Land reform ignores urban slum crisis

With the land conference starting this week, experts are worried about the lack of attention government has allotted to the steep rise of urban slums.

01 October 2018 | Local News

Ignoring the urban land crisis could come at a huge cost, with nearly 50% of urban residents squatting in roughly 140 000 urban shacks they do not own with the threat of eviction further weighing down their existence.

A study on informal settlements released last year warned that “the economic, social and environmental costs of informal growth and unplanned urban development are huge for Namibia as a country, and as a society.

“New forms of poverty and inequality will be entrenched over generations to come if towns fail to develop ways that facilitate the transition from rural to urban society.”

Co-authored by Beat Weber of the Development Workshop of Namibia (DWN), he warned this week that the costs “can hardly be overestimated”, warning the hardships of life in informal settlements create “hotbeds of crime and social unrest and create massive legacies to be dealt with by future generations and governments”.

Last year Herbert Jauch of the Economic and Social Justice Trust (ESJT) said Namibia is facing a “trend towards the emergence of slums in our urban areas.

Unemployment, low wages and the resultant poverty have led to this trend as more and more people move to larger towns in the hope of making a living there.”

Weber and John Mendelsohn of Raison concluded in a study released last year, that by 2023 the number of urban shacks will outnumber rural houses. In seven years, by 2025, shacks are likely to be the predominant type of housing in Namibia.

“Namibia will have over half a million urban shacks 13 years from now in which about 2 million people will live,” 'Informal settlements in Namibia: their nature and growth', warned.

Jauch said the issue has in part worsened because of the current housing market, which has catered for the middle class and elite, cutting out the poorest of the poor.

Failure to respond

Critics agree that to date, government has failed in its efforts to address urban housing despite the fact that Namibia is going through a rapid ­transition from a rural to urban society.

In the early 1980s only 9% of Namibians lived in towns, compared to nearly 50% today.

Chris Brown of the Namibia Chamber of Environment (NCE) warned that this trend cannot be stopped, but despite this “virtually nothing has been done by central government to proactively manage and guide this urbanisation process.”

Studies show that since Independence, a total of 59 000 houses, beneficiaries or plots, of which government programmes produced a total of 30 400 at a rate of almost 1 100 per year, came to fruition.

Mendelsohn, who has undertaken multiple studies on the issue and strongly advocates for minimally serviced land provision instead of housing, said this “is about 14 times lower than the annual growth of informal housing in urban areas, which now amounts to about 15 000 new informal shacks each year. The numbers demonstrate how little government has achieved with public funds.”

Yet, despite the crisis of urban land described as Namibia's most pressing socio-economic and sustainable development issue, a recently leaked government discussion paper for the upcoming conference, only briefly touches urban land reform.

Moreover, the two recommendations on capacity building and new funding models contained in the paper “misses the point”, Mendelsohn said.


According to the Shack Dweller's Federation, their programme has shown that they “can develop their own land, building their own houses and all that is required is that local authorities and government do not view them as recipients, but as partners”.

However, they warned that government's lack of focus on the urban housing crisis fails to recognise that this issue “affects the largest portion of our population, that the largest portion cannot even afford a fully serviced plot, as a potential to move from a corrugated iron house to a brick house.”

Weber said “experiences by local authorities suggest the most effective way to counter informal settlement sprawl is to make sure people settle orderly from the beginning. This can be achieved by planning new settlements in advance, peg those settlements and provide initial minimal services to safeguard sanitary standards.”

Multiple studies have proven the cost-effectiveness of this strategy, including two recent projects supported by the NCE and DWN in Oshakati and Karibib. Weber said while “current legislation may be complex and out-dated, such projects can clearly be implemented within the context of the current legal framework.”

He praised the fact that several local authorities have begun to implement these approaches, ensuring that informal settlements are growing in a planned manner, with roads, measured plots and reserves for future infrastructure upgrading.

“Such settlements can be upgraded over time with additional services and later proclaimed as formal residential areas, where residents pay rates and taxes.”

He added that on the matter of land, property and housing, “it is hard to avoid the view that there is little vision or sense of urgency in the halls of power.”

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