Complexities of a city

2014-08-04 00:00

DURBAN has positioned itself as a global event city.

And there is much to be proud of for living in this city. There is an abundance of colour, culture, recreation, sun, rain and fun.

This week, the city plays host to an international architecture forum. Now let me place it on record — my knowledge of the built environment and architecture is non-existent, nano size at most.

But let me be clear — as a teen I dreamt of being an architect but a series of high school symbols, ranging between FF and GG, and an inability to draw a 3D square, put an end to that dream.

In my limited scope of knowledge, buildings signify eras of bygone times, whether it was yesterday or 10 years ago. I also know that for heritage fundis the hard truth is that any old building will — at some point no matter how well-maintained — fall down. Ask the Greeks and Romans; they know all about this.

But this does not mean we must not continue to learn and improve.

And the fact that conferences of an international appeal are being held in Durban is significant because it means we have become a city that wants to learn, that encourages advancement and, more importantly, we have become a city that wants to imagine and dream.

And with this learning we have become richer for it, both in mind and financially.

But with dreams come nightmares. This city faces more challenges than some small European principalities, and on a budget that is probably four times smaller than what is required.

Durban has a growing service base of residents who don’t pay rates and wears the unwanted badge of being a hub city in the growing drug trade.

The city’s police service is also in a state of crisis, with the people who are expected to protect the public being fingered in armed robberies and in the abuse of resources.

And it is no secret that a clique of businesspeople has been unfairly favoured in a host of multimillion-rand projects, revealing a system of patronage.

There is also a growing homeless population in the city centre, who are unwanted by the residents, who accuse them of peddling drugs, crime and filth.

There are two trains of thought on how to deal with the issue of vagrancy.

The first is to remove the vagrants from sight and deal with them elsewhere, or make it someone else’s problem.

The second is to deal with the problem through various social interventions.

But the latter takes much longer and the rights of complaining paying residents and businesses eventually trump those of the homeless. It is a difficult position for the city to be in.

Residents of Glenwood and the Berea — who are actively lobbying for the removal of the homeless from their area who have been associated with drug use and prostitution — have been called right-wing by some quarters.

And, while there may be some truth in this, homeowners understand that a significant portion of their property values can be stripped immediately if these social ills are associated with a neighbourhood.

The right to maintain a neighbourhood as a desirable place for homeowners to live in is as important as rehabilitating drug addicts.

But the destitute, for whatever reason, do not want to live on the streets.

They do not want to be poor and they do not want to be treated as subhuman and have to beg at traffic lights. They want to be a part of society.

But when your shoes are old, your shirts are scruffy, your body odour is repugnant and you carry your world in a shopping packet, trying to fit in is impossible.

There are no easy answers to this complex issue.

Yet this city has hosted events that talk to the environment, to politics, to economies, so perhaps it is time for the city to host a monumental conference that speaks to homelessness.

Nations are judged by how they treat the poor and homeless.

My question is, how do we want to be judged?

• Jonathan Erasmus is an investigative reporter at The Witness.

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