By Andrew Niikondo In light of the SWAPO Party Election Manifesto of 2004, the housing sector in Namibia displays acute disparities between rural and urban areas and between population groups, with the poor having hardly any opportunity to own a house. Other literature 2001 also recognises the low income housing problem in Namibia as so vast and complex that both the National Housing Enterprises (NHE) and government face dilemmas to solve this problem. Although emphasis above is put on “low income housing problem”, one serious problem left out is “homelessness”. “Homelessness” is defined as “the absence of a place to live”, or in other words, “a person who has no regular place to live. This person stays in an overnight emergency shelter, an abandoned building, an all-night coffee shop or theatre, a car, outdoors, or other such places not meant to be living spaces.” Homeless people live in every municipality and local authority in Namibia. Many are seen, sheltering under bridges and in parks. Some are also seen, leading nomadic lives, moving from friend to friend for shelter. For many homeless people in Namibia, daily life is bleak, comfortless and indeed isolated. The incidence of poverty is more marked in rural areas; about three-quarters of Namibia’s poor live in those rural areas that depend on subsistence agriculture cash transfers, and wage employment on commercial farms for their income. The remaining one-quarter of Namibia’s poor live in peri-urban households and depend on either wage earnings or self-employment in small businesses or are unemployed. The number of the urban poor seems to be growing, along with unemployment and under-employment. Those who are fortunate to have plots in informal settlements at the outskirts of towns and cities reside in homes comprising of little else than a basic shelter. These homes are erected in one day and have no plumbing or sewerage systems and no access to running water. This picture depicts the vastness of the housing problem in Namibia. The ‘vastness’ of this problem is not in a vacuum, but is contextualized in social, cultural, economic and political environments in Namibia. It seems that the approach in terms of planning for providing affordable houses to the Namibians is alien and not contextualised in the Namibian context. It is, therefore, essential for the role-players in housing schemes in Namibia to understand what people at the grassroots level think about the modern or urban houses. History of Housing Problems in Namibia It is noteworthy that the housing problem cannot be divorced from the country’s colonial history. Previously the population of Namibia was dispersed unevenly throughout the country. The World Bank Report (2002) indicates that Namibia has three major urban areas: the capital city, Windhoek, Walvis Bay and Swakopmund, which together make up 70% of the country’s urban population, which accounts for about 33% of the country’s total population. The 1981 Census reflected that the total number of inhabitants of the built-up areas in Owambo, i.e. Oshakati and Ondangwa-Oluno was 4733. Modernism and money capital influences of the 1960s were the noted catalysts for migration to towns by black communities in Namibia. Between 1970 and 1981, the urban population increased in many urban areas as “the direction of inward migration was primarily to Windhoek, which absorbed 34% of the increase, and to urban concentrations, especially in the northern communal areas, which absorbed 47% or more. Windhoek holds the primacy as the dominant city, contains 9% of the country’s total population and 33% of the urban population”. Although Rehoboth was recorded with a high urban population, Walvis Bay and Tsumeb’s populations increased dramatically because of the fishing industry in the former and copper mine in the latter. Therefore, the main reasons for establishing towns in Namibia were basically for the military, mining, the fishing industries, administration, missionary activities, services and recreation. This implies that Africans in the first place did not come to towns with the interest of living in towns, but were just attracted by the above mentioned factors. There were also other factors that discouraged the Africans’ interests to buy properties in urban areas such as the apartheid system of racial segregation where the black people, especially those from outside the Police Zone, were not allowed to visit residential areas of the whites without a pass. Migrant workers were confined to ‘compounds’ and had no right to buy houses in towns without permanent residence permits. Given this, one would conclude that these factors have a negative bearing on current housing problems in Namibia. For example, many people, particularly the blacks, up to now, although they buy houses in towns and erect ghettos in city suburbs, their hearts and spirits remain in rural areas. They buy houses in towns as temporary domiciles to stay for employment or engage in small businesses. The majority of these people often return to their areas after pension, or in case of death, they are taken home for burial. Hence, in Oshiwambo for example, there is a saying that, ou na kukala u na omutala kegumbo, meaning that you must have a room at home. Those who opted to stay in the South were and still are called “Oombwiti”, referring to Aawambo who do not have traditional homesteads in what was called Owamboland. Based on this traditional philosophy, migrants to towns traded investment in urban properties with investment in their traditional wards in the rural areas. People do not build permanent houses in urban areas for three major reasons: One, having no entitlement rights; two, having no capital available to make one time housing investment or purchasing power, and three, cultural and traditional tendency of accumulating clan wealth especially in the north of Namibia. Dreams to enhance awareness and skills on housing in Namibia would, therefore be a reality if research focus includes socio-cultural environment and psycho-economic development. The Grassroots Communities’ Understanding In all these arguments, it stands to reason that the most important factor to investigate is the relationship between what and how people think about modern housing. Do they understand all processes and implications involved in buying and selling of house mortgages? What income one needs to buy what house and where? Sometimes people, especially those who were brought up in rural areas only learn about their errors including breach of contract when implicated in the court of law. Hence, education in terms of capacity and skills enhancement is essential among the grassroots communities. Capacity and Skills Enhancement We need to construct our approach of capacity and skills enhancement on the following four categories of housing demands in Namibia, namely: a) Elite demands, middle-income demands, shack dwellers demands, and rural-dwellers demands. The elite demands refer to the demands of multimillion structures by elite and rich people in the country. This demand is not heavy on the shoulders of the government because the competition at that level is not high and the people in that category tend to have better understanding of housing procedures. Awareness campaigns for rich and affluent people would not be intensive. b) The middle-income rural and urban demand refers to the demand by middle-income government and private sector employees. These are the people whose salary cannot afford buying houses in areas of the rich. They are the majority and hence they compete for the available supply of houses in townships and sometimes in informal settlements. Their understanding of housing varies from person to person, hence some of them use subsidies provided by employers to buy houses in towns and cities, while some ignorantly turned down that offer and opted to stay in traditional houses. c) The shack-dwellers’ demands are the demands by those people living in the shacks with little or no income or living on small-scale businesses. This poses a serious problem to the government, because it is difficult to balance their housing demands and their unpredictable income. These people, although they demand houses, also have little understanding of municipal expectations and housing construction procedures. One problem within this category is that most of them are not permanent residents of urban areas but came as job seekers only staying with relatives who in some cases provided them with plots to erect shacks without permission from the Municipality. The trend leads to continuous mushrooming of shacks especially in Windhoek. This means that migrants to urban areas who grew up in rural areas were not familiar with the situation where, for example, one was expected to pay for water, assessment rate of property and municipal services. It was noted that when the city or town council decides to provide services to these people such as water, electricity, formal housing structures and roads, they tend to evacuate these places to resettle without permission on other areas and thus informal settlements move on and on. Quite interestingly, the Windhoek City Council is chasing them towards Okahandja. d) The last category of demands is the recent demand by employed people in rural areas such as the teachers, nurses, councillors, police and army officers to have loans from the banks to construct their houses on communal lands. Awareness in this regard should focus on complications such as impossibility on the side of the financial institutions to fund housing projects in rural areas, due to insecurity. Apart from the problem of non-proclaimed land in communal areas, the customary law is also another impediment. Customs in some ethnic groups allow lands in communal areas to be inherited through traditional lines. Hence, the financial institutions expressed uncertainty to invest in a property erected on a communal or non-proclaimed land, where the ownership may involve clans (omazimo in Oshindonga). The problem is, in case of death the conflict between the bank and clan members who believe in traditional inheritance can erupt. The Government Institution Pension Fund (GIPF), on the other hand, is also dragging its feet to provide loans to housing schemes in communal or non-proclaimed lands for many reasons. If, for example, the owner of the house dies and the loan is not completely paid off, then the institution will be forced to use the remained pension money to settle the loan because there is currently no assurance company, ready to cover houses built on non-proclaimed areas. The problem, in this regard, is that, not all the beneficiaries will be staying in that house and those beneficiaries who stay somewhere would come to the GIPF to demand their share and consequently there would be no money to settle the loan. In order to find solution to housing and shelter problems in Namibia the following strategy could be workable: – Fundamental shifts in public policy and land reform; – Concerted and urgent efforts to develop equitable and rational policies that guarantee security of tenure; – New ways to combine financial strategies and the use of local materials; – Partnerships between the public and private sectors and the communities; – Awareness and skills development should employ an approach propagating community led, oriented process of housing solutions; – Community participation and involvement in construction industries must be encouraged; – Each community in the process should be encouraged to act as “building centre” of their own houses and increase skills to use available materials. * Andrew Niikondo is the HOD Public Management at the Polytechnic of Namibia.