This presentation was made during the Makhanda Community Forum session on 26 June 2020: ‘Back to business – Makhanda post-Covid-19’.
Thank you RMR, GM, NAF, Upstart and Rhodes School of Journalism and Media Studies for inviting me and hosting this initiative. I am here as a representative of business, but certainly don’t speak on behalf of business – the are other forums that do that (Grahamstown Business Forum, Makana Revive, GRA and others.) I also speak as a citizen of the town, and not on behalf of my employer.
The fact that we are having this discussion means that we do indeed have a problem, and we do need to get back to business post covid – that is for sure.
Without dwelling on the issues facing us we do need to acknowledge that there is a long list of problems: potholes, donkeys, cattle, rubbish in the streets, and not being collected, water, Eskom bills, court cases, property values, excessive rates, and one of my personal favorites the PWD employees supposedly cleaning the town, costing taxpayers in excess of R1m per month. I’ll come back to this.
One of the key issues is that we need City Hall to fulfill its constitutional mandate, rather than its political mandate. The courts have found this to be a problem. Sadly, there appears to be no political will to address these issues.
Solutions: Tourism, investment/property, cleaning the town
When we look for solutions they are in fact not hard to find. Let’s look at a few examples of towns that work, and I have chosen three as reference points: Graaff-Reinet, Plettenberg Bay and Clarens in the Free State. For the record, to my knowledge they are all ANC-run towns. None has a university, none has top independent schools, or a National Arts Festival, none has a High Court and none has anything like the history we have. Yet the towns are spotless – no potholes, donkeys and cattle in the streets.
So, what do we find in these towns?
We find well run municipalities where people do their jobs: the cleaners clean the town, for example, and here is the issue: they attract tourists and business. And this brings job creation.
In Clarens, for around half of each week throughout the year, you cannot get a place in a restaurant without a booking. This is a small town without half of our resources, and yet the restaurants are full. Think of the jobs that go with that.
The region around Makhanda attracts international tourists on an impressive scale, who are willing to pay top dollar to be here. Yet very few spend time in Makhanda. So, they’re not supporting our businesses, eating in our restaurants and helping to create jobs.
Imagine if we could get half the international visitors to spend just two days in Makhanda: it would transform our city. There is a direct link between tourism and job creation.
In Graaff-Reinet and Plett, the towns are immaculate, and unsurprisingly property prices have held up very well compared to Makhanda.
There was a time not long ago that our city was thriving: think of the period 2000 to 2010 – the university was growing and attracting students, the town was growing with a booming construction sector (major employment), and business was being attracted, state schools filled to capacity and independent schools grew their numbers significantly – and they all invested in the city. By the way, this was also the time where private game reserves were opening and attracting business and tourists.
This resulted in a successful property sector, and what happens when property prices rise over time: it creates a ‘wealth effect’ which means that if you feel more wealthy, you are more willing to invest and spend. More spending results in more economic activity, more business and more jobs. And more than this the municipality is able to collect more rates – and that allows them to do more fully execute their constitutional mandate: namely to deliver services.
Sadly, the past 10 years have seen the reverse: no growth in property values in Makhanda, and consequentially negative ‘wealth effect’, general disinvestment, despondency and job losses.
We need to get this right.
Cleaning the town
I am very convinced that we could clean our town (east and west) in a matter of months. We have over 1 000 Public Works contractors supposedly cleaning up. Think about it, dear fellow citizens – 1 000 people. That is in addition to the many municipal employees, and a number of private sector initiatives to clean up. How come our town is a mess?
Surely if we took the 1 000 people and had 10 teams of 100 we could clean up a township residential block in a week? We would need the co-operation of the muni to ride the refuse away, but surely it is doable? We then leave one person to train that block on refuse management and the 99 go on to the next block, and so on and so forth. Why is this not happening? Do we simply not care? Is it a lack of political will?
This will require energy and effort, but surely it is worth it?
Fortunately we have an active civil society in Makhanda, and please allow me to mention some of the gems of our city: Gadra Education is simply astonishing, the Rhodes University Community Engagement and the ADC do amazing work, the various service clubs like Rotary and others; Makana Brick, Carrara Agro and other business are constantly supporting the upliftment of the town, and Makana Revive and GRA make a significant contribution to improving our city. In addition, we have a number of civic initiated feeding schemes helping the destitute. Our citizens do care.
But let me remind you that the resources lie in City Hall: they collect the rates and taxes, and are elected and mandated to run the town. The problems fall squarely on their shoulders.
So, let me conclude by saying this: and I do so with deference to the great man Martin Luther King: I have a dream.
I have a dream to live in a city that is well governed by the city leaders, that is immaculately clean, and safe and that cares for its citizens.
I have a dream that our city will be a good corporate citizen, it will deliver services to its people, charge fair rates and taxes, it will pay its bills, and importantly stay out of the courts.
I have a dream that our city will attract business and tourism, and prioritise sustainable job creation.
I have a dream to live in such a city, and you know what: that would be ‘a great place to be’ as the Makana slogan claims!
- The opinions expressed here were made in Anton Vorster’s personal capacity. We publish them here at the request of readers. ‘Back to business’ was the third in the Makhanda Community Forums organised by RMR89.7, Grocott’s Mail, the National Arts Festival, Upstart and the Rhodes School of Journalism and Media Studies, and hosted by Rhodes Music Radio’s Raymond Mojapelo.