The current policy debate around housing relates to the so-called formal housing and is the flip-side of the larger land restitution discourse. The reported scale of formal housing backlog differs widely. At a symposium hosted by the Bank of Namibia (BoN) in October last year, Ebson Uanguta, then Director of Research (and now Deputy Governor) of the BoN, pitched the figure at 88 000 households whereas Jerry Ekandjo, Minister of Regional, Local Government, Housing and Rural Development, put the figure at a frightening 300 000 in his keynote address at the same symposium! Whilst we wait for the brand new Statistician General to provide us with more credible figures to work with, the empirical situation on the ground, particularly in Windhoek and other bigger towns, speaks for itself.
Granted that race was the key determinant of class and wealth in the political economy of colonialism, urban Namibia is primarily made up of expropriated land with the natives having been banished to reserves only to become sojourners in their previous abodes, selling their labour. In this scheme of things, formal housing stock was always going to be in limited supply.
This is because the colonial authorities considered the natives as migrants who were, at some point, to return to whence they came. In later years, however, the municipalities built some houses, as rental stock, but never for the tenants to become eventual owners of these houses. These are the houses which the indomitable Libertina Amathila, former Deputy Prime Minister, sold, at nominal transfers, to occupants at independence. The provision of housing was a remit of municipalities then as it is now.
However, given the restructured fiscal federalism between central and sub-national governments, provision of housing by local authorities has disappeared from the radar. The surrendering of five percent rateable income from local authorities to the regional councils combined with increased demand for services on account of rapid influx in these areas have left quite a dent in municipal finances. The result was that housing provision has been elevated to central government with initiatives such as Build Together programme. However, the Build Together programme has been less than a success and for now appears to be carried out by the government in a lackadaisical manner.
The National Housing Enterprise (NHE) is now government’s principal housing delivery agency. But the supposed beneficiaries still regard NHE houses inappropriate and pricy. And they seem to be straying from the core mandate if the recent report of their purchasing plots in Walvis Bay in upmarket areas is anything to go by. The result of this has been that housing provision has primarily become the domain of the private sector. And since the private sector is profit driven, the small guy looking for low cost house pulls at the short end of the stick. Little wonder then, that this category of house seekers end up in the mushrooming squatters and slums which now envelop Windhoek and other major towns.
And these are the folks whose shacks the authorities bulldoze at random, preferably during winter. The authorities have in their armoury the Squatters Proclamation Act of 1985 for this purpose. The slum dwellers are, of course, caught up in a vicious circle that even if serviced land were available, which is a challenge in many local authority areas, without subsidy from the authorities the plots will still be beyond their reach. And it is here that the proposed policy of not auctioning and tendering may help the poor.
We applaud the government’s intervention in increasing the supply of serviced land. But unlike Adam Smith, government’s hand also ought to be prominently visible with subsidies for these mainly new arrivals to urban Namibia who are either unemployed or low-income earners. A combination of these interventions will stay the hand of speculators and greedy developers who now have the monopoly to set the price of land and housing stock generally.
The influx to urban areas in search of jobs and livelihood also speaks to an absence of an active government policy of decentralisation of economic activities and its spoils. Namibians making Windhoek their home are approaching 20 percent of the population. This is not desirable. As more local authorities are declared and land becoming an economic asset to use and trade, Namibians should grab this opportunity to use this new capital – as the economist Hernando de Soto has taught us – to create economic miracles across the length and breadth of our land.