The fight for land

Windhoek – Uncertainty continues to cloud the peace and stability that Namibia enjoys as the 31 July 2015 deadline draws near when the landless youths under the leadership of the Affirmative Repositioning (AR) movement are threatening to forcefully occupy land if government does not satisfactorily address their plight.

In April this year, President Hage Geingob acknowledged in his State of the Nation Address that the pace of land reform was not taking place at the desired speed due to numerous legal and technical obstacles, but reaffirmed his commitment to address land reform and provision of affordable housing to all Namibians.

He said in order to fast track the delivery of affordable and quality houses for all, local authorities, especially those with required capacity, would have to play a constructive role in the provision of serviced land.

On 8 July 2015, the Special Cabinet Committee on Land and Related Matters, presented recommendations made and action taken on the land issue, that includes agricultural (commercial), urban and communal land.

When it comes to urban land in particular, the committee made amendments to the Local Authorities Act of 1992 and the Regional Councils Act of 1992, to prohibit the sale of urban land through auction and also to prohibit ownership of urban land by foreign nationals.

Another provision under the Consumer Protection Bill, which is still a work in progress, is to regulate the property rental market with a view to prevent the current exploitation of those renting, while the Amendment of the Estate Agents Board Act is also in progress to regulate conduct of estate agents and property developers.

Former Namibian President, Hifikepunye Pohamba launched the ambitious National Mass Housing Development Programme in 2013 that was to see 185 000 houses built by 2030, to address the dire housing situation in the country.

But the ambitious initiative was brought to a halt by the Minister of Urban and Rural Development Sophia Shaningwa a few months ago, after it became apparent that the Mass Housing approach was not in line with providing housing for the poor as there were allegations of mismanagement, kickbacks and self-enrichment by those who scooped huge tenders to build low-cost houses for the poor with public funds.

Shaningwa reassured the landless at a press conference on 10 July 2015 that the Namibian government understood the plight of its citizens and said: “Land is what we fought for, but we have to appreciate (that) there is no shortcut to address the land issue in the most appropriate way.”

She said that “we should not make Namibia a country of no law and order” in reference to the Affirmative Repositioning movement’s threats to grab land on 31 July 2015 and called the disgruntled to approach government.

The Special Cabinet Committee on Land and Related Matters chaired by Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of International Relations and Cooperation Netumbo Nandi-Ndaitwah is to meet on the 27th July 2015 to see which resolutions might have been finalised at that date and which have been implemented.

But while this is underway, just on 12 July 2015, the Namibian police were involved in a running battle with over 500 land invaders in the Goreangab area on the outskirts of Windhoek.

It was reported that about 100 police officers, including members of the Windhoek City Police, and the police‘s special reserve unit were deployed to the area to maintain order as desperate residents started to apportion themselves plots.

In the meantime, the Namibian Police Inspector General Sebastian Ndeitunga has called on the police to prepare themselves for the eventuality that those who intend to take land by force may carry their threats through.

Ndeitunga has called on all police forces across the country to mobilise their units in order to maintain law and order on 31 July 2015.

The Namibian Police’s top brass has also banned all the police officers from taking leave as the law enforcement square up for the anticipated nationwide land invasion at the end of this month.

Despite government’s seeming commitment to solve the land issue and police determination to keep order, social media is abuzz with youths and land activists, who are determined to take urban land by force across the country, come end of July.

An Old Problem

In an exclusive interview with The Southern Times, Namibia’s leading social commentator Herbert Jauch said that the housing crisis is not something new and was allowed to develop over the last 20 years.

Jauch said the housing problem should have been identified as a major issue long time ago, including the auctioning of land which only benefitted the super-rich.

“We have seen a housing market that was basically unregulated. It was a Wild West for the rich and powerful. 

What added insult to injury was a provision in the Local Authority Act that allowed serviced land to be auctioned to the highest bidder,” he reckoned, saying that this allowed the rich to get land and use it “brutally” to their own advantage.

According to Jauch, housing became a speculative target, a playground for the rich who bought housing not for their own needs but to make money, where speculative investment became the order of the day.

“Now there are people owning 10 to 20 houses in Windhoek alone, especially property developers who gained a monopoly, by snatching up small plots and putting up dwellings and renting them out or selling them at horrendously high prices.

“We have been aware that with commercial farm prices getting out of control for quite a while just after independence with the Land Reform of ‘willing buyer, willing seller’ (land redistribution policy) that benefitted the rich in control of land. Now, what has happened over the years is that a similar crisis has developed in the urban areas, where house prices have become unaffordable in relation to people’s income.”

Jauch said he remembers calculations done by the First National Bank (FNB) which declared that housing was unaffordable to over 90 percent of the Namibian population.

“Now you wonder what kind of housing market is that. Particularly young people who start out have no chance of getting a house because the prices increase are way beyond the inflation rate or pricing of other goods. That is crazy. 

You put your name on the auction list, and you go to auctions but have no chance of obtaining land. Now you have to build a shack or have to live with other people because you cannot afford.”

He said that the National Housing Action Group that works with the Shack-dwellers Association Federation established long time ago that there were over 500 000 (30 percent) of the population living in shacks in

Namibia and government has had ample time to read the warning signs and intervene but nothing was done.

“What made matters worse was that NHE (National Housing Enterprise) was inefficient, missed all their targets,” Jauch maintained, adding that the Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR) investigated and found that houses constructed over the years were consistently below target.

So, in essence, there is an inefficient land delivery system in Namibia, no land for the poor, housing prices spiral out of control and NHE, which was supposed to provide housing for lower to middle income groups is way below the target.

“If that was the case for 20 years, what do you expect? When young people say at one point, how long must we wait? When will we get access to housing?” he asked, adding that it is also not only the youth that are affected; other Namibians, workers with permanent jobs and the middle class are affected because they cannot afford housing.

Not a Police Matter

Jauch noted that the National Youth Council took up the issue earlier this year with the Minister of and Rural Development Sophia Shaningwa, who took some steps to intervene, but there has been no solution.

In terms of the land-grabbing threats slated for end of July, he said that “hopefully we are not thinking of this as a police matter”, but as a political issue which requires a political solution to change the housing market; change the way we allocate land; make land delivery quicker, cheaper and more efficient by looking at different housing delivery modes.

This include what the Schack-dwellers Federation has done, such as coming up with group saving schemes to collectively access land at rates they can afford.

Jauch added that if we only focus on the 31st of July and how to deal with people who might take land and the police who might arrest people, that is not going to be the solution as the problem will persist.

“We need to learn from our own past because before independence, that was the role of the State when there were protests, social concerns, political demands – they would respond with such brutality, they would beat up anyone. We don’t want to do that in a new Namibia. We need to find a political solution and dialogue,” he pointed out.

Possible Solutions

For example, Jauch said after independence in Singapore, the country was also facing a huge housing shortage with limited land, where government had to introduce social housing programmes on a mass scale.

“The government (of Singapore) decided that housing must be seen as a basic human right and that the State must provide housing for all.

 An institution equivalent to NHE provided hundreds of apartments, and then over time they gave people option to buy the apartments,” he explained.

The Singapore government set rent laws that were affordable for the population and had different housing options depending on family size, where over 90 percent of the citizens eventually bought the apartments.

“They cannot just decide for people (in Namibia) what they want; they need to have a consultative process to meet those who need housing.

You meet those who need housing, but with different options,” reckoned Jauch.

He said that new housing schemes in Windhoek were moving farther and farther away from the town centre towards Okahandja, which will create huge transport problems.

There is a need to look at how Windhoek is being planned depending on how many people live within the confines of the city and although there seem to be reluctance to live in flats among older people, the younger generation might be receptive to the idea of buying flats.

There is also a need to look at mixed type of houses from traditional free standing homes, different house sizes according to income and substantial rental accommodation for people who may work in a certain town but may not necessarily want to stay there permanently, according to Jauch.

He says there will be a bit of a crisis, especially with land barons, “but that is good”.

“They see housing as a cash-cow; they use housing to make themselves rich. What could be done real quickly in Namibia is to institute rent control, where for instance, if a flat is say 80 square metres, then you may not charge, say N$4000 as an example. 

That would limit what can be charged and can bring rental down. It would mean that the profitability for developers is coming down, that in my view is a healthy thing,” he reasons.

Jauch is of the opinion that at times developers build houses that cost N$200 000 to N$300 000 and sell them for N$3 million, which is absurd profitability with no regulation whatsoever.

Some of the housing alternatives, he says are to look at alternative building materials, such as the Shack-dwellers Federation model, the Kavango bricks that reduce building cost and prefabricated brick models, drawing on Latin American experience.

“The bubble needs to burst. Housing must reduce in cost relative to average income. Property developers benefitted from it because they only targeted the top echelons,” he articulated.

On the Mass Housing Programme, Jauch said that the idea was definitely Noble to build 180 000 houses by the year 2030 and that government was brave to put large amounts of funding.

“But what went wrong was the way it was implemented, because it was done along market lines. You allowed property developers, tenderers to make a killing; they became multimillionaires within getting the tenders. We should have said, this is State money and should cater for those Namibians who were kept out because of the high prices.”

Jauch said that the Mass Housing Programme produced houses of N$5000 per square metre, while the Shack-Dwellers Federation was able to build houses at N$900 to N$1000 per square metre, which made the mass housing project more expensive. “We ignored the Kavango brick experience, the Shack-dwellers Federation, the Build-Together programmes and only went for one option – tenders and tenders.”

He said that mass servicing of land could also have been another option, as it would have reduced the cost of servicing land on a large scale.

The veteran unionist added that a mixture of different housing provisions would help as there is no one solution for everybody.

Looking at the first built houses at Kuisebmund in Walvis Bay through the Mass Housing Programme, Jauch said he was reminded of the houses built during the apartheid era in the Katutura black township in Windhoek.

“Elites think the poor can live like that, much the same way colonisers thought black people could live during apartheid,” he said.

He added that it was difficult for the Namibian President (Hage Geingob) and Cabinet ministers to find a quick solution to a problem that was created over many years as housing backlog could not be solved within a year.

According to Jauch, rental control should be introduced right away, while cheaper methods of providing urban land for housing should be enacted and servicing of land simplified.

There should also be a limit to ownership of houses and also limitation to foreigners buying houses in Namibia.

“Rent control can be done immediately because you do not need to change the Constitution. You pass a regulation and gazette it with an 80 percent majority to have full mandate,” he maintained.

However he cautioned there was going to be resistance from those who turned housing into a “cash-cow”, such as developers and some government leaders and politicians as that would cut their profits.

“But so be it. In whose interest are we regulating? Those who had everything for the past 20 years? No, we need to protect consumers who are the vast majority.”

Jauch said that for 20 years no rental regulatory body was put up and if he were to speculate, the top leadership of government who are high income earners, benefitted from the spiralling house prices as well, because they were among the five percent.

“I know of a former (government) Minister who has over ten houses in Windhoek that he is renting out. Some government officials have teamed up with developers and put in huge (land) applications (and) with each block of flats, their personal fortunes increased,” he figured, saying that as a result, they felt there was no need to intervene.

July 2015
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