Newspaper Contribution

Why do so many Namibians have to live in urban shacks?


22 Aug 2018

Namibia had roughly 10,500 urban shacks in 1991. By the end of 2018, there will be about 150,000 of them, with approximately 15,000 shacks being added each year. At that rate of growth, there will be more urban shacks than all formal urban houses and all rural houses by 2025. That is just eight years from now.

This enormous growth is due to the influx of urban migrants, but migration itself isn’t a problem. Nor should it be thought of as one. The problem is rather that central and local government have done little to accommodate people moving to towns. Since independence government and NGO housing programmes have only managed to provide an average of 1,100 plots of land in towns per year (some of these have included houses). This is less than 8% of the average annual growth of urban shacks. Why has so little been done to accommodate urban migration?

At least part of the failure to act stems from assumptions and ignorance about a variety of aspects of land, housing and society. First, much of our thinking about housing is clouded by misunderstandings on why rural people move to town. We are surprised by the scale of urban migration, often assuming that migrants would be better off staying ‘at home’ in rural areas.

Much of this thinking is driven by a poor understanding of the limited productivity of Namibia’s rural environment, and just how hard it is to eke out a living from farm produce. Food self-sufficiency may sometimes be possible in communal areas, but cash needs must be met from off-farm sources, such as pensions, local retail business and remittances. This is why most people move to towns to make a better living for themselves and to send money home to family members who remain ‘in the village’. Needs for cash incomes are also underestimated. Clothes, modern medicines, access to transport services, mobile phones, cosmetics, et cetera all require cash. All Namibians now compete in this cash-based consumer society but living rurally makes this near impossible. Small wonder that urban life is increasingly attractive, as discussed in the essay published in this column on the 30th of June.

To the misconceptions that rural life is attractive to the poor, have been added assumptions by our political leadership that Namibia’s economy and future is rooted in agriculture. Much development policy has thus fixated on rural development and farm production, leaving very little on job creation or on urban development. Namibia would gain much if our politicians understood soil fertility, crop yields, carrying capacity, drought, input costs, market access or other factors that affect the productive potential of rural areas.

Second is the problem of prejudice. We who are privileged are unsettled by the many lower class arrivals from communal areas. We fear more crime, poverty, social unrest, environmental degradation and littering. We are told these people don’t belong in towns, that they are simple people, with negligible needs for income or cash security. Racial divides have been replaced by class divisions, which are flagrantly demonstrated by the contrasts between informal and formal housing areas in many Namibian towns.

Third, many observers have almost no idea of the scale of migration and the expansion of shacks. Demand for housing is often said to have outstripped its supply, implying that demand has grown in some unnatural, unexpected way. And so demand is cast as the antisocial problem, a view strengthened by our discomfort with demand being driven by lower class migrants from communal areas. If there were less prejudice and more understanding of the reasons for urbanisation, much more would be done to increase the supply of properties.

Fourth, our knowledge of life in informal settlements is limited and we often make negative assumptions about their nature. On the one hand, there is much to dismay us, but there is also much to appreciate. Here is energy, enterprise and spirit of community often quite lacking in formal urban areas. It is also fallacy to assume that poverty and environmental degradation in informal settlements is greater than in rural areas. The difference is that squalor is concentrated and visible in informal settlements, whereas it is dispersed and harder to recognise in impoverished rural areas. Rural environmental degradation is also easier on the eye, for instance when we focus on fields of green crops but fail to note that fields have been cleared by deforesting natural areas.

Fifth, local authorities deliberately limit the supply of land that would be affordable to most urban migrants because larger profits can be generated by regulating the supply of land. Thus, priority is given to selling land for middle to lower income housing. This is also much more profitable to the land and housing developers and others who obtain lucrative commissions and kick-backs from the developments. Most poor shack-dwellers have therefore been left landless. In a less profiteering environment, local authorities could instead provide land first and services later, thus giving people a formal base from where they can begin to be an active part of the formal economy.

Sixth – and finally – discussion is concentrated of the problem of housing and migration. That there are challenges is obvious, but migration should be viewed positively – particularly in Namibia. It provides opportunities to reduce poverty, to foster entrepreneurship and small businesses, to provide better services more efficiently to higher congregations of people, and to provide property which brings investment openings, security, confidence and better access to collateral. When people own property, they become home owners, and they also become new tax and rate payers. In short, urban areas offer Namibia the best chances of reducing her poverty and growing her wealth.

Urban migrants vote with their feet, and hundreds of thousands have cast their votes over the years. Many more are coming. Perhaps we should listen and respond to the voters who will soon otherwise occupy more shacks than other houses in our democracy!

By: John Mendelsohn, published on 10 August 2018 in the Market Watch of the Namibian Sun, Allgemeine Zeitung and Republikein.