Recovering the City of Saints

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By Anne Loeffler

Recently, the Business Day reported that Makana was the fifth-worst run municipality in South Africa. Apart from a culture of laziness, said Mayor Nomhle Gaga at the latest Special Council meeting, we are drowning in debt. Grahamstown’s infrastructure and public services has disintegrated to such an extent that it’s not even possible to get your fire extinguisher serviced.

Anne Loeffler spoke to Bernie Dolley from the Ikhala Trust about ways to rehabilitate Grahamstown. Her organisation is a strong advocate of Asset-based Community Development and has ignited movements of growth within many small and prospering communities in the Eastern Cape.

You have known Grahamstown for some time – thinking about our town, what springs to mind?

Well, immediately people will talk about the beautiful cultural assets and heritage sites. Not to mention the iconic Rhodes University, the historic buildings and last but not least, the National Arts Festival.

What imprint – do you think – does the Festival leave in the minds of visitors – and indeed the people of Grahamstown?

Fest attracts thousands of visitors from all walks of life and different parts of the world for two weeks of fun, enjoyment and appreciation of the talents and gifts of so many different artists. I think Festinos literally lap up the warmth of the people in Grahamstown and there are many Festival stories told and memories shared.  But, and this is a big but, despite all of its beautiful assets – and when the hype of the Festival has died down – the obvious becomes apparent again: Grahamstown is unfortunately a crumbling town where you fear for your car to be damaged just by driving its roads.

Who is to blame?

Fingers are being pointed left, right and centre. Our political leaders – the people charged with ensuring that the infrastructure is maintained at all costs – stick their heads in the sand like ostriches.

So it’s the politicians?

And citizens! Can you be proud of yourself when someone asks what are YOU doing about what is happening to Grahamstown? Why is it that everyone feels that the responsibility lies with the next person? What happened to the times when citizens came together to rally around a particular issue?

There are quite invested initiatives in this town, such as the Grahamstown Residents Association, the Business Forum, Rhodes University and a range of civil society organisations.

The irony is that when you work either in civil society, corporates or the academic sector you are held to account for what you do and it has consequences for you. good or bad. Unfortunately, this does not seem to work for civil servants or political heads. This becomes apparent in the case of Grahamstown. It is an unjust system and we as citizens have allowed this to deteriorate to the extent that it has.

And, so far, initiatives are hitting their heads against walls. So what does it take?

Support by citizens. If we want to build communities of excellence – when we want to act like true citizens – then we need to ask ourselves the questions, “To what extent are we responsible for the everything we complain about?”; “What can I do?” and then “How do I get others involved with me to apply the necessary pressure on officials who have roles and responsibilities that clearly are not being exercised?” In rebuilding and rebranding Grahamstown – once again as the city of saints, where everyone who lives here feels a sense of pride, has hope and cares about each other and the environment in which they live.

Who is prepared to put their hand up and say, “I will organise all the people of Grahamstown so we unite around one issue and tackle it?”

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