Does it take fire and the death of yet another baby in a shack to get things moving? In the midst of the fiery cataclysm on Sunday night in Twaloloka at pandemic slammed Walvis Bay, one can only say, “when it rains, it pours.” It reiterates the problem that tin shack suburbs are social, political and actual powder kegs. In dealing with such situations, the government seems to be constantly on the back foot; being reactive instead of proactive.

It is a curious coincidence that the fire area, Twaloloka, was in the midst of planned ‘thinning out’ action by local authorities in an attempt to battle the fast-paced spread of the pandemic. The lack of budget means that low-cost housing development is unaffordable.

Strangely, the video clip of the fire circulating on social media seemed to pick up someone ululating in the background as the fire raged. Then, we read reports of people organizing to burn shacks that were across the road bisecting Twaloloka that had been saved from the raging inferno. A resident reported hearing, “…people wanted to burn the whole of Twaloloka down.” This could well be emotional chatter and coincidence. Officials are still investigating the situation.

Government must try harder to pre-empt potential dangers and not just react when the impossible happens. People leave their rural homes and choose to travel to tin shack suburbs outside of major cities. They are in search of jobs, services and to be with relatives that have jobs. They want whatever ‘better life’ they imagine living ‘in town’ to be. Most of them are grossly disappointed when they face the reality of the dangerous, impoverished and insanitary life in peri-urban areas. But, by then, they are stuck in the endless cycle of destitution of urban poverty.

Urban migration is largely due to the low level of development in rural areas. It is a function of poor service delivery in those same places. These facts are well-known. Unlike when the white supremacist apartheid laws ruled Namibia, all people are free to move where they choose. With freedom, comes responsibility. Migrants who decide to move to tin shack suburbs usually have no water, no electricity, no services, rough roads, sporadic police, limited healthcare, rampant crime, no fire brigades and now, COVID-19. What have we done to alleviate this conundrum?

Who pays for the services needed by citizens who pay no income tax and choose to squat on land they do not own and build their shacks illegally? As citizens and according to the millennium development goals, they have a right to proper housing and services. And yet, they cannot afford it. The country cannot afford to provide it for them. What is the solution?

Imagine for a moment that the stolen Fishrot money was available to set up a proper police and fire unit for areas like Twaloloka? We have to start making these connections to remind everyone of the cost of massive corruption in an economy that is already in crisis.

Will government look harder at the black hole of free public housing (a necessary evil?) or incentive plans for people to stay home (BIG only available in rural areas)? Namibia must find a way to be proactive, creative, innovative and willing to take social risks to find a humane housing solution.

Of course, the pandemic has side-tracked everything in Namibia, low cost housing included. Some sympathy for the strain on government capacity and resources is in order. But, clearly, we cannot continue as we are.

The N$20 million that materialized from nowhere to service plots in Walvis Bay after the tragedy, is a great step. But, is it sending the message that money can be found only after there is a huge, deadly, destructive fire? The real question is how government can provide subsidized housing during an economic depression. During the pandemic, there will be no answer. As things return to a new normal, housing must rocket to the top of the list of problems to be solved.

Being reactive stokes frustration. Being proactive makes people feel served.