Demographics & the Ballot Box
In association with Nedbank.
As the Namibian voter base changes, so too do the pressures exerted on the political powers that be. In this regard, the country is fast approaching a tipping point where young, largely urbanized and unemployed or underemployed, aspirational, relatively educated voters (often housed in dense informal settlements) outweigh relatively less educated, largely older, rural voters. This trend was clearly seen in the 2019 elections, where urbanized voters showed a materially lower interest in the ruling party and its presidential candidate than seen at any time post-independence. This swing is deeply rooted in a classic “crisis of rising expectations” where people, particularly aspirational younger people, do not believe that “tomorrow will be better than today”, a view reinforced by the country’s current poor policy trajectory.
At the same time that youth unemployment has risen, we have seen a dramatic urbanization of the Namibian population, with the 2016 inter-census survey showing more of the population residing in urban areas than rural areas for the first time (55.2% from 28% urban at Independence). This migration is to be expected – young, aspirational and educated people have moved convincingly to the urban centres in order to search for economic opportunities to improve their lives.
The major rural-urban migration trend, and inefficiency in provision of services in most urban areas, has meant that much of this youthful population ends up residing in informal settlements, often in dense and un-serviced dwellings. Because of the urbanization and poor service delivery, 39.7% of the urban population lives in improvised housing (shacks), up from 6.4% of the population in 1991.
For the population as a whole, 26.6% now live in improvised houses, up from 7.1% in 1991, while traditional dwellings make up just 32.6% of houses, from 50.4% in 1991. Somewhat alarmingly, a marginally smaller percentage of the population lives in formal housing now (40.8%) than did so in 1991 (41.0%), illustrating the extent of poor service delivery, which is not only not able to keep up with demand for formal houses from population growth, but is woefully behind on providing access to and supply of this most basic service for the inevitable rural-urban migration.
At the same time, and largely linked to the country’s housing challenges (which are largely due to an undersupply of serviced land due to municipal monopolies in the land-servicing space), approximately 45% of the population has no access to toilet facilities, while 55% has no access to electricity. On the bright side, over 90% of the population has access to safe drinking water (up from 59% in 1991).
The election results were largely driven by this young, urbanized, group, who while relatively educated (particularly when compared to rural voters) and aspirational, experience crippling unemployment and poor basic service delivery from Government. At the same time, a classic “crisis of rising expectations” means that many in this demographic do not see the country as on the right course, and thus that improvement in the aforementioned service delivery, unemployment rate and similar, will not be forthcoming. In the south, voters showed reasonable support for the newly formed “Landless People’s Movement”, showing once again frustration with a lack of service delivery, and a lack of material progress with regards to the land reform process. Added to this, the “#Fishrot” corruption revelations that showed members of the political elite privatizing finite public resources for personal gain, while the public remain so under-served, appears to have sparked an unexpected outcry and urgency for change.
Going forward, as urbanization continues, and as the voter base becomes more “born free” (e.g. born around or post-independence), the urban centres and the youth vote will be substantially more influential. By our estimation, approximately 65% of the population will be urbanized by 2024, while 54.7% of the voting age population will be “born free”. If one includes persons born between 1982 and independence, this increases to 65.0% of the population.
At 65.5% of the votes cast, SWAPO lost approximately half of their 2014 majority. At 56.2%, President Geingob lost over 80% of the majority he commanded in 2014. Should the current trend of support continue, and should there be a credible opposition, SWAPO stands to lose the 2024 election, provided such is held in a free and fair manner. There is a material risk that the loss of support gains pace, should the economy continue to underperform and the perception of corruption within the party not be urgently addressed. While this is a risk to the legacy of Geingob, it is an existential risk to SWAPO, one largely unimaginable just five years ago.