Exciting innovation

2014-10-09 00:00

THERE’S a group of eager young graduates involved in changing the face of Pietermaritzburg.

Many of them are qualified town planners having earned their degrees at universities across the country. Under the mentorship of the deputy municipal manager for Economic Development at Msunduzi Municipality, Dr Ray Ngcobo, they are making history in a project being hailed as innovative and setting the benchmark for the rest of South Africa.

The project is the conversion of Edendale from a township to a modern-day suburb, complete with the latest town-planning, spatial and urban design plans. It was started a while back by the Msunduzi Municipality and was known as the Greater Edendale Development Initiative. It has now changed its name to the Greater Edendale and Vulindlela Development Initiative (GEVDI).

For years, the project floundered as there was little buy-in from the community and Edendale landowners. The situation was complex because of multiple land ownership and as there were no previous town-planning schemes, settlement patterns were highly irregular. For example, you could have houses built across the boundaries of two properties.

The work started with a team of lawyers and property experts negotiating boundaries and land sales. The community did not understand these sophisticated legal processes and so were resistant. Matters went further downhill with the change of political leadership in the 2006 local-government election. The new order was suspicious and not supportive of projects started by its predecessor. Staff considered redundant were pushed into the project offices where they languished, with little support and interest from their bosses. If all of this was not bad enough, the municipality’s coffers began running dry and soon it was placed under administration.

All of this changed with the current leadership under municipal manager Mxolisi Nkosi. He hired the energetic Ngcobo and made GEVDI a priority project. Ngcobo changed the institutional arrangements of the project and as the municipal coffers began filling up, hired a team of town-planning and other graduates to get the project rolling.

I met some members of the team recently and was impressed by their energy and enthusiasm. They credit Ngcobo with turning the project around and say one of the first things he did was to get them working on a communication strategy and a liaison plan on how to reach out to the community. The plan, in a document of more than 250 pages, is breathtaking in its detail. It gives the nuts and bolts of the project, from the land-acquisition programme, to the engineering work that has to be done. It talks about the spatial and town-planning concepts being used in changing Edendale from a township to a suburb. The plan ends with a manual on how all this technical information can be made accessible to the community through various participatory programmes and using different mediums of communication.

This column is a brief introduction to the whole process. In the months ahead, I will endeavour to tell readers much more about this fascinating project unfolding on our doorstep.

According to team member Sipho Mngadi, the communication strategy is already working and since they’ve started, a substantial number of large land sales have been concluded. “We are seeing a shift and a growing confidence, and faith in the project from the community,” he said.

Narain Singh, chief planner for GEVDI, added that what also changed the programme was the council’s decision to write off the rates debt of many of the beleaguered landowners who, over the years, had lost control of their land as a result of the conflict in the region. The landowners generously housed families fleeing from violence in other areas and later became victims of land invasions.

Singh, who has been involved with the project for a long time, is grateful for the foundation set by the land-acquisition team. For him, GEVDI is at its most exciting phase. It has shifted from being purely about land acquisition to an integrated approach to planning.

The project is now moving on several fronts. These include working on a town-planning scheme for Edendale and Vulindlela. There is an urban-renewal strategy which involves multiple nodal areas of development, as well as a range of catalyst projects. Edendale’s transformation from a township to a suburb is offering exciting opportunities for the young town-planners involved. They are Gcina Mkhize, Devashnee Naidoo, George Lebelo, Mongezi Mngadi and Lizwe Memela, and they can already see future masters and Ph.D topics emerging from the groundbreaking work being carried out.

• Nalini Naidoo is a journalist at The Witness.

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