Giving her all to Maritzburg

2018-09-25 10:40
Melanie Veness has been the CEO of the Pietermaritzburg Chamber of Business since 2011.

Melanie Veness has been the CEO of the Pietermaritzburg Chamber of Business since 2011.

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Apartheid was not only about legislation but physical and mental structures were put in place, all of which have to be dismantled if South Africa is to have a future.

This was the observation shared by the chief executive of the Pietermaritzburg Chamber of Business (PCB), Melanie Veness, in her recent exclusive interview with the Weekend Witness.

Veness, who moved to Pietermaritzburg from Durban when she was a teenager, said an unwavering resolve is required from everyone to break down the barriers that have separated South Africans since the days of apartheid. “As much as it was deliberately constructed, it has to be deliberately deconstructed. Integration will not happen by accident. It [apartheid] was planned separation so there must be planned integration and I don’t see that happening right now,” she said.

She said planned integration, where people are not separated by class, is possible and she saw it when she travelled to Atlanta in the U.S. a decade ago. Atlanta adopted a concept of regional economic zones, where businesses in the same sector are concentrated together. The local government also invested in the infrastructure needed by those businesses to attract investment into the area.

“Everyone who worked in the zone, was entitled to live in the zone. The people who worked on the factory floor got massive rent rebates and the CEOs got zero rebate. If people live where they work it means less time is spent travelling to work and less traffic on the road. This also means no poor schools and no poor health-care service because you get different levels of people sharing the same space and demanding the same services.”

She said of the system that because people live together and do business together, they interact, and it becomes a “natural integration” even though it is by design. “You don’t get poor schools in poor areas where some have to travel out of their area to access the so-called rich schools, which is what apartheid did, and it’s being perpetuated today.”

She said that more than two decades into democracy, we still see the poorest living further away from the central business districts and that deprives them of economic opportunities because sometimes they don’t have money for transport. “Even when they are employed, sometimes it becomes impossible to sustain the job because it is too expensive to travel. So why have we not redesigned our spaces to counter what was done to sustain apartheid?”

Veness said the starting point actively to deconstruct apartheid would be to improve the quality of education. She said it is impossible to address poverty and inequality if the status quo on education prevailed. “Young people who are coming through and don’t receive a decent education are having their futures stolen.”

She said solving these problems requires all hands on deck. “We need to have a system where the next generation is empowered enough to break the circle of poverty and that is why our young people should have a chance to get a decent education.”


When Veness is not spending time with her family, she said she enjoys being alone in the countryside.

She inherited her love for the bush from her father who was a game ranger. “The bush is still a special place for me. It gives me incredible peace. Most weekends I go and ride in the Midlands so that I can ride through the farms.”

When she was young her family lived in Hluhluwe and they later moved to a farm in East London. They had no electricity and homework was done by candlelight.

Her childhood adventures include riding her “crazy” horse, Tinker, for hours through the bush and farmlands. Living on the farm also taught her not to take anything for granted, even something like water.

“When I did career-suitability, I scored 13% for nursing and I can understand that because we had three treatments for any ailments on the farm … I don’t recall ever missing school because the treatments were much worse than the injuries.”

For sore throats and wounds they used salt, and cod-liver oil was reserved for other illnesses. Once she was badly cut while out riding but there was no getting to a hospital.

“My father tried his normal pressure and salt but that didn’t stop it [the bleeding]. We were too far out to be going somewhere without landing into some sort of trouble so he sprayed it with a fire extinguisher and that did stop it but it did swell up quite huge afterwards,” she recalled with a laugh.

Lending a hand

The former director of Pietermaritzburg Tourism spoke passionately about a programme she is doing with Mayor Themba Njilo to assist whoonga addicts who want to get clean.

She said they have engaged with NGOs to put together a pilot drug-rehabilitation programme. The participants will also be put into a recycling programme to try to keep them off the streets. Veness has met some of the youngsters whom the programme could benefit. She said one of them is a young man who matriculated with four distinctions and taught pupils extra maths and science but he is now living on the streets and addicted to whoonga. “We’ve got to do justice to our young people. We cannot fail them in providing the opportunities to change their worlds and fulfil their potential, because in order for this city to progress, all its citizens have to be able to fulfil their potential.” She said ubuntu is an incredible African concept but society needs to see it in action a lot more.


While many of Msunduzi’s citizens have lost faith in those holding the top positions at the city hall, Veness said Pietermaritzburg is her home and she is ready to pull up her sleeves and rebuild it to its former glory, which was around the period when it came out of administration.

She said it saddens her that Pietermaritzburg is the capital city of KwaZulu-Natal but it doesn’t look like one, despite its potential to be one of the best cities in the country.

“The citizens of Msunduzi deserve better than what they are getting now … As a city we are also not taking advantage of our competitive advantage in the sectors that we could really be leaders in.”

The City of Choice already has a top-level concentration in the education and private health-care sectors but Veness said its current state does not present opportunities for those who studied here to stay and work here. She said there are also not adequate training centres for those who want to pursue careers in medicine.

She reminisced about the time when City officials and the leadership worked hand-in-hand with the business community to give Pietermaritzburg its unique identity. Such programmes, which included the PCB-proposed Picture Perfect PMB, saw business communities reviving public spaces at no cost to the municipality.

“We can’t give up on Pietermaritzburg; it is worth fighting for but we need honourable leaders with a vision we can get behind … It’s the citizens who elect the leadership and I hope they are passionate enough to choose wisely and hold those in power accountable.”

Read more on:    pietermaritzburg  |  pmb people

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