Sixty-four percent or two out of three Namibian families can not own the land on which they live. The figure of 64% is based on data collected during the 2016 Inter-Censal Demographic Survey and 2011 Population & Housing Census. Thirty-eight percent of these families live in communal areas where the law forbids the ownership of land. The other 26% are in urban informal settlements where local authorities seldom make land available which is affordable to lower income groups. These families therefore occupy land that belongs to local authorities, while those in communal areas occupy land that de facto belongs to traditional authorities.
What are the impacts on families unable to own land? How is the economy of Namibia affected by these laws and regulations? Before considering those questions it is useful to note that the legal and governance procedures which prevent land ownership in communal areas and towns were adopted after independence, and that they generally benefit the upper class. By 2018 the total number of families not able to own land will have risen to about 371,000, about 60 times more than all the commercial farms in Namibia. The scale of the problem thus goes way beyond questions of land distribution. Moreover, this is a matter of ownership and not access.
Major beneficiaries of the status quo are traditional authorities who can dispossess families of the land they occupy, sell and lease properties, and donate land to political patrons. In urban areas, local authorities limit the supply of residential land. This inflates prices so much that only relatively expensive housing and services can be developed. That provides handsome profits to property developers and their allies.
Returning to the question of impacts, families that can’t own property lack access to a combination of benefits. These are significant. Property can be used as a long-term investment in its own right, and to create short-term options that are not easily available to people without investments. Ownership provides a fixed address, credentials, greater permanence of tenure and the confidence to build a future and a home (as opposed to a house), it provides greater access to services as well as to collateral. Aspects of these benefits will be described in a forthcoming essay on property rights.
Increased property ownership would benefit Namibia’s economy in several ways. Public revenue would increase because more property owners would be available to pay rates and taxes, and property addresses will increase the tractability of defaulters. Investments in property would grow the overall wealth base of Namibia, thus creating more taxable revenue and capital. The opportunities to invest in properties would reduce spending on luxury imports and reduce the flow of revenue leaving Namibia. Imagine a family that owns a house on a small plot. Any surplus income could be saved and invested in the house: to add an extra room, give the house a coat of paint, fix a leaking roof, or to pay off more on a mortgage. The family gains a potential return on every dollar thus spent, unlike disposing of the same dollar on an imported car, or sunglasses or shoes.
Surely the time is right and ripe for Namibians to replace the discriminatory conditions that preclude many people from land ownership with ones that allow every family the choice of owning land or not. And if families so choose, they must be able to stay in their present physical and social environment.
The key is choice, creating options and allowing opportunities now closed to most Namibian families. These are needed increasingly as society evolves from a predominant focus on communal networks and customary leadership to socio-economic conditions in which nuclear families and accountable governance prevail. Besides, it is morally right for all Namibians to enjoy equal opportunities.
By: John Mendelsohn, published on 6 July 2018 in the Market Watch of the Namibian Sun, Allgemeine Zeitung and Republikein