Pride and prejudice

2008-12-12 00:00

It is sometimes quite justifiable to question the real validity of a competition in which a person or an institution is named “best”. Not so long ago, our landfill site, the subject of so much controversy over many years, received an award for being the best managed. Considering that its adherence to the conditions of its licence were marginal, to say the least, this came as a surprise and reflected, more than anything else, just how badly managed the others in the province must have been.

Some, perhaps, would like to think that Helen Zille’s title of “World Mayor 2008” was equally short on credibility, but this is, in fact, a prestigious award made by City Mayors ( which is described as an international “urban affairs think-tank”. Zille was one of 820 mayors who were nominated by more than 74 000 people worldwide. She topped a list which included in the top 10 the mayors of Zürich, Phoenix, Nürnberg, Tehran and Gothenburg.

City Mayors also ranks cities in terms of several criteria, among which are the quality of life that they offer and their security. The city offering the best quality of life in the world is Zürich and Geneva lies third, with Vienna in between. The highest ranked South African city in this list is Cape Town, at 80th, marginally ahead of Port Louis, three places in front of Dubai and seven in front of Abu Dhabi. Johannesburg has dropped several places to 94th.

As far as personal safety perceptions were concerned, the survey found that Luxembourg was the safest, followed in second place by the three Swiss cities, Zürich, Geneva and Berne, and Helsinki. Unsurprisingly, no South African city features in the top 50 and, unfortunately, none are mentioned in the available summary (the full list is not accessible), but we can be sure that our cities are safer than Baghdad (the least safe), Kinshasa, Nairobi and Lagos.

Within the local “city league”, conducted by the consultancy firm Municipal IQ which ranks cities in terms of a Municipal Productivity Index, Zille’s Cape Town lost ground to Johannesburg which achieved the highest score. This was followed by Tshwane, while eThekweni lay fourth.

Of the three newly declared metropolitans, Msunduzi returned the highest score which, incidentally, was lower than that of at least the top 10 local municipalities. This group was headed by Saldanha Bay. As a matter of interest, and concern, was the fact that of the 10 worst performing municipalities, six are in KwaZulu-Natal and four in the Eastern Cape.

It is difficult to know just how valuable these surveys and league tables are, but we live in a world where measurement and benchmarking are considered indispensable. The results evoke pride and fanfare on the part of those that do well and sceptical dismissal among those that don’t. This is the reason, I suppose, that Zille’s accolade, notwithstanding the favourable attention it gives to our country, has not elicited a great deal of acclamation, except among her political supporters. I have always thought that it is a very attractive feature of African traditional culture that people celebrate very spontaneously the achievements and successes of others. (In my white English culture, such as it is, we are inclined to clap politely — with a hint of restrained resentment perhaps?) Unfortunately, our politics seem to have prevailed to the extent that ubuntu has become selective.

The fact that our city has been classified as a metropolitan, for this purpose at least, tends to reveal the absence of logic in the Municipal Demarcation Board’s prevarication over the city’s status for several years. That we will become a metro in 2011 without any change in boundaries also defies logic and may well prompt speculation as to what will be different when the nominal status changes. The answer is nothing, not even extra money — unless we wish to envision a city which reflects the loftier title of metropolitan.

It is not necessarily wishful thinking that the Msunduzi Metro could become a world-class city with places of some prominence in the World Cities rankings. This requires a collective aspiration and commitment.

“Ships are safe in the harbour,” someone said, “but that’s not what ships are for.”

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