A New Beginning

John Mendelsohn

On 28 February, an announcement was made in parliament that should change Namibia’s course.

I hope that event – which seeks to break new ground literally and figuratively – finds its way into the history books.

Why? Finance minister Iipmbu Shiimi announced that N$700 million of the new budget would be allocated to surveyed, serviced land for low-income urban housing.

This signals a dramatic shift in practice, ethics and policy almost 34 years after independence.

Until now, government thinking largely held that most Namibians should live and farm in rural areas, that they had little or no need for the secure capital value of land and that there was no need to support urbanisation.

Policy focused on rural development, as if Namibia’s future lay in a sparse population subsisting in an arid climate on soil that lacks much fertility.

To make a decent living in rural Namibia requires special and rare circumstances where ample income can be earned.

This is quite different from being food secure on small harvests of mahangu or other cereals.

As rural incomes are seldom decent, most Namibians have disregarded policy, moving to towns where formal and informal economic action is concentrated.

Namibian towns have thus grown rapidly; their residents now probably outnumber rural people.


Little has been done over the last three decades to accommodate the thousands of hopeful people pouring into towns each month.

Likewise, informal entrepreneurs have had minimal help and the informal economy has battled to find its way around the many institutional and legal barriers that protect formal enterprises.

Tenured land on which to settle has been scarce, keeping the poor away from plots with any sort of security and the prospect of building homes.

The limited land made available for settlement normally comes with houses each costing hundreds of thousands, way beyond the means of most people.

Select property developers have been made rich while most urban immigrants have been made squatters in corrugated iron kambashus on land they can’t own.

Namibia’s informal townships are many and large.

This is where at least 200 000 families live without tenure, sanitation or water and with little prospect of escaping these dire circumstances.

Each year between 10 000 and 15 000 new shacks are added to urban areas.

The squatting is a disgrace and should shame those who have watched these shanties mushroom decade by decade.

The crowded townships are often sources of disease, and of despair.

Residents have no tenure rights and therefore can’t invest in their shacks to develop homes their children can inherit.

Families confined to informal settlements remain stuck in multi-generational poverty traps.


Clearing informal settlements is tough work and much will have to be done to convert the expanding shambles into healthy and secure places where shacks can become homes.

What is easier and cheaper is to make surveyed, pegged and serviced plots of land available for people to own and develop, not with temporary structures but with brick dwellings.

If you own the land, every brick laid and each room that is built is yours for keeps.

Few in government seem to have grasped that simple reality until Iipmbu Shiimi announced allocating N$700 million to improve access to low-income housing opportunities. 

This commitment of large sums of public money to benefit so many members of the public is admirable. Long may this investment continue – for the public of today and for the public of tomorrow.


But there is more to commend. This commitment also signals a recognition that (a) Namibia is becoming an urban society and economy, (b) most people need income security – not food security and (c) all families require assets that function as capital savings and security.

Those three advances should forever bury the thinking that some people should remain in a subsistence economy, out of sight and only moderately or barely comfortable in their rural poverty.

The announcement to support providing urban land with secure tenure heralds an enormous change in thinking that should play out in progressive policy and practice, much of it focused on tenured urban land and the formal and informal economies of towns.

Much now needs to be planned and programmed by the Ministry of Urban and Rural Development: What towns to support and in what way, how much to invest in surveying and servicing new plots, or formalising and servicing plots in existing shanty towns, for example.

Decisions will be needed on the types of services, such as roads, water, sanitation and electricity.

Each additional service increases the cost and price of a surveyed plot and therefore limits the number of plots the budget allocation can subsidise.

There will be other challenges, among them crooked ‘property developers’ who seek to buy up lots of plots they can sell on for inflated profits.

Each plot of land owned securely by a family will bring about good.

No one makes this clearer than Tina Eises, a resident of Okahandja’s Ekunde 5 area.

On being selected as one of the beneficiaries of a pilot housing project, she exclaimed “I am grateful. At least one day when I go from this earth, I will have something to leave my children.”

  • John Mendelsohn is passionate about education, rural economies and land rights.

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