Growing township business

2012-07-02 00:00

THE Durban Chamber is planning to facilitate the growth of local businesses in former township areas. This has resulted from the concern, shared by the eThekwini Municipality, that township areas have less business activity than before. What money there is in the hands of communities, too often finds its way to repositories outside the area and, therefore, does not contribute meaningfully to the micro economy in the area itself.

It was this project that took me to Umbumbulu recently. The round trip was about 130 kilometres. The drive there prompted my first thought: a number of people have to suffer this journey on a daily basis, to and from work. These are not people who have reasoned that they would rather commute than move house or take their children out of schools to which they are accustomed, these are people who have scant choice. The costs of this daily migration are clearly too high for any economic good. The more adventurous, or perhaps the more desperate, might become part of the strong current of urban migration, which will challenge us far more than we easily recognise, but this leads to more squatting, or, at best, children left in family homes without in situ parents. To what extent, I wonder, is the municipality attending to this matter?

As a result of deficient urban housing policies, many residential premises in the inner city area are being woefully abused by avaricious landlords and illegal immigrants, instead of having been regulated by pre-emptive policies to govern urban living spaces. Blaming apartheid and group areas is totally justified, but by now there should have been far more concerted efforts to redress the evils. Rather, we have pinned our hopes on RDP houses, and many of which have become quite quickly less than habitable.

We were shown the site earmarked for the mall. I say “the mall” because this seems to have become the fashionable benchmark for township revival. No doubt, the development will be pretentious, in the way that these things often are, and cost so much that the facility will not be viable unless rentals are such that only national chains will be able to trade there. Developers will seek their commitment and know that the local people will welcome the brand names as indices of advancement, steps towards middle-class prosperity. What they will not realise, however, is the fact that these are minimal investments in the growth of a local economy.

I welcomed the retail developments in Edendale. I think it was very important for investors to show a commitment to a less advantaged community, and it is true that investment and development are all about momentum. I think the time is ripe, however, for some different thinking. Retail facilities do not have to be packaged as malls. They could be far less elaborate and cater specifically for local traders or, better still, co-operatives of local traders. Service stations, instead of conforming in style to what one finds throughout towns and cities, could be business hubs with different looks and feels, catering specifically for the vehicular needs of local people — a workshop, a convenience store, a place for spares, an outlet for tyres, a car wash, and so on, each operated and owned by a local entrepreneur. While communities may perceive the establishment of Western-style retail and business facilities to be signs of economic progress, the real needs are not fulfilled by these means. Usually, these township areas are characterised by strong community spirit; yet this does not carry over into the sphere of local economics. More shopping, more jobs and more business within these areas themselves are required to improve the daily lives of the people who make up these communities.

I made another observation during my visit. It was a school day and all young people should have been in school. A small group of truants had the misfortune to come across our group, which included several councillors, while we were on a site inspection. They were summarily chased back to school. However, on my morning journey from Umbumbulu to the coast, the road was lined by groups of youngsters. I believe this to be a daily occurrence.

• Andrew Layman is the CEO of the Durban Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

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