Damaging impressions

2014-06-18 00:00

WHAT makes a capital city worthy of the honour?

Is it enough simply to be the seat of legislative power or is there more to it? I think there’s a lot more to it and among the many ingredients that make a capital worthy of the mantel is that the city should seep with pride at its honoured and central position in the affairs of its region.

Now, as I write this, I have to ask you: do you think Pietermaritzburg is a true capital?

It’s a question that I’ve been pondering since a conversation I had with a visiting business delegation from Poland one evening last week at a Pietermaritzburg Chamber of Business dinner.

The group was in South Africa for a lightning tour, looking for business opportunities on a trip that took in Johannesburg, Durban, Nelspruit and Pietermaritzburg. Included in the delegation were some significant players from Eastern Europe, including a leading white-goods manufacturer from Poland and a major bus maker, among others.

In my conversations with a number of the delegation it was clear that they had hit the ground looking for real options as they look further afield to markets with a bit more life in them than many of their traditional markets offer. This was no sight-seeing trip.

But one conversation over dinner rocked me back in my chair. A delegate, representing Amica, the massive Polish white-goods maker, was amazed that Pietermaritzburg was the provincial capital. “You must be joking,” she said over the butternut soup. She was, quite frankly, shocked at the state of the city she saw during a visit to the CBD earlier that day. She was disgusted at the litter and rubbish she saw on the streets, the general state of the buildings and environment.

Why would anyone invest here, she asked, when there was Durban only 40 minutes down the road? The delegation had visited — and were, in fact, staying overnight in Durban — and had been hugely impressed with the city, its infrastructure and its general offering.

You can’t put a value on the damage caused by a potential investor walking away with such a negative impression of Pietermaritzburg. It’s not good enough to call yourself a capital — you have to act and present yourself as one too.

Investors couldn’t care less about what we say about our city. They care about what they see and come to their own conclusions.

Litter-lined gutters, potholed streets, informal slums on the CBD’s doorsteps and dodgy electrical infrastructure all offer an overwhelming sense of a second-rate city, not a provincial champion. And it’s most certainly not a “City of Choice” in their eyes.

We could shrug our shoulders and dismiss our visitor’s critique, but for me that dinner conversation illustrated that a perception of decay has a real consequence beyond infuriating the people who live their lives in the city.

By now you may be slumped in depression at the breakfast table, but we can turn this downbeat tale into a good story.

Our indefatigable Witness Warrior, Nalini Naidoo, knows better than most how the state of the city environment grates residents and ratepayers. Her inbox is filled each week with complaints about the state of the city.

She recently offered her advice to Msunduzi Mayor Chris Ndlela about what she thought needed to be the city’s priority in this new financial year — getting Pietermaritzburg spick and span.

Nalini’s argument is that this is something we should do together: citizens, business and city officials. Through Witness Warriors she’s offered to take in suggestions and to monitor clean-up initiatives and to make sure that things keep moving in the right direction.

Today, I want to throw The Witness formally behind a drive to clean up our city. Together we can turn the tide.

This does not need a billion-rand budget. It needs a bunch of people pulling together in the same direction and a good dose of civic pride — and that’s the one thing that Maritzburg has in buckets.

The city has the resources, and I’m sure it has the will, to make this happen. This is an issue we don’t need to fight about; it’s a challenge we can conquer together.

So, if you have ideas on how to turn this around, let us know. If you are involved already in doing something, drop us a line and we’ll make sure your work is celebrated and your ideas are shared.

Mr Mayor, I know people say that you don’t read The Witness , but I don’t believe them. I hope you read this and know we can work together on this issue.

I’m sure that you, like me, don’t wish to be embarrassed any longer when a visitor comes to town.

• E-mail: andrew.trench@witness.co.za

• Twitter: @andrewtrench

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