ farms by ‘blacks’ and where farmers were beleaguered, beaten up or even murdered. Thielke insists on the parallel even though expert Wolfgang Werner says that he (Werner) explicitly pointed out him (Thielke) during their discussions that it cannot be drawn. Werner also says that when he wanted to give reasons, Thielke did not want to know any and showed no further interest. Thus we are not surprised that the differences to Zimbabwe are withheld in this article: such as the legal basis of the land reform, implementation according to the rule of law, the prevailing principle of ‘willing seller, willing buyer’, the immediate intervention of the authorities in cases of attempted farm occupations.
From this we can only conclude that Mr Thielke came to Namibia with a preconceived opinion and the firm intention to have it confirmed – at any cost.
No comprehension – Mr Thielke’s bias is reflected in the composition of the article. He does not discuss findings, he states his ideas. In order to have the reader follow his opinion he falls back on a popular rhetorical trick: he ridicules the political adversary, declares him irrational. Ridiculous people are not taken seriously and one does not even have to start taking a closer look at the goals and reasoning of somebody irrational.
With rough strokes of his pen Thielke cleverly sketches a skew picture of President Nujoma. He mentions, for example, that in Namibian towns ‘there are plenty of streets named after Robert Mugabe, Fidel Castro and other heroes of socialist people’s wars’, and a few lines on he writes of ‘old guerrilla Nujoma with his unkempt revolutionary’s beard’. Thereby he subliminally lumps Nujoma together with dictators thirsting for expropriation while living in the past and clinging onto socialism though it foundered long ago. It is true that Nujoma and SWAPO are loyal to their allies from the times of the liberation struggle and that gratitude for the support rendered then may also be expressed in the (re)naming of streets. But does somebody live in the past because he did not drop his old friends like a hot potato when the tide turned against them? Above all, Namibia’s head of state and government has been elected democratically – by a majority (almost 77%) of which US presidents can only dream. When Namibia became independent in 1990 the ruling party, SWAPO, unequivocally proclaimed its commitment to a free market economy, the protection of private property is embodied in Namibia’s constitution. Wordings like ‘whim of the aged leader’ in the article, or ‘irrational doings’ in the caption, impute that Nujoma suffers from old-age dementia, resulting in decisions being taken on the spur of the moment rather than being guided by reason. The photo of Nujoma shaking the hand of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe is supposed to reinforce Thielke’s claim that Mugabe, who internationally is regarded as being irrational, serves as a model which Nujoma is trying to imitate. Thielke fails to note that other African leaders, including South African President Thabo Mbeki, show solidarity with Mugabe to the outside world, without adapting his policies for their own country. Are all these Africans irrational? Or could it be that their demonstrative stand is the rational result of centuries of patronizing by Europeans and their policy of divide and rule?
Thielke depicts the land reform as a symptom of the madness which he diagnoses himself. Thus he starts off on the topic by concluding that ‘the government can hardly do anything more insane’. He disguises the fact that this is his own opinion by pretending that he is quoting expert Wolfgang Werner – who insists that he never said any such thing. Indeed, the land reform does have its weaknesses, and they have been the subject of public debate in Namibia for years: such as the sluggish implementation due to lengthy procedures, distribution to rich and influential Namibians, the problem of dismissed farm labourers, insufficient assistance for the new farmers. None of these points are noted by Thielke.
But he gives ample space to the central argument of critics, that poverty simply cannot be combated by redistributing farming areas. From an economical point of view this argument cannot be rejected. However, there is no mention of the legitimate emotional and political reasons: 120 years after Europeans took possession of the country and 100 years after the expropriation of their forefathers (mainly Herero and Nama), ‘black’ Namibians want to have the land physically at their disposal again. ‘But this exactly (to repossess land from whites which was once stolen) is something the Herero do not really consider an option’, says Thielke, quoting a politician of the opposition, Rudolph Kamburona, who is a Herero. Thielke fails to point out, though, that the Ovaherero people very well do lay claim to the land of their forefathers. Therefore it is a thorn in their sides when members of the Ovambo people are given land in their former settlement area. Which is understandable. A group-specific redistribution, on the other hand, would promote a dangerous tribalism and thereby undermine efforts in nation building, striving so hard to overcome old barriers. Thus Herero and Nama do not exclusively benefit from land distribution, but they also share in it – in their capacity as citizens of Namibia.
But Thielke, of course, is not aiming at an impartial analysis, he is aiming at the rhetorical dismantling of the political adversary, and he does not even stop at racist thought. The words ‘war drums’, ‘bush warrior’ and ‘war path’ clearly raise the clichéd picture of a savage beating the drums in the bush. Thielke absolutely outdoes himself, though, with his verbal blow below the belt: the reinterpretation of the memorial obelisk as a presidential erection deliberately harps on the prejudiced preconception of extraordinary black virility which has its origins in darkest colonial times and still haunts the minds of many Europeans and Namibians of European origin.
This disparaging and racist way of dealing with the political opponent is a relapse into Apartheid times. It does not befit a democracy either. All the more we are shocked that it befits Der Spiegel. ‘Nujoma curses “racist whites”’, Thielke notes, shaking his head. It is people like Thielke who provoke this reaction. Namibia is a democracy since gaining independence in 1990. But as was the case in Germany after the Second World War, many people still have to adapt democratic manners of dealing with each other. We are shocked to find proof in the shape of Mr Thielke that even after 60 years this process has not yet come to an end.
Responsibility – It is not our intention at all to run down Mr Thielke in this letter and thereby display the same attitude which we criticize in him (and some groups in Namibia). We understand his position as a journalist: in the face of mostly negative news stories the business produces a protective cynicism in the long run, the competition of stories for the limited space in the magazine furthers the lure of overdoing it. We also understand Der Spiegel: competition between the media requires stories with a drastic get-up and a graphic style. However, our understanding ends when a story is knowingly dressed up for panic and strife – at the expense of the people involved. There is, after all, a journalistic duty to accuracy and a responsibility towards more than five million readers in Germany, Austria and Switzerland – who usually do not have the means to cross-check information and opinions against own experiences, especially when it comes to reports about foreign countries.
Impact in Namibia – The government and the citizens of Namibia regard Der Spiegel as an important voice from Germany. Here, therefore, Thielke’s article is not simply seen as one of many but as the Spiegel front page of 2004. Copies are handed out everywhere. Many react with shock, some feel offended, some are rejoicing.
There are people who do not want to see change in Namibia and pretend that nothing is changing. And there are many who find it difficult to come to terms with the changes. Both groups turn to the past for something to hold on to and as a point of reference. This is expressed in phrases like ‘everything used to be better, since independence we have taken a turn for the worse, there is no future in Namibia’. Thielke assumes this very same attitude and indeed sums it up in his last sentence, ‘there is no future left in Namibia’. With this he – in contrast to Nujoma – actually confirms the thinking of those hankering after the past, even though it really does not have a future in today’s Namibia, and must not be allowed to have one. The backing of Der Spiegel is seen as even more important because in earlier years the magazine was suspected of sympathizing with the political opponent, with SWAPO.
The destructive effect on society, when people are encouraged to keep walking into a dead end, is limited because it is a small group of people. But at the same time Der Spiegel, with Thielke’s article, antagonizes all those ‘whites’ who strive to work together with ‘blacks’ and want to contribute constructively to building the new Namibia. After decades of discrimination against blacks (in particular on the farms) bridges of trust have to be put up gently. Lastly, Der Spiegel lashes out at the government and thereby at three quarters of Namibia’s population. In doing so, it delivers proof for the prejudice harboured by these population groups against the ‘whites’, namely that the whites always think they know best or that they are racist anyway. With this Der Spiegel torpedoes the development and enlargement of cooperation on an equal level - between Germany and Namibia as well as between ‘white’ and ‘black’ Namibians.
Reaction – In order to counter this destructive effect we will publish this letter in the local media in German and English. We will also forward it to media companies and businesses in Germany, with contacts to Namibia, and to websites with Namibian content.
Furthermore we hope that you will publish this letter in your next issue, so that your readers have the opportunity to draw their own conclusions with regard to Mr Thielke’s article.
And lastly we want to ask you to send a journalist to Windhoek once more in order to replace the one-sided impression with a more multi-facetted picture of the country. During two weeks in November Namibians elect a new president, a new parliament and a new regional council. We will gladly help you with the cost, with contacts, appointments and transport.
It takes greatness to admit to a mistake and correct it. If you prove to have such greatness, our confidence into the reporting of Der Spiegel will be restored.
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