Who will be the gatekeepers?

2009-10-19 00:00

YOU have many opportunities to gatekeep. You select who enters your gate, who enters your home and who enters your world. For example, you gate- keep by selecting who you keep as friends (at work it can be more difficult) and how you spend your leisure time — braai and boerewors in the back garden? Nestled in museums? Or at the battlefields of Woodburn Stadium where Maritzburg United tout their football skills or, at other times, where young men destroy their bodies, chasing pear-shaped leather balls?

You will be aware of other gatekeepers. At City Hall, the local government makes decisions about how to spend your tax money. There is a sense of unease about these gatekeepers. Are they really doing their job? Is the city prospering or faltering?

The integrated development plan (IDP) is the master plan that dictates how the municipality spends your money on city development, a serious challenge for it. In 1994, Pietermaritzburg had a population of 180 000. Today, the city is effectively the Msunduzi Municipality, with

850 000 people. In 1994, 25% of 180 000 paid rates. Today, the rates base has actually declined to come from about 18% of the population who pay more and more for a greater total population and its service needs. In short, the IDP cannot work without a new cadre of partners, rather than a growing band of critics of the municipality.

Who then are the gatekeepers of city development?

Cities are complex systems. Carolyn Steel, in her book The Hungry City, says that cities, like people, are what they eat. London consumes 30 million meals daily and the question is, where does that food come from? Closer to home, economist Clive Coetzee makes the point that Pietermaritzburg is a net importer of food. The Msunduzi area generates about R300 million from primary agricultural production per year. Concurrently, we import more than R2 billion in foodstuffs. The result is that we produce less than one fifth of our food needs. Our food is globally sourced and we no longer know where the milk that we drink comes from, or where the flour that makes our bread was grown.

Steel advocates that cities source food closer to home. If this is the case, we are in

trouble. Within 20 years we will have little agricultural land in the Msunduzi Municipality for food production because of the natural increase of the present population and in-migration of poor rural dwellers and their needs for housing, industry and the like. Climate change, already a reality with more destructive storms, for instance, adds another ominous perspective to the future fabric of the city. We have a multiplier situation: more development equals an increased need for already strained water resources and prime agricultural land; more electricity means more greenhouse emissions; and more people mean more solid waste disposal facilities.

The city needs to be moulded for a positive future. It must be a city in which citizens have a stronger voice and where new, innovative, environment-friendly businesses keep bright young professionals in the city, rather than have them exit the city for Gauteng and the Cape once they have qualified here.

Thinking in new ways is exciting: should the municipal boundaries be expanded to secure much-needed agricultural land? Should city people not work more closely with innovators elsewhere, such as colleagues in the Ethekweni Municipality where policies about climate change are so good they are already internationally acknowledged? There is a need to work with experts in Cape Town, Johannesburg and elsewhere, where urban observatories have been established to keep the finger on the pulse of these cities.

We are the gatekeepers to the future. The municipality cannot of itself extract us from the present development crises, many of which come out of our history. It will take a broader set of people to do that. Fortunately, the crisis is generating action. For the first time the city has created a mechanism to bring a broader citizens’ voice together. The Msunduzi Innovation and Development Institute (Midi), because of its partnership base with the government, NGOs, business and tertiary organisations, will give a platform to these voices at the city summit which takes place this week. The summit will give substance for the need to inform, to involve and to adapt to new realities.

• Robert Fincham is Professor emeritus at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, a trustee of Midi and manager of a Midi initiative which is designed to contribute to the future development of the city.

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