20 May 2011

Namibia: Intersection of Land Question And the Housing Problem


It's winter time again.

And one of the problems that would occupy the minds of many, especially the poor in urban areas, is the issue of shelter and how to cope with the cold - especially those who live in what amount to 'Stone Age' structures. In post-independent Namibia we seem to be building more shacks than decent houses befitting a 21st century lifestyle and demands.

Thus human security is not improving much in Namibia. And those sprawling shantytowns and shacks being set up daily in our major towns and cities speak to that problem. This is happening at a time when the ruling elite is on a spending spree building themselves mansions and lavish offices and constantly on expensive and useless foreign trips that hardly benefit the country.

The National Housing Enterprise (NHE) efforts notwithstanding, we are not breaking any ground in solving the housing crisis. In fact the housing sector is basically underfunded compared to the military for example. So if there is a crisis, then it is first and foremost a crisis of resources, both in terms of money and land. It is also a crisis of capacity, planning and political will to address this issue.

There are a number of obstacles that stand in the way of providing decent houses for our people: the banks, the building monopolies and lack of political will on the part of the government. What ties these three in an unholy alliance is, of course, the profit system. They all want to maximise profit whether it is through the loans from banks to consumers, the expensive building materials sold by those monopolies or the land that the various municipalities sell for inflated and exorbitant prices for residential purposes.

Thus one often hears from the apologists of the capitalist system that erven sizes are small because the building cost per unit is expensive or that there is not enough land in cities to get by. In my view this is all nonsensical. The municipalities and Government are all cocooned in the neo-liberal shibboleths of 'full cost recovery' or 'user pays' mentality like the private sector. In this, they are joined by the hawks of capitalism - the banks and the building monopolies. How to move beyond this neo-liberal stranglehold is the challenge.

And this challenge can be addressed fairly easily if only there was a firm political will and commitment by the Swapo Party Government. First it is the land issue which is central here.

It is argued that urban land is expensive therefore the price of houses are expensive. And that is true. I have previously argued that urban land is state land and therefore can be provided to the poor for free. If government is buying farms for millions of dollars for resettlement purposes, why can't it do the same in the case of urban land? I think there is a wrong assumption that every Namibian wants to become a farmer. What is therefore needed is to employ a two-pronged approach to the land issue - providing land for those who want to be farmers and those who want to move and settle in cities and to either look for work or set up their businesses. What we are witnessing are municipalities repossessing people's houses - especially the poor who can't afford municipal bills.

The second problem, in my view, are the building/construction costs which are being controlled by a few building monopolies in the country. Again here the solution is not so complicated. Currently we have many parastatals which do not add any value to the lives of our people and which can easily be done away with. And to add insult to injury, many of these parastatals are forever dependent on hands-out from the state budget.

Thus my suggestion here is simple: The government can as well set up its own building company which would provide building materials at reasonable prices. This would ensure that every Namibian has a roof over his/her head. Closely linked to this are the various stringent municipal laws when it come to building houses in urban areas which have to follow certain standards; in turn this forces people to buy houses from construction companies through the banks.

What surprises me, though, is that the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDG) does not mention shelter as one of the goals that should be achieved by governments by 2015. In any case most of the goals contained in the MDG are not likely to be achieved by most governments especially here in Africa come 2015. It was thus an unfortunate omission not to have mentioned housing/shelter among the goals.

There is a direct relationship between landlessness and homelessness in urban areas. This is an elementary fact which is ignored by policy-makers. The Namibian Government, and the public, narrowly defines the land question with reference to the rural areas only - hence the millions of dollars being spent on buying commercial land for resettlement. It is therefore now time that government start addressing the land issue more broadly and comprehensively.

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