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Country Portrait Namibia: Country Portrait of the Development of Namibia’s Social Welfare and Social Work Systems

Dr. Rachel Freeman, Priscilla A. Gibson

Publication date 2020-11-10


  1. 1 Abstract
  2. 2 Country Portrait: Data on Namibia
    1. 2.1 Basic data on the population, expenses and debts
    2. 2.2 Social issues
  3. 3 Overview of Namibia’s Political and Socio-economic Context
  4. 4 History and Cultural Influences
    1. 4.1 The Indigenous human service systems in the pre-colonial era of Namibia
    2. 4.2 Indigenous Human Services in Namibia
    3. 4.3 Role of Indigenous Human Service Systems in an independent Namibia
  5. 5 Contextualization of Social Work in Namibia
  6. 6 Contextualization of Social Welfare and Social Work in Namibia
    1. 6.1 Social Welfare policies during the South African Colonial Era
      1. 6.1.1 The legal Social Welfare system during the Colonial Rule
      2. 6.1.2 Social Work as a Scientific Discipline
  7. 7 Social Welfare and Social Work Systems in an Independent Namibia
    1. 7.1 Post independent
  8. 8 Recent development in social service and social work
    1. 8.1 International Networking
    2. 8.2 Context of Social Protection
    3. 8.3 Current Issues and Challenges
  9. 9 Literature

1 Abstract

This chapter provides an overview of the Government of the Republic of Namibia (GRN)’s social welfare framework and social work systems using a social development lens. It critically traces the transformations of the traditional indigenous helping system imposed by colonial rule to the current social protection system developed by an independent government. It also includes a discussion of the successes and challenges faced by this young country given its history of colonialization. It also includes a discussion of the successes and challenges faced by this young country given its history of colonialization, but current stable government.

2 Country Portrait: Data on Namibia

2.1 Basic data on the population, expenses and debts

  Year Amount/%
1.1 Population 2020 2.53 million
1.2 Household Consumption 2019 $ 9.5 billion
1.3 Education expenditure 2014/2015 9.2 % of GDP
1.4 GDP 2019 $ 12.367 billion
1.5 Health expenditure 2017 8.5 % of GDP
1.6 General Government Gross Debts 2018 45.79 % of GDP
1.7 Unemployment 2016 34 %
1.8 Average per capita income in NAD 2016 69 279

Table 1: Data on the Population, Expenses and Debts

Sources of information on the above include:

1.8 Schade, La & Pick (2019)

2.2 Social issues

2.1 Receivers of social welfare Year %
2.1.1 Social protection 2019 13 % of GDP
2.1.2 Help with care 2016/17 4.5 % of GDP
2.1.3 Poverty rate 2019 17.4 %
2.1.4 Gini coefficient 2015/16 0.57
2.1.5 Human development index 2017 0.647

Source: Schade, La & Pick, 2019

2.2 Child and Youth welfare Year Amount/%
2.2.1 Beneficiaries of child grants 2017 306,555
2.2.2 Beneficiaries of school feeding programme 2017 365,854
2.2.3 Social Welfare Services for families and children as share of total budget 2017 0.03 %

Source: Schade, La & Pick, 2019

3 Overview of Namibia’s Political and Socio-economic Context

Namibia, formerly called German South West Africa, has a proud tradition of weathering adversities as showed by its ability to maintain a stable self-government (Schade, La, & Pick, 2019) despite years of colonization by Germany and later, South Africa. Many would say that Namibia is the only African country colonized by another African country, South Africa, while others would emphasize South Africa’s role as an administrator of the territory mandated by the League of Nations (Tyson, 2008). Yet, none would deny the devastating influence of Apartheid with its inherent oppression that is characteristic of colonialism. Having attained its independence on 21 March 1990, this relatively young country, Namibia, has achieved many successes and continues to deal with numerous challenges. Yet, it is fitting to spotlight Namibia in its 30th years of independence. A social development lens guides this article. We address the question: What factors historically and currently support or hinder the social development of Namibia from colonial rule to independence? Specifically, it presents a critical discussion on selected aspects of these factors on the lives of Namibians and their future.

4 History and Cultural Influences

Namibia can be described as an upper middle-income state (Jauch & Kaapama, 2011). Despite its comprehensive social protection features, it has a wide income gap (Schade, La & Pick, 2019). At independence, Namibia strived to develop social welfare provisions within its new constitution that is based on liberal democracy. It has a democratic government based in rule of law and solidarity. Chapter three of the Namibian Constitution of the Republic of Namibia, which deals with human rights and freedom, commits the Republic of Namibia to the welfare of its citizens (Republic of Namibia Constitution, 1990). Therefore, it can be logically assumed that social justice and human rights are infused in the philosophical underpinning of the welfare for Namibia’s citizens. Thus, the country signed and ratified several African and international conventions to advance human rights and human dignity, which emphasized democratic participation and social justice (Freeman, 2011). This strategy prompted not only the wellbeing of Namibians, but also a strong message that vulnerable and marginalized groups will be protected.

Namibia is often called Africa’s last colony (Witt, 1990). It developed from its former status as a Colony to a contemporary independent country in five distinct stages: (a) the pre-colonial era (1400-1800); (b) the Christian Missionary Era (1805-1840); (c) the German rule (1884 -1915); (d) the South African rule (1915-1990) and (e) post-colonial period (1990-present) (Kamwanyah, 2016). These stages are important because of depicting the various transformations and development of the country’s socio-political roots, foundations, fundamental policies and processes of social welfare and social work systems. These can be critically examined through historical periods of social welfare and social work.

4.1 The Indigenous human service systems in the pre-colonial era of Namibia

Kamwanyah (2016) writes that Namibia’s traditional indigenous system of social welfare and human services has been totally dismantled by contact with Christian missionaries between 1805 and 1840 and later, German rule from 1884 to 1915. This disruption, forced by foreign rule and domination, was accompanied by undermining the provision of indigenous social welfare and human services. It also left a legacy of the Christian Churches’ (Roman Catholic, Evangelical Lutheran, etc.) method of social welfare in Namibia that continues in certain forms currently. This legacy is evidenced by over 90 % of Namibians subscribing to the Christian faith as Anglicans, Lutherans, Roman Catholics, African Methodist Episcopalians (AME) Orora, Seventh Day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Dutch Reformed Church and Pentecostal (Diescho, 2014).

Inhabitants during this period (indigenous helping system) had developed an indigenous welfare and social work system that was not only functional, but also fit with being in harmony with nature (Kamwanyah, 2016). For example, the San people, the first inhabitants, developed a system of migration within the country to sustain their need for food, water and protection. Their culture operated under a conservationist/collective framework. It included a non-materialistic view and supported the care and wellbeing of their group (Kamwanyah, 2016). 

Social welfare services by the German and South African colonial systems were rendered under a pathological view of the inhabitants, who were seen as having personal and moral failings (Kamwanyah, 2016). According to Kamwanyah (2016), the structural and institutional contributing factors were overlooked and the provision of welfare services was congruent with a focus on individualistic and symptom-driven problems. These formed the foundation of social work services that is closely associated with colonialism and South Africa’s rules in the provision of human services. Under this system, the indigenous helping system that supported the diversity within the 11 ethnic groups was ignored in favor of a more systemized generalization of assistance (Kamwanyah, 2016).

An interrelated factor was that the education that was strongly evangelized through spiritual services and medical services to those in poverty. These services resulted in their recipients being more amenable to the missionary’s Christian theology, including its value system. Thus, the ground was fertile for both German settlers and South Africans to further dismantle the indigenous system of human services (Kamwanyah, 2016). The colonial social welfare and social work systems with a strong Christian influence were deeply rooted in the legacy of apartheid. Consequently, the social welfare system and social work inherited from the apartheid South African colonial administration lacked inclusiveness and the promotion of well-being of all Namibians (Kamwanyah, 2016).

4.2 Indigenous Human Services in Namibia

This period was characterized by a communal ethos with respect for elders and agricultural successes. Along with the Khosian, the Bantu developed a stateless existence with counseling from elders and a close relationship with God (Kamwanyah, 2016). Although, like in South Africa, many welfare policies during the South African rule did not specifically exclude Blacks, rather the government’s allocation of welfare resources was based on racial differentiation with the “white” administration on top of all others. The South African apartheid rule, divided Namibia into 11 ethnic administration departments, where whites had their own administration, followed by the coloured administration and various black ethnic group administrations. For example, Bernstein and Gray (1997) state that public assistance was not provided to Black Africans even if they qualified for such assistance.

While under the South African Apartheid Regime, South-West Africa was considered a fifth Province of South Africa, and rendered services to all ethnic groups (Rose-Junius, 2016). The Department of Welfare and Pensions in South Africa had a branch office in Windhoek in 1969. During the same time a Department of Bantu Administration and Development was establish for Blacks in Windhoek. A separate Department of Social Welfare was established, but with sub-departments to serve different ethnic groups, and again in 1980, a Directorate of National Health and Welfare was establish to coordinate social services (Rose-Junius, 2016). In the ethnic administrations, social workers were appointed to serve their own ethnic groups and had to develop social services related to the culture and tradition of the specific group. Social workers started working within the culture of the eleven different ethnic groups, which resulted in unequal distribution and welfare benefits according to racial designation. For example, a coloured family received R200-00 foster grant per child, foster care grant for a black child was R25-00 per month (Rose-Junius, 2016). 

The end of colonial rule in 1990 left Namibia with fragmented social welfare and social work systems and disrupted traditional and indigenous systems and institutions of social welfare provision. Hunt (2009) states that families were fragmented and traditional values, and support systems eroded. The most vulnerable groups such as, the sick, the elderly and grieving orphans could no longer rely on immediate family members to provide for them.

4.3 Role of Indigenous Human Service Systems in an independent Namibia

Since independence, Namibia has made great strides in promoting the social well-being of its people. In fact, it is often heralded as one of Africa’s greatest success stories for its stable democracy, peace, and stability and progressive social welfare policies and institutions (Kamwanya, 2016). This enormous socio-economic progress has been accompanied by equally vital changes in the social welfare field in terms of systems and organizational structure; the size of social work professional membership; the educational systems of all professions in the human service; the sophistication of their practice, methodologies and social work as a profession within this wide ambit of socio-economic development (Kamwanyah, 2016).

5 Contextualization of Social Work in Namibia

The country has recorded steady economic growth over the last two decades, despite high levels of unemployment, poverty and inequalities. This social inequality, which has historical roots, contributes to a high rate of unemployment, poverty and lack of access to primary healthcare among many Namibians. To this effect Jauch, Edwards and Cupido (2011) attribute inequality in present day Namibia to the South African colonial regime, which left Namibia with a highly dualistic society, comprised of the extremely rich and the extremely poor.

Currently, social workers are responsible for the provision of social welfare and social work services under the tenets of improving the quality of life and social well-being of vulnerable people (Freeman, 2016). The profession social work as a concept is concerned with people in societies with particular needs across all ages, classes, religious and ethnic groups. It serves the needs of society. In this context, social workers perform their roles within a human rights framework, which promotes the social and economic empowerment of clients with emphasis on collaboration at the micro, meso and macro levels of interactions and interventions (Patel, 2005). It is practiced both in a generic and specialized way, since the focus is on broad social problems, such as poverty, gender-based violence and alcohol abuse, among others.

6 Contextualization of Social Welfare and Social Work in Namibia

Social welfare and social work in Namibia have undergone various changes influenced by the country’s socio-political landscape, ranging from the pre-colonial period, Christian Missionary Era, the colonial era and post-colonial. They played essential roles in the transformation and development of a Namibian social welfare and social work system and are discussed under the lens of the indigenous human service systems in each era (Kamwanyah, 2016).

6.1 Social Welfare policies during the South African Colonial Era

6.1.1 The legal Social Welfare system during the Colonial Rule

Rose-Junius (2016) notes that South West Africa was based on the South African Legal System and the Roman Dutch Law. There were some acts (also called Ordinances) available to regulate welfare service. The main statutes governing the work of social welfare services were: the National Social Welfare Act, Act No.25 of 1956; the National Welfare Act; Act No. 79 of 1965; the Act on the Prevention and Treatment of Alcoholism and Ant-Social Behaviour, 1965 (Rose-Junius, 2016). These regulated “friendly societies”, which are associations of persons established to provide relief to children, the aged, the sick, widows and so forth. The National Welfare Act, Act No.79 of 1965, as amended in South Africa, established a National Welfare Board, which provided for the registration and control of certain welfare organizations (National Welfare Act, Act No.79 of 1965). The Aged Persons Act, Act No. 81 of 1967 provided for the protection and welfare of certain aged and debilitated persons (Aged Persons Act, Act No. 81 of 1967). The Blind Persons Act, Act No. 26 of 1968 concerned the promotion of the welfare of blind persons. The Criminal Procedures Act, Act No 51, 1977 and the Children’s Act, Act No. 33 of 1960, were some of the legal statutes governing the court system and the total social welfare scene during the colonial rule (Rose-Junius, 2016).

6.1.2 Social Work as a Scientific Discipline

Aisindi (2013) explains that the social work profession has developed as a scientific discipline since the early 1950s. At this time, Churches mainly facilitated and carried out social work. During the 1950s specific social services were established by the Churches and Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) (Maree, 2011). The Dutch Reformed Church introduced social work as a profession for the first time.

The Roman Catholic along with the Lutheran, Anglican and various other denominations were more involved in all ethnic/tribal groups who needed some form of assistance (Rose-Junius, 2016). This system changed after independence when the Catholic AIDS Action (CAA) became the leader in the field of home-based care addressing HIV and AIDS in the country. It was also the Catholic Church, who, over time, built hospitals and brought doctors and nurses, mostly nuns from Germany to serve in towns and in the most remote areas of the country. The Catholic and Lutheran denominations, having the financial support of Germany, played leading roles in building schools and hostels to secure education, specifically for the families who could not afford school fees and accommodation away from their places of residence.

7 Social Welfare and Social Work Systems in an Independent Namibia

Freeman (2017) narrates that shortly after independence in 1990, political transformation was experienced at all levels as well as in the fields of social welfare and social work systems. The Namibian government committed to a constitutional responsibility in the establishment of a Ministry of Health and Social Services (MHSS). MHSS employed social workers (who were qualified persons with a four year Bachelor’s Degree) and social welfare workers (persons who did not obtain a matriculation certificate, but had minimum requirement of standard 8 (grade 10 certificate) although a matriculation certificate was preferred.) They were from all ethnic groups tasked with providing social welfare services. The Namibian social welfare and social work landscape shifted from a clinical approach to broader issues of nation building and socio-economic development. This arrangement created many challenges and issues including (a) managing social services nationwide, (b) time consuming consultations, and (c) lengthy report writing (Freeman, 2017).

7.1 Post independent

Namibia is lauded as “one of the most comprehensive social protection systems in Africa” (Schade, La & Pick, 2019:3). This positive reputation was gained on basis of several steps. After its independence, the government re-organised social welfare services and consolidated it with a comprehensive mandate to the Ministry of Health and Social Services (Freeman, 2017). The MHSS addresses the inequalities and discrimination in access to services in meeting the basic needs of people through a social development approach. The Namibian Constitution (1990) provides a strong backdrop for equal access to social welfare and social work services. In addition, the government also developed the National Development Plans (NDP), which also place social welfare provision at the center of service-delivery. At present, the government instituted various governmental ministries and departments, and social workers currently work in a number of them (Freeman, 2017).

Institutions Functions
Ministry of Labour and Social Welfare To administer pension grants and provide a foundation of social protection on the principles of solidarity for workers and their dependents.
Ministry of Gender Equality and Child Welfare To promote and protect the well-being of children below the age of 18 years.
Ministry of Poverty Reduction and Social Service To focus on eradicating poverty
Ministry of War Veterans To address vital social welfare needs in the country.

8 Recent development in social service and social work

There have been several legal reforms aimed at addressing current social problems in Namibia. The problems are gender inequalities, gender based violence; poverty in strengthening social protection, lack of care co-ordination, underdevelopment and economic inequality (Freeman, 2017). For example, legal reforms include the Local Authorities Act, Act No. 23 of 1992, which applied affirmative action for women to participate in local government elections. The Labour Act, Act No 6 of 1992 prohibits discrimination in any respect of employment on basis of sex, marital status, family responsibilities and sexual orientation. The Married Persons Equality Act, Act 1 of 1996 eliminates the discriminatory Roman-Dutch law concept of marital power previously applicable to civil marriages in Namibia. With the shocking levels of gender-based violence in Namibia, the Parliament passed the Combating of Rape Act, Act 8 of 2000, a very progressive law. Law reform on rape, followed by the Combating of Domestic Violence Act, Act No. 4 of 2003 covers a range of forms of domestic violence, including sexual violence, harassment, intimidation, economic violence and psychological violence. It also covers violence between husbands and wives, parents and children, boyfriends and girlfriends and close family members. Another major family law reform was the Maintenance Act, Act No.9 of 2003, which made significant changes to the child maintenance system. The Children’s Status Act, Act No. 6 of 2006, deals with the position of children born outside of marriage and provides simple procedures for appointing a guardian for any child whose legal custodian or guardian has died (Freeman, 2017). All these law reforms show that Namibia is seriously committed to improve the quality of life and well-being of its citizens.

8.1 International Networking

Namibia, already in 1997, adopted a social development focus, which is in line with the UN Copenhagen Agreement (United Nations, 2013) that set its agenda and objectives for the developmental of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) (United Nations, 2013). It was signatory to several UN Conventions and Charters, such as, the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, with no reservations. Regionally, Namibia has also adopted the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa. In order to combat the social challenges facing Namibia, the government introduced free primary health care, no-fee paying schooling and social grants.

 In 2004, Namibia recognized the role of social work in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (Republic of Namibia, 2004) and passed the Social Work and Psychology Act, Act No. 6 of 2004. This Act makes provision for the establishment of a constitution for a professional council of social work and the psychology professions. This is known as the Health Professions Council of Namibia (HPCN) (Republic of Namibia, 2004). This Act determines the powers, duties and functions of the HPCN. It has the responsibilities to regulate the registration of persons practicing social work, psychology, nursing and of persons practicing allied professions; to set out the ethical code of conduct, specify the education, tuition, training and qualifications of practitioners; prohibit the practicing of such professions without being registered; and provides for matters incidental thereto.

8.2 Context of Social Protection

Namibia’s comprehensive system of social protection was developed to serve the needs of vulnerable groups (Schade, La & Pick, 2019). They include children, the elderly, those in poverty and people with disabilities. Other groups are people with life-limiting illnesses such as, HIV and those affected by AIDS in need of care, the youth in conflict with the law, and families (Freeman, 2017). Social protection services have been effective in reducing Namibia’s high unemployment rate, yet Schade, et al. (2019) caution that it is limited, especially if one considers Namibia’s low economic growth.

8.3 Current Issues and Challenges

One of the social and economic challenges facing Namibia is finding ways to share the prosperity equally among groups across the county (Schade, et al., 2019). These authors list problems such as, high unemployment, low growth, high debt levels and weak revenues and persistent poverty that social protection was designed to mitigate. Namibia also would benefit from a better information system.

Namibia also faces a human resource crisis in the public health sector. This is characterized by a shortage of healthcare professionals. There are high vacancy rates for all categories of staff, high attrition rates (mostly due to resignations), lack of a human resources retention strategy and staff burn?out (and incomplete implementation of the Employee Assistance Programme). In addition, there are inadequate capacities at local health and social academic institutions to produce the required number of needed health workers (Ministry of Health and Social Services, 2014). There are three health workers per 1,000 population in Namibia which is above the World Health Organization’s (WHO) recommendation of 2.5 health workers per 1000 population (Ministry of Health and Social Services, 2014). Namibia has a critical shortage of social workers split in various government institutions, NGO’s and Faith-Based Organisations as well as the few in private practices (Ministry of Health and Social Services, 2014). Most recently, President Hage Geingob developed the Harambee Prosperity Plan, which focused on reducing poverty and wealth redistribution (Schade, et al., 2019).

9 Literature

Aisindi J. 2013. The Marginal Social Worker. Exploring how Namibian social work students perceived and implement knowledge from a study exchange in Sweden.MA thesis. Linnaeus University Sweden. Department of social work.

Bernstein, A & Gray, M. 1997. Social Work, a beginner’s text. M. Juta and Company Ltd. Kenwyn, South Africa.

Diescho J. 2014. The role of the church in Namibia. Diescho’s Dictum, New Era, Windhoek.

Freeman, R.J. 2017. Social workers’ perspectives of their role in providing palliative care to patients with life-limiting illnesses: A Qualitative Study among Social Workers in Primary Care Settings in Namibia. UNISA Website:

Freeman, R. J., Luyirika, E. B. K., Namisango, E & Kiyange, F. 2016. Interventions geared towards strengthening the health system of Namibia through the integration of palliative care. Journal for Ecancer Medical Science. 10 :653. doi: 10.3332/ecancer.2016.653. (Available at Ecancer Website: &

Freeman, R.J. (2010).MA Dissertation on Working Women’s Perceptions of Power, Gender-Based Violence and HIV-Infection Risks: An Exploratory Study Among Female Employees in an Airline Business. UNISA Website:

Hunt, J. 2009. Family carers in resource-poor countries. In P. Hudson & S. Payne (Eds.), Family carers in palliative care (pp.73-92). Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

Jauch, H., Edwards, L & Cupido, B. 2011. Inequality in Namibia. In: Jauch, H & Muchena, D. (ed.) Tearing us apart: Inequalities in South Africa. Available: files/chapter 3-Namibia pdf [Accessed 21 February 2018].

Jauch, H. & Kaapama, P. 2011. Social justice and the responsibility of the state: The triple burden of poverty, inequality and unemployment in Southern Africa. Windhoek: Friedrich- Ebert Stiftung.

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Maree, M. 2011. 1st Year Student Social Work Class Powerpoint Presentation on: History of Social Work in Namibia. 25 March 2011.

Namibian Demographic and Health Survey. 2014. Namibia Statistics Agency, Windhoek, Namibia.

Patel, L. 2005. Social welfare and social development in South Africa. Cape Town: Oxford.

Republic of Namibia. 1990. Constitution of the Republic of Namibia. Windhoek: Government of Namibia Printers.

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Schade, K. La, J. & Pick, A. (2019). Financing Social Protection in Namibia. SOECD Development Policy. OECD Development Policy Papers April 2019 – No. 19. Retrieved at

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Witt, H. (1990, March 21). Africa’s Last Colony Becomes Independent, Chicago Tribune. %20gained,over%20the%20territory%20of%20Namibia.

Written by
Rachel Freeman Dr. Rachel Freeman
PhD in Sociology,
MA in Social Behaviour Studies in Sociology,
BA/Diploma in Social Work
Senior Lecturer: Social Work, Humanities and Social Sciences
University of Namibia

Dr. Freeman is also International Exchange Coordinator for the social work Staff and Student Mobility programmes between USA, UK and other European universities in the UNAM Social Work Department. She is inspired by the motto of Dr Nelson Mandela: “Education is the most powerful weapon, which can be used to change the world”.

Priscilla A. Gibson Priscilla A. Gibson
Professor, School of Social Work, College of Education and Human Development
University of Minnesota – Twin Cities.
Fulbright Professor, 2020
Department of Social Work,
University of Namibia,
Windhoek, Namibia

Prof. Gibson conducts research and has published many articles on intergenerational caregiving, health and healing for women of color, social justice issues and out-of-school suspensions.

Cite this publication
Freeman, Rachel and Priscilla A. Gibson, 2020. Country Portrait Namibia: Country Portrait of the Development of Namibia’s Social Welfare and Social Work Systems In: socialnet International [online]. 2020-11-10. Retrieved 2023-03-20 from

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