Why Maritzburg?

2010-07-22 00:00

“SO why did you leave Jo’burg for Maritzburg?” It is a question I expect to answer each time I meet someone for the first time and tell them where I previously worked and lived.

It is often not the kind of question that is aimed at just making polite conversation. I detect an element of accusation of a lack of ambition on my part. How could I claim to be serious about a media career and leave the town where all the national media are, where all the big political players are and where big business has its base?

I tell them that I came because I believe The Witness is a great paper and has what it takes to be the standard bearer for South African newspapers. I tell them that it is a paper that understands the difference between being big and being great, and that it has chosen the latter.

I also tell them that if they too had the opportunity of working with the talented team of journalists and editors I work with, they would know that The Witness is where it is happening.

Still, they are unconvinced. They seem to appreciate the vision I share but, like peanut butter sticking in their craw, the question remains stuck. “I hear you, but why did you leave Jo’burg for this sleepy hollow?”

I have come to realise that the people of Maritzburg are their city’s most strident critics. If there were to be a concept called anti- ambassador, then Maritzburg would have no problems filling such a post and it seems it would not even have to part with any money. Such is the zeal of many of the Maritzburg people I meet, who cannot wait to diss their town at the slightest opportunity.

It is not only some sections of the community. It is white people as much as it is Indians and black people. I confess that my limited circles have given me little access to many working-class communities, so I have no idea if they share the same dire view of Maritzburg.

I wonder to myself why it is that Maritzburg people do not say anything about the many good schools here. In fact, when I left Jo’burg, many of those who also did not understand why I would willingly allow myself to live in “such a town” admitted that my wife and I would have no trouble finding schools for our young children.

Why then does Maritzburg not market itself as a centre for those who would like their children to have quality education instead of moaning that it is not Johannesburg or Durban? Why is it that Maritzburg’s proximity to the beach and the Berg is muttered under one’s breath?

Colleagues laughed when I told them that many women in Johannesburg apply their make-up in their cars because they know that the traffic will be bad enough to ensure that they travel at 20 km/h and so why not use that time to do something valuable? Why then is it not a plus factor that in Maritzburg you have the benefit of your mirror and nobody thinks you are vain because you choose to powder your nose at the next junction?

Complaining that Maritzburg is not Durban is like being annoyed that Washington DC is not New York City. It is to fail to harness and leverage the advantages of the City of Choice by focusing on what it is not. It is not dissimilar to the pretty teenage girl who thinks her world has come to an end because she has developed a pimple just before a date with the popular guy at school.

Even that which is supposed to be Maritzburg’s weakest point — poor governance by its public representatives and appointed officials — has the potential of being a positive. Local governments are in a poor shape everywhere across the country.

The republic’s capital cannot even decide whether it is Tshwane or Pretoria. It also has to contend with growing complaints about the quality of its water. In Cape Town, people can’t even agree on whether toilets should have walls around them.

A lot of what we read about the goings on at the Msunduzi Municipality are as a result of the city officials themselves daring to keep the ratepayers in the loop when they could have easily swept things under the carpet. It may very well be a result of an internecine war in the ruling party, but the fact is Msunduzi is providing the rest of the country with a manual on how to deal (or not deal) with a dysfunctional local government structure.

Pietermaritzburg has seen it all and survived to tell the tale. This paper has reported on amazing new developments on the cards showing investor confidence in the city. A new N3 junction is under construction. There is talk of the Liberty Midlands Mall being expanded. A new mall in Edendale is the latest one headed our way and it is set to host some of the country’s (not the province’s or city’s) top retailers.

South Africa’s strength is its diversity, we have been told before. It would be a pity if we only understood this in terms of population demographics rather than the different energies the various towns and regions bring to the mix.

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