Civic pride transforms park

2014-06-23 00:00

ONCE a hang-out for drug addicts and gangsters, a derelict inner city municipal park has been transformed into a recreational oasis — thanks to a city businessman’s vision and help from his friends.

The “before” picture tells the story of dereliction, filth and decay the park represented. Residents and shoppers in downtown Pietermaritz Street were constantly preyed on by muggers who hung around this open space.

A resident of a flat overlooking the park said there were assaults and robberies on a daily basis. He said drug dealers and prostitutes had turned the disused park into their haven and brazenly plied their trade.

Today, the revamped park tells a different story.

There are free tae bo classes on Saturdays. There are basketball and netball courts, and cricket and soccer pitches. Children play happily on a jungle gym and trampoline, while their mothers relax on the park benches provided.

The users don’t know how the transformation came about, but they are grateful for this safe recreational open space in the middle of the downtown inner city mayhem.

The Witness has discovered that they have businessman Shameer Malani to thank. Malani, who grew up in the downtown area, said the derelict state of the park had worried him. However, what jolted him into action were the anti-Indian sentiments of black business organisation Mayibuye African Forum.

“I started to think of things to do to make a visible difference and show that business people were not just taking from the community, but also giving back,” Malani said.

Then he had the idea of revamping the park and spoke to friends who agreed to support the project. They set up meetings with councillors and municipal representatives who bought into the idea. From then on it was focused attention and hard work. Each of the businesses involved gave R25 000 to the park fund, and all were actively involved in its clean-up and development.

One of the groups, the only one that did not grow up in Pietermaritzburg, designed the park. Amal Ma’ani and his son Naseem, who came to Pietermaritzburg from the United Kingdom, said they were inspired by the stories of Malani and others.

“We are not finished yet; there are still the gardens to lay out and we are working on a design to create tranquil areas within the park for the community to enjoy,” said Ma’ani.

The group meets every Saturday morning to work on the project. Those involved include Kara Nichas, Govender’s Garage, Honcho’s, Jabula Motors, Paint and Hardware, Halall Fresh Meats, Afzal Akoo and Company, Hugo’s Panel Shop and Paddy’s Fresh Produce. Security company KSA provides a free 24-hour security service for the park.

For those involved, the project is about civic pride and patriotism. Malani said it was time for residents to see themselves as part of the city.

“The way I see it, people are confused and see the city as not theirs, but belonging to the municipality. It is our city, it belongs to all of us. If you love your city and your country, then pick up the piece of paper lying on the ground, or better still, don’t drop it there in the first place,” he said.

The project is also about leaving a legacy for the future and building better race relations. Malani said the park was open to everybody.

“We have people coming in from surrounding areas to do their shopping; they can stop here and relax. This is why we decided to call the park the Mandela Central Park. We could have called it the Gandhi Park or given it any other name, but we chose Mandela Park because this is a name that brings unity to our country,” he said.

Malani said the custodian of the park was Islamia Primary School so that schools in the downtown area could use the facilities for their sporting activities.

The project group have several plans up their sleeve. They want to provide toilets, because they believe that it is a huge indignity that people come into the city to shop from the surrounding rural areas do not have adequate ablution facilities. They are also lobbying for the municipality to reinstate the electricity and water supply to the park.

Malani hopes to have a Speaker’s Corner as well as other activities that will develop a sense of community.

The group have been so inspired by their achievements so far that they are keen to address the Berg Street swimming pool that has also fallen into a state of ruin. Above all, they are hoping to inspire others to start similar projects.

For Bablo Kara Nicha, his involvement is motivated by civic pride. “If we want our city to look better, we can form groups and start similar initiatives.”

For Malani, the experience has been humbling. “All we are doing is looking after our city,” he said.

For more pictures of the park and users’ reactions, go to page 9.

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