Land and housing practices in Namibia: cases of access to land rights and production of housing in Windhoek, Oshakati and Gobabis

Doctoral Thesis


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As in many other places, socio-spatial production in modern Namibia has been a top-down practice approached in professionalised and standards-oriented ways, focused on outputs. 'Participation’ or involvement of 'beneficiaries’ has over time been added to the repertoire of such practices, but this remains driven by a one-dimensional definition of what’s 'better’. Even when the modernist and centrally-controlled practice of Apartheid is generally condemned, its ways with regards to spatial production remain largely unquestioned and, by consequence, preserved and expanded. At the same time, the urban transformation that Namibia has seen in recent decades has been astonishing. These changes expose the limits of previous approaches and at the same time lay bare new openings for socio-spatial production. There are various practices that have been part of this urban transformation, but they remain largely undocumented. Furthermore, even when they are approached, they tend to be assessed in terms of their outcomes; relegating the ways of the process as a matter of lesser importance. My research accounts for three practices of socio-spatial production in three urban areas in Namibia today. These spaces have been the result of a considerable number of iterations, and have been made possible through the contribution of a wide array of participants; many of them performing beyond their 'main’ role. I have documented these practices from their beginnings up to the point in which they are today. My research is structured as a case study. Within it, I have undertaken semi-structured qualitative interviews with participants, and also employed maps, official documents, and photographs to triangulate the accounts. I have then brought these together with debates on co-production and autogestion, exploring whether the practices can be understood in these terms. Other subsidiary debates fundamentally related to these two are those on state and civil-society divisions; the nature of grassroots associations ('social movements’); and on-going and long-standing debates on land and housing. My analysis suggests that, while the way in which the practices take place varies greatly, they can be considered the sites of various kinds of innovation. I have also found that the 4 ways of the grassroots, while having legitimacy and equality as strong values, show new options in terms of representation. I have found that co-production, as understood in the more recent literature, is a useful way to understand the practices, particularly if a variety of strategies is recognised. Autogestion is a useful term to keep in mind, and although such term has some overlaps with the recent concepts of autogestion, only some understandings of the term stemming from practice enable a reading of the cases I document. The division between civil society and the state today consists of a constellation of parties not necessarily fitting in these two categories. The practices stand also as the more recent evidence within a trajectory of production of space undertaken through a social process involving the grassroots in Namibia, one in which visibility and participation are no longer the only aims, but where negotiation and some degree of autonomy is sought. Lastly, land ownership (real or perceived) emerges as a powerful force in making the process collective and enabling socio-spatial development. Land rights are exercised throughout, often irrespective of the degree of de jure tenure at stake. Housing becomes a devise for savings and resource mobilisation, as well as an income-generating activity sometimes enabling further livelihoods. My study adds to on-going debates on co-production, and to some extent to those on autogestion. For the first, it expands on earlier observations that brought the term to the socio-spatial realm and provides new openings for the term to establish bridges to other debates. It also contributes to the archive of socio-spatial practices in Namibia, and to the pending project of a socio-spatial history of the country. It provides new insights for those engaged in socio-spatial production of what are the experiences and the openings for a new kind of practice that moves away from the assumptions that have placed us in the urban crisis that characterises our times.