A letter from the minister of urban and rural development, Erastus Uutoni to mayors and regional governors announced a ‘directive’ to develop urgent decongestion plans. This is a part of the fight against the spread of COVID-19.

Local political officials and appointees, likely without technical skills, must now do the job of the ministry. Assuming there are funds available, they must decongest (undefined) the impoverished peri-urban residential areas.

This is easier said than done.

The fact that land for residences can materialize out of nowhere in haste, points to something disturbing. If the ministry could provide basic land to house thousands of people now, then all the defensive excuses given in the past for not doing so, were disingenuous.

The anthem for decades has been that unused or under-utilized state land was not available for settlement. The emergence of land rights groups is because there were supposedly not enough plots available. Shacks erected on land that city councils had earmarked for income generating uses, are bulldozed and the people evicted. This is why the crowded, impoverished neighbourhoods sprang up in the first place.

The rise in COVID cases requires a new way of problem-solving. The ‘all-of-a-sudden’ rush to allocate land is long overdue.

However, we are concerned about the logistics required to make things happen. Sitting in Windhoek and issuing a ‘directive’ is not equal to rolling up your sleeves and making a plan.

The planning for ‘decongestion’ is being left to municipalities. They have been told to ‘just do it.’ The proper execution of this effort requires respect for the people and logistics. There must be a fair method of deciding who should be asked to ‘relocate’.

We imagine ‘decongestion’ actions that could involve the police or military beating random people who refuse to move. We can imagine armed men throwing their things in trucks and being forcibly removed like in apartheid times.

Cabinet must take care about civil rights and how the optics of the actions will appear to the public.

For such a ‘directive’, the devil will be in the details. It cannot be a local authority action – it is too complex. The line ministry must move fast to standardize the process. They must clear their plans with the attorney general and consult with local housing groups. The government must inform the people, give specific instructions to local authorities and then act quickly.

Where is the local information campaign about the program? Will the people be in tents in this winter cold? Will there be water, sanitation and electricity? Is there access to ground transportation? Taxi fare to jobs, schools, to buy food, go to the bank, or visit a clinic is a huge expense. Who is managing and mitigating these practical matters?

How safe will the move be? During the fire at Twaloloka, selfish opportunistic thugs stole the belongings of people who were fleeing the flames. Will people be protected during and after the move when they are most vulnerable?

The Windhoek Municipality has been ordered to make land instantly available. City council members say a spot is already identified and imply a move is imminent. Other members are raising procedural concerns saying meetings to debate the directive won’t take place for weeks. Both cannot be right.

So much for ‘directives.’

Another problem also looms. If people agree to move to a ‘temporary’ living place with better services, forget about this being a provisional relocation. Even if their shacks and living spots were still available (they will be usurped by erstwhile neighbours) once they abandon them, relocated families will not be willing (or be able to afford) to move back. Who would happily go back to crime ridden areas with no infrastructure and the constant threat of fire and other disasters?

Since this new land has materialized for free, will the flood gates open wider and speed up urban migration?

For health reasons, Namibia must make land available for permanent housing to thin out the jam-packed ghettos. Funds to service all informal settlements must become available with
an innovative but fair payment plans attached. Plots for purchase must also materialize on an urgent basis.

To implement the directives, we must not run around like termites when their mounds are kicked over. There must be dialogue, logistics, and organization. All of this must happen quickly.

Fast movement to decongest will have huge pitfalls. Will ministerial ‘directives’ help manage this or will they guarantee that we fall in?