Delay metro status

2008-06-13 00:00

In the year 2000 we were given, by the Municipal Demarcation Board, the strange appellation “aspirant metro”. It was not a title unique to us, for it applied equally to Buffalo City (East

London) and Mangaung (Bloemfontein). I cannot define “us”, by the way, because I don’t think the board attributed any boundaries to this aspirant metro. It was also not clear whether this was meant as some kind of incentive for development or a consolation prize for not having achieved the lofty status of metropolitan.

In 2003 the Pietermaritzburg Chamber of Business (PCB) urged the minister of Provincial and Local Government to attend to the issue as we felt we were aspiring sufficiently convincingly. It was a tricky time in local government for the Umgungundlovu District had written into its Integrated Development Plan (IDP) that it was its objective to constitute the metropolitan municipality, while there was equal ambition on the part of Msunduzi.

The chamber, not wishing to alienate either, proposed that the boundaries of the metro should be the same as the district, but neither council should assume the role of metropolitan council. We received not even an acknowledgement of our letter.

It was very good news when a few weeks ago, we got another crack at it. This time it was clear that the Demarcation Board was looking for support for its belief that the metro status should be confirmed. We were happy to oblige, and so, too, were many other bodies, some of whom had been fiercely resistant to incorporation into Msunduzi in 2000. It was anticipated, considering the way things are expected to work, that after a decision-in-principle the board would embark on a period of consultation and discussion by which the boundaries of the metro would be determined. This, as one may imagine, is fraught with potential disaffection. Not only are jobs at stake — mayors, speakers, councillors, municipal managers and so on all stand to have the wings of their careers clipped — but there are many other community agendas which may, or may not, support relocation into another municipality. It is a process which promises a long struggle, the kind, perhaps, that we have seen where the Demarcation Board has tried to reverse the earlier strange municipal arrangements described as “cross-border”.

The line of least resistance, then, was attractive. It was also informed by Independent Electorial Commission (IEC) deadlines, for if the new metropolitans were to be launched before the municipal elections of 2010, the issue had to be cut and dried almost immediately. Thus, the announcement of the metro status was accompanied by the firm proposal that it would apply only to the Msunduzi Municipality, leaving the other six surrounding local municipalities to continue as the Umgungundlovu constituency. Whether any single submission to the board advocated this configuration I cannot say, but we are aware of a number that didn’t, mainly, I suspect, because of the board’s own definition of a metropolitan and common sense.

Essentially, the metropolitan area should be the recognisable conurbation. It is in defiance of its own criteria, therefore, that the board failed to include such areas as Hilton and Mkhambathini, both inextricably part of the conurbation.

Exactly why Hilton, with its historic and de facto interdependence with the city, was excluded from Msunduzi before is a mystery, even though at the time the people of that area saw a brighter future for themselves in a separate municipality. Whether such areas as Howick and Richmond, for example, are part of the conurbation is not quite so clear.

The PCB has a dilemma. We took something of a strategic decision before and might prefer, now, to take it within a logical, economic and business context. I’m pretty sure we cannot support a situation where the contiguity of the eThekweni and the Msunduzi metros, where ribbon development along the N3 is absolutely inevitable, is interrupted by a limb of a district municipality. I doubt whether we would support the exclusion of Hilton, either. But, do we want to compromise the criteria in the opposite way by advocating the incorporation of areas which are distinctly not part of the conurbation?

Perhaps they will be in time to come, and there might be merit in preparing for the outward spread of urbanisation and the economic growth pattern predicted by the government, but arrested suddenly, and temporarily we hope, by Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPE), the Reserve Bank, Eskom and sundry global glitches.

If economic logic is to prevail, there will be considerable fallout as the district municipality is dismembered. Communities will have choices which will not be easy to make and which will take considerable time. The only way to make this time, I think, would be to suspend the implementation of the metropolitan for another five years.

We do not wish to aspire any longer, so this would be a singularly unattractive proposition. At the chamber we have some serious thinking to do in the short time available. For the rest, speak up, This is your future at stake.

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