• September 28th, 2020

What is the role of opinion writers?

Why raise that question? This was prompted by New Era’s weekly insert called: ‘Star of the Week’. In the Friday 13 March edition, the star of that week was the High-Level Panel on the Economy (HLPE) for recommending the allocation of free land to all those in informal settlements in urban areas.
According to one of the proposals by the HLPE is that free land allocation should not be made on the basis of affordability and market economics but as a measure of social justice aimed at mitigating the critical homelessness crisis and to break the perpetual cycle of inequality.
My immediate reaction to that proposal was: what? Did we need the so-called high level panel on the economy which included some hitherto unknown souls, including accountants, but conspicuously leaving out some of the country’s leading economists like Fanuel Tjingaete, Herbert Jauch, John Steytler, Martin Mwinga, among others, to come up with such a recommendation?
The point is that some of us have over the years been writing about the very same issue(s) that the HLPE is now recommending to the government for possible implementation.  Back in 2006, I wrote an article in The Namibian titled: ‘Urban Land: Whose is it?’ And in 2009, I penned another one: ‘Housing: A Crisis in Free-Fall’. This was followed by another piece: ‘Intersection of Land Question and the Housing Problem’ in 2011.  And lastly: ‘Reflection on the Housing Crisis: But What Crisis?’ Others have aptly characterised it as a humanitarian crisis. So, I’m not alone on this.
What I set out to do here is to tease out some of the issues that I raised in those four opinion articles – plagiarise myself so to speak, if the editor would allow because back then, I was banned at one newspaper for apparently repeating the same articles that I wrote back in the 1990s. But in retrospective, I am now vindicated because the very issues that I raised in the 1990s are still confronting us in 2020. 
In one of my articles, I argued that a country in which only a few can afford housing is not sustainable in the long run. Everyone deserves a safe place to live because it can transform the quality of life of individuals and their families. Communities can only develop when the needs of all residents are met. And ensuring affordable homes is a critical step in that direction.  The immediate question is: whose land is urban land and who should benefit from it? Does it belong to these corporations called municipalities or town councils or is it public land?
The point is that urban land, just like farm or rural land must be seen within the wider context of the struggle for equitable distribution of resources and ultimately poverty reduction in the country.  Government has been making a lot of noise about farmland and yet it has been silent on the issue of urban land - of which it is the custodian.
Yet urban land can go a long way towards addressing the very land hunger government says is concerned about. The government has all the power to intervene and arrest the situation before urban land is turned into yet another luxury that only a handful of elites can afford. When he was the Prime Minister, Nahas Angula, warned ‘that most cities are simply making it difficult for the poor to afford land’.
Perhaps the ministry of land should start resettling; those who don’t want to go back to their rural roots, in towns and cities. The intention is not to turn every Namibian into a farmer. Or is it?
What is to be done? I have argued then that there is a direct relationship between landlessness and homelessness. This is an elementary fact, which is ignored by policymakers. The government, and the public, narrowly defines landlessness with reference to the rural areas - itself a misleading notion because no one in the communal areas is landless.
The problem is that government doesn’t have a concrete housing policy in place - no idea of public housing. Whatever modicum of a policy there is, it is cast in neo-liberal conceptions of the market, thus leading to the commoditization and commercialisation of urban land like what they have done with our water – that life saving resource.
Thus, what stands in the way of proper public housing provision for all is the profit motif. The municipalities and government are all cocooned in the neo-liberal shibboleths of ‘full cost recovery’ or ‘user pays’ mentality like the private sector. In this, they are joined by the hawks of capitalism - the banks, the building monopolies and private developers. How to move beyond this neo-liberal stranglehold is the challenge. What surprises me, however, is that shelter/housing doesn’t feature anywhere in the UN Millennium Development Goals - what an omission!
 Because housing/shelter is a basic of all basic rights, as Jade Lennon, a researcher at UCT has suggested: “it may be necessary to amend the constitution itself, to inscribe the right to housing as a basic and inalienable human right.” I can’t agree more. The conclusion is that not every Namibian can have an EPL, a resettlement farm or the fishy fishing quotas but every Namibian can/should own a house  -home. 
A study on the housing question conducted by Blessing Chirinpanhura and Herbert Jauch in 2015 (the same year Geingob became President) proposed that “instead of burdening poor households with monthly loan obligations, housing initiatives must priorities allocating serviced plots to poor households so that they can … build their own houses on an incremental basis with no binding mortgage obligations.” Self-building and self-constructed should be the in thing.  I take this to mean that land should be allocated to the poor freely, at no cost - as a basic human right. This is the very proposal that President Geingob’s HLPE is now recommending in 2020.  
This brings us to our question. What is the role of opinion writers? There is a place for writers expressing ideas (opinions) with the goal of affecting social or political change. Opinions shape ideology, and ideology shapes action. We often hear the words “consciousness raising,” “stand-point epistemology” especially in radical discourses.  Have your opinions express their contradictions and share them with society. And once you’ve established your opinions, then those in leadership will hopefully turn them into actions. Don’t be another statistic because you have the ability to change the world. Thus newspapers have a duty to create public discussion if serious problems/issues were going un-addressed. That is the role of opinion 
 They are like policy advisors and analysts at the same time. And most of them are likely to be more educated, knowledgeable and specialists in their respective fields than your average Presidential advisors, governors or even ministers. That is my message to Leeds University-educated Geingob.

Staff Reporter
2020-04-23 09:50:57 | 5 months ago

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