Why is Namibia changing rapidly from a rural to an urban society?


22 Aug 2018

Namibia is changing rapidly, from a society centred very largely on rural livelihoods to one based on urban jobs and homes. The dimensions of the change are substantial, and the questions are many. What drives rural people to towns? Why is cash security becoming more important than food security? Why are small nuclear families replacing traditional extended family networks? Why do people forsake the multiple ownership of village land and capital for individual ownership of properties?

In the early 1900s, about 10% of all Namibians lived in towns. That percentage had grown to 25% by 1981, and to 32% in 1991, one year after independence. Since then, urban populations have skyrocketed further: in 2016, 48% of all people and 55% of households were in towns, according to the results of the most recent Inter-Censal Demographic Survey.

Yet, few of us seem to understand fully why these changes are happening. And many deny the extent or permanence of the changes. Migration is seen to be a mistake, especially when apparently serene rural settings are compared with the squalor in informal settlements. Some leaders have even suggested the need to reinstate influx control, or the need for the poor to be returned to rural areas. Much of this ignorance and denial comes from class prejudice.

There is now a real need for Namibia to grasp the push and pull between rural and urban life. It is not going away. The sooner there is a clear understanding of the changes the better. Several challenges in rural areas push people towards an urban life, while other advantages pull people towards it.

Let’s start with circumstances in rural areas. Namibia has very little arable soil, let alone soil that is properly fertile. About half the country is covered in sterile, wind-blown sand, while much of the rest consists of extremely shallow soils overlying solid rock. Our climate is also largely against farming, mainly as a result of high rates of evaporation, low rainfall and its irregular, unreliable nature.

As a result of our poor soils and hard climate, yields of rain-fed crops are the lowest in Africa (see It simply doesn’t make sense for a farmer to invest in fertilisers and costly inputs if the risk of harvest failure is high. In good years, small-holder farmers store any surpluses as savings in case future harvests fail. Crop produce is therefore generally not for sale. Small-scale farming like that in Namibia is characterised by risk aversion and prudence, adaptations quite opposite from those in farming systems that maximise production for commercial gain.

Livestock farming is also tricky. Again, our soil and climate work against us. Large areas are needed to support economically viable numbers of cattle, goats or sheep. Moreover, most livestock are kept as savings, security or investments, as will be explained in the next article. These animals are not for regular sale and do not contribute to their owners’ incomes. Relatively few people can therefore be supported by livestock farming or keeping.

As a product of all these constraints, most rural people have and almost certainly always will have few means to earn any incomes, let alone ones that provide for the necessities of the 21st Century. Rural homes may be food secure, but cash security and the type of life that can be lived with money is often a distant dream.

Access to above-average education, health and other public services is also limited in rural areas. Facilities may be present, but most professional and dedicated public servants prefer to live in towns. Towns offer better services, jobs, careers and business opportunities. Town folk have comforts that are normally impossible to have in rural areas, and they have figurative and literal connections to the rest of the world. These are the pull factors of urban life – a better life, where there is money to be made (including money to send home for family members who remain ‘in the village’).

The various circumstances that cause people to leave their rural homes and build new lives in towns are not going to change soon. Indeed, they will be fuelled by our growing compulsion for the consumption of bought goods, and they may be exacerbated by changes in climate.

These circumstances also provide perspectives on how long people will be in towns; under what conditions they wish to, or should live; and what sort of property rights they should be able to acquire.

There is also no doubt that urbanisation offers the rural poor their best escape from poverty. The sooner our cities and towns are prepared to welcome our rural compatriots the better.

By: John Mendelsohn, published on 29 June 2018 in the Market Watch of the Namibian Sun, Allgemeine Zeitung and Republikein.