Parochial mentality

2008-02-08 00:00

How would one describe the psyche of our city and its people, I wonder. In the past, the “sleepy hollow” mentality prevailed. There is the true story of an aspirant city councillor who gained election on the basis of an anti-development stance. The gentle folk of Pietermaritzburg didn’t want their lives disrupted by industry and commerce, it seemed. It was sufficient to have a safe high street with one or two department stores and some family businesses which commanded traditional loyalty. And if one sought a bargain, there were shops “downtown” that would oblige. One could go for lunch at the club (and the races on Saturday). Women had access through the side door only and one of the more prominent local businessmen was denied membership on account of his not being white.

Mercifully, the rowdy activities of university students were more or less confined to the campus, or, perhaps, some parts of the town not generally frequented by decent people. Schools were characterised by “discipline”, as reflected in short-back-and-sides and bashers. Capital status was not in question and the NPA officials and the provincial council members were part of a broader “old-school-tie” community. It was a good place to bring up children because there were few, if any, attractions to lead them into the ways of vice. Suburbs were residential areas and no one had to suffer the inconvenience of a neighbour running a business from his home.

Life was comfortable, at least that part of which we knew about. It was not nearly so comfortable in Edendale and similar areas, of course, and there was a seedy side to the city, no doubt, that compromised the perceived innocence of some, if not all, young people.

The city is no longer “sleepy hollow”, capital status is vastly different, the population of the officially demarcated city has more than trebled (with only a marginal increase in the size of the rates base), the city belongs to everyone and we are part of the real global and contemporary world whether we like it or not.

It is encouraging that within the business community, at least, there is some enthusiasm at the challenges posed by the new order. What was once a very conservative sector has become receptive to change, the democratic order and the challenges that now face both our city and our country. I like to think that the chamber has had some influence in effecting this more contemporary mind-set. It is not unexpected that business people should be among those who are most receptive to transformation. The bottom line is seriously at stake if business practice is out of synch with the market and there is no doubt that it is in the market that very significant changes have occurred.

But there are those who continue to prefer the comforts of the past and, generally, Maritzburgers are easily irritated by intrusive developments. Opposition to the building of the casino was vociferous and angry, some said the mall would never succeed and “the traffic” has become a talking point, notwithstanding the fact that these are all important signs of successful economic growth. Many, it seems, continue to wish, secretly perhaps, that none of these things had happened to disturb the peace.

The most recent irritation, apart from the electricity outages, is the series of international cycle races, brought to the city through the considerable efforts of municipal officials, Pietermaritzburg Tourism and cycling aficionados. This event is a significant addition to the city’s event calendar, which, incidentally, is the envy of many competitor municipalities. It is symptomatic of the city’s “provincial” outlook that the event should have been both better publicised and better received. It is true that the daily race routes have been published, but there has been no clear and illustrated indication of which roads will be closed and when, while the sporadic nature of the bunting on display gives the impression of a very strained budget. It is as if the event is taking place in the city, but has no business being part of our city life.

We have not embraced our city’s potential, nor made the most of our capital status which, at the time, was so important that many people broke with their traditional political loyalties to vote for the African National Congress. We would complain bitterly if the status were taken away again, but I don’t believe that we, from the municipality to the citizens, have a capital mindset. This requires a broader, loftier, more energetic, enthusiastic and dynamic outlook than that to which we remain inclined.

• Andrew Layman is a former headmaster and now the CEO of the Pietermaritzburg Chamber of Business.

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