Conference must address land holistically, rural and urban

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Can anyone really be blamed for being fixated with the land question? How and why with the land issue very much being a vexed question that it has been. In a largely agrarian economy, like Namibia, where agriculture and farming employ a substantial number of the economically active section of the local populace, it is understandable that land is and shall for some time in the future remain high on the political agenda.

The existence of many, especially impoverished masses in the backwaters of our presumed prosperous urban centres, revolves around land. For many in our rural populace, land, and even what to many may appear an insignificant negligible piece of five hectares, but big enough for the all-important shelter one can call home, land is indeed a pivotal asset and resource, an essence of being.

Both in our urban centres, as well as in our rural enclaves, land remains equally important, if not the centre of everyone’s existential struggle.

That being the case rarely has the urgent need for land in the urban areas seemed to have enjoyed the same focus, politically and otherwise, as agricultural and farmland in the country.

Even with barely two months to go before the long-overdue and much-awaited Second National Land Conference, one has as yet to see any real focus on urban land, in contrast to the attention that farmland has been enjoying from all and sundry, including political and non-political actors.

The thousands of Namibians who are deprived of urban land, starved and hungry, right across the country’s urban centres, have no doubt remained a voiceless and benign flock, not to mention a leaderless and neglected silent majority, wallowing in their landlessness and consequent homelessness.  In fact, even the agricultural and farmland that has hitherto been acquired by the government since independence, has in many aspects and respects, mostly come to resemble mere living spaces and means of survival, rather than the means of production they ought to be.  Dubiousness and confusion seem to have been the hallmark of the government’s resettlement policy, an avenue for privileging the anointed, usually those close to the powers that be.

It has become a means of providing such lucky individuals a living space reminiscent of Imperial Germany’s quest for lebensraum (living space), which eventually prompted and propelled her occupation of the then South West Africa – later re-named as ‘Deutsche Südwes Afrika’. Unless some political miracle happens, if not some economic wonders, our rural backwaters will for a foreseeable future continue to provide convenient safety nets against the pressure cooker urban centres, and indeed necessary buffers between the haves and the have-nots. This is the harsh reality, thanks to the demise of the apartheid relic, and our post-independence Constitution, allowing anyone freedom of movement, and indeed to settle and live anywhere within the border of the country. The false economic lure of the urban centres we have been seeing since independence has led the mushrooming of informal settlements in most of the urban areas.

More than anything else, these centres are a realistic pointer to the urgent demand for land. They speak volumes in testimony to the fact that landlessness and land hunger is – akin to our rural backwaters – a much more acute problem in our urban areas.

In this regard, the Second National Land Conference should and must with equal urgency as is expected, address the agricultural/farmland and also seriously attend to the issue of urban land, because there’s no way we can address the acute problem of homelessness unless we address urban land at the upcoming land conference. Axiomatically, there’s no way we can address urban land, and thereby tackle homelessness, not to speak of the needs of those without shelter, unless, at the same time, we look at our property laws and how they impact on the availability of land, especially for community and social housing.  This reality on the ground notwithstanding, with two months or less to go before the envisaged land conference, one has been hearing little, or next to nothing on the accessibility of land in our urban centres, not to mention the latest consultations by the Ministry of Land Reform all over the country, at which the issue of urban land seemed taboo.

If the media reports are anything to go by, the question of urban land rarely featured during the said consultations, its centrality to urban living conditions, especially to the wellbeing of the thousands of our urban impoverished masses notwithstanding. And it is not hard to see why.

The dichotomy between urban and rural land reform is manifest in the fact that responsibility for each aspect is vested in two different ministries, the Ministry of Land Reform and the Ministry of Urban and Rural Development, respectively.Watch this space: it may not be long before the Ministry of Urban and Rural Development calls for the First National Conference on Urban Land.

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