“Petitioning Geneva: Transnational Aspects of Protest and Resistance in South West Africa/Namibia after the First World War” by Tilman Dedering










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Tilman Dedering is a Professor of history at the University of South Africa. His fields of academic interest are Namibian and South African history, modern German history, and globalization. He specializes in history and technology, the League of Nations in Africa, and relations between Germany and South Africa.  

This article examines the role of the League of Nations in the South West African/Namibian independence movement. Dedering argues that although the League of Nations era is largely passed over by historians, since the short-lived organization was unable to affect any real change, it is actually an important part of the narrative. Despite stemming from a time of hope after WWI, Western powers saw the League largely as “reformed” imperialism. Yet, marginalized people were empowered by the Wilsonian language of self-determination and took advantage of new structures that allowed all people to petition the League of Nations and bring forward their complaints.   

In the case of South West Africa, Dedering looks at two rebellions specifically. The 1922 Bondelswart Rebellion is significant because of the League’s reaction to South Africa’s harsh and violent handling of the rebellion, which the South Africans described as “unprecedented bitterness” towards this common treatment of a colonial people far removed from Europe. South Africa was told that they needed to handle “backward” populations in a civilized manner, using the rhetoric of civilization against a mandatory power. The 1925 Rehoboth rebellion was significant because despite wanting to take a firm stand against the Rehoboth rebels, the colonial administration, scared of the same international backlash as in 1922, allowed dissidence to fester among the Rehoboth with “gritted teeth.” The Prime Minister of South Africa himself ensured that there was open communication between the Rehoboth petitioners and Geneva. Thus, the administration did not immediately take action against the political agitators, and were forced to justify the actions they did take in a report to the League.

Why were these petitions important? The League was the first international organization that scrutinized the domestic affairs of all countries, including the treatment of poorer/colonized nations. Even if the League of Nations never ruled in favour of colonized peoples, the League of Nations provided a framework in which local issues were seen by a global audience. This resulted in a shift away from traditional colonialism to one in which colonial powers were actually held accountable – even minimally. For example, despite the lack of action taken by the League, the Rehoboth consistently sent petitions to the League in this period – and the South Africans were forced to allow this to happen.    

The language of self-determination was explicitly not meant for marginalized peoples, but they coopted it anyway. Wilson became a symbol for colonized people, and even when the promise of liberal equality fell through and they turned towards Bolshevism, Wilsonian language remained. The petitioners from South West Africa used the rhetoric of civilization to hold the League of Nations accountable. Even when acting South African administrator H. P. Smit told the Rehoboth that the League extended its protection to “’barbaric‘ indigenous peoples,” but did not grant to them a full set of civil rights, petitioners continued to argue that they were owed the right to self-determination. After WWII, this language remained – in 1958, they petitioned the UN saying: “we appeal to the UN, as the legal successor to the League of Nations, to uphold our rights.” Dedering points out that it is not clear how the remote Rehoboth people even gained knowledge of European events or language, but they used the petitioning system continually using the League’s own moral vocabulary.

Was Dedering right? Was the League of Nations the result of an era of hope after WWI, or was it just a tool to justify colonialism?

Even though the League of Nations did not accomplish much, and nothing came out of Namibian petitions, is the era still worth researching?

Dedering says that because there was a different context post-WWII, the interwar period is often skipped over. What are the differences in context? Why did these differences result in more success after WWII for Namibian independence?  

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