An open letter to Midi

2009-11-18 00:00

DEAR Board of Trustees of The Msunduzi Innovation and Development Institute (Midi):

I was inspired by MEC Ina Cronjé’s vision to transform the four apartheid cities of Msunduzi into one liveable city, with one economy, not the present dual economy — a liveable city for everyone, not just for the black and white Maritzburgers who have inherited apartheid’s privileges and are so comfortable with their thirsty 4x4s and prestigious addresses.

I was challenged by Dr Mamphela Ramphele’s Walk Together scenario in which she explained that South Africa will certainly and quickly mimic Zimbabwe’s precipitous path to self-destruction unless the rich and poor meet one another in our cities, to dismantle and transform the underlying structure of our economy for fairer participation in the market square by everyone, without special favours for those backed by global monopolies.

I was sorely disappointed by the Business Chamber Working Group’s dream for 2030, a city in which an “enlarged middle class” prospers, having had its wish list granted: unlimited commercial development along the N3 Corridor, a regional airport and more malls for Msunduzi. How does this 2030 dream differ from 2009 where ever-increasing middle-class malls, which battle to pay their rents, have made our city’s bird sanctuary and polo fields only a painful memory?

I was shocked by the juxtaposition of this self-aggrandising Business Chamber vision with Professor Cheryl Hendricks’s Food Security Working Group message to the summit: 73% of households in Msunduzi are “food insecure” and 50% of farming units were lost between 1993 and 2007. What more need be said about our grossly unequal, unjust economy? And her group’s message warns us starkly about the immediate challenge we face to integrate Msunduzi more happily into a harmonious relationship with our rural Mgungundlovu hinterland.

The Environmental Working Group presenter’s message to the summit was deceiving. It contradicted the actual message that our working group agreed to. The message the summit heard focused on the business opportunity that Maritzburg’s natural environment represents, rather than understanding protection of the environment as the fragile nucleus of Msunduzi’s economic future. Only 1,53% of the Msunduzi municipal area is currently formally managed for conservation. Why was this not mentioned? This 1,5% is 28,5% too little “green capital” to have in Msunduzi’s “sustainability bank” if our city can enjoy any long-term economic development. Also not mentioned was our working group’s strong consensus to foreground climate change. The top priority for Maritzburg, like every other city intending to survive through the climate challenges between now and 2030, is to innovate urgently to transform to renewable energy and a low-carbon economy.

The Midi declaration, which we did not sign at the summit, was neither innovative nor developmental. It did no justice to the vision of our two opening inspirational presenters. Like them, I want to live in a city where people previously separated economically have been reconciled. The only way this can happen is for us to transform the underlying design of our economy so that we all benefit, instead of producing all our wealth for the pockets of global capitalists who do not live anywhere near Msunduzi.

I also hope for a city that has discovered and lives by the now open secret: flourishing economies are only possible for the long term if they carefully protect their natural environments — clean rivers, clear air, and a healthy legacy of biodiversity to pass on to future generations. I want a city in which there is no feeding frenzy in local government on public funds. A city that invests generously in its wider district to stimulate “pull factors” in the rural hinterland that will slow or even stem the flow of economic migrants to Msunduzi. A city that has put a permanent end to township-style ghetto developments, which systematically destroy the environment and dehumanise everyone living in them. A city that is not a global entrepôt for human and drug traffickers, where a humane, effective police service serves the community without force, and where communities play active roles to make neighbourhoods safe, for children and women in particular. A city in which mentally disabled people are treated with special care and dignity. A city where sports events repair rather than destroy the environment and benefit the poor, rather than enriching the rich. A city which enjoys the fruit of a transformed agricultural sector, with inbuilt bias towards local and district organic fruit, vegetables and animal products, and incentives for emergent farmers rather than constraints. After all, local is lekker.

Our City of Choice has reached a crossroads. Either we walk together with a shared future in view, agreeing to overhaul our economy completely, or we face a future­ of plummeting environmental and social returns. Midi has the choice to innovate truly and help Msunduzi dismantle and transform the failed design of our current unjust economy, to break out of its inherently destructive mould quickly, or Midi can take its chance with the self-interested opportunists of Ramphele’s first scenario. Then a faster and far more furious Zimbabwe-style scenario for Msunduzi will be reached well before my primary school children matriculate.


• Allen Goddard is a founding director of A Rocha South Africa. He writes in his personal capacity.

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