Urban land reform missing in the current debate

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The Namibia government has been holding public consultations to get input from the populace regarding the land issue ahead of the national land summit in October. Namibia will hold the second land indaba after promises of the first land dialogue in 1991 failed to resolve the land question for the past 28 years.

In preparation for the conference, the Ministry of Land Reform has been conducting public hearings, to hear public concerns and get input on how best to resolve the land issue. What emanated from these regional consultations is that people are favouring the expropriation of farmland without compensation and the recognition of ancestral lands.

The 1991 land dialogue skirted around expropriation and restitution of ancestral land, but now the public demands that the two concerns be top on the agenda when the nation converges for the conference in Windhoek.

Public debate on the land reform narrative is more concentrated on farming and rural lands. We are not witnessing any public debate around urban land reform. We are not hearing voices calling for expropriation (without compensation) of urban land. We are not hearing voices of concern about redistribution of urban land in the capital and other urban centres in the country. Land, mostly in Windhoek, is highly commercialised, a commodity that can only be afforded by a few.

Mathematically, there ought to be public excitement in terms of debate on the need to make land affordable to all urban residents. The lack of urban land is the most pressing matter, not only in Namibia and the Southern African Development Community but also across Africa as a whole.

Cities on the continent are undergoing a rapid demographic transformation, as more and more people are migrating to urban centres. But the majority of people in the regional metropolis like Windhoek, Maputo, Johannesburg, Luanda and Lusaka are living under squalid conditions. They are living in informal settlements without land rights or deeds, which effectively renders them homeless.

Many young professionals and their families have been forced to lead nomadic lifestyles, through short-term rental contracts. They are being squeezed dry of their salaries by the greedy and unregulated real estate industry. They cannot plan long-term, they cannot be ambitious, and they cannot belong to any neighbourhood – because they are constantly on the move, trying to navigate high rental charges.

All this is due to a monumental failure in the provision of urban land by local authorities who have instead prioritised profit over social justice. We still rely on archaic and discriminatory land management systems that make it a taboo for the majority of city residents to own a house in the more affluent suburbs. Instead, they are concentrated on the edge of the city in Katutura and far from the central business district.

Inflexible land management policies in local authorities have resulted in one of the greatest social injustices of our time by denying the majority of urban residents the right to seamlessly acquire land and afford decent housing.

The City of Windhoek leadership has on numerous occasions blamed its laxity in providing land on the unavailability of land. Yet the city is surrounded by large parcels of private land that lie idle. We are not setting an agenda here, but wondering why the state cannot expropriate that land to resolve the housing crisis in Windhoek. Most informal settlements on the edge of the city are now built on private land. So, our question is why the state cannot invoke its constitutional powers to commandeer those lands in the best interest of the nation?

Meanwhile, the debate around urban land reform has been gaining traction in South Africa. In March 2018, thousands of landless people (those living in informal settlements and renting backyard rooms) in Cape Town took part in the ‘Land for Living’ protest to demand land on which to build ‘dignified homes’.

 Oumar Sylla, the head of Land and Global Land Tool Network Unit explained the importance of land ownership to Human Habitat that: “Access and securing land rights are fundamental to shelter and livelihood, as well as the realisation of human dignity, economic prosperity and for the attainment of the sustainable development goals overall”. 

Therefore, as Namibians preparing to get another shot at resolving the land question, the delegates to the summit need to be cognisant of the urgency to address the urban land question.

Writing in The Conversation, Sarita Pillay, a doctoral student at the University of the Witwatersrand, rightly observed that “genuine land reform requires a shift in the country’s approach to urban land: it can’t be seen simply in terms of its market value and its potential for profit. Land’s social and redress value must be considered”.

 

 

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