Mandela Bay Development Agency | Nelson Mandela Bay | Port Elizabeth | Uitenhage | Despatch | South Africa
Mandela Bay Development Agency | Nelson Mandela Bay | Port Elizabeth | Uitenhage | Despatch | South Africa
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Mandela Bay Development Agency | Nelson Mandela Bay | Port Elizabeth | Uitenhage | Despatch | South Africa

  South African Cities are kingmakers for growth - by MBDA CEO Dr Voges

2016-09-16 10:11:16 AM

South Africa and Nelson Mandela Bay have been through a year of intense electioneering towards the August 2016 local government elections.  Many issues were raised during this period, ranging from race, job creation, service delivery, pro-poor initiatives, economic growth, etc.

Whatever the nature of an individual’s political beliefs, one thing came out quite clearly and that is that democracy is working and that the debates around all these issues make South Africans and the people of Nelson Mandela Bay a more mature and sophisticated society.  The question of who will govern South Africa’s metropolitan areas is absolutely crucial for one overriding reason, and that is that cities are the country’s money making hubs.  City administrations have no role in setting macro- economic policies, but it is certainly at the forefront of implementing these policies.  In this regard the numbers and statistics are telling.  Although the eight South African metropolitan areas account for just 2% of the country’s land mass, they are home to about 40% of the population and generate more than half, which is 57%, of the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). 

With the election (voting) process over and democracy showing its impact, it is now important for a city to find its niche in the world of economic development and competitiveness.  The more in tune and functional a local government is, the more it will be able attract the right business opportunities to facilitate a chosen growth path and achieve the all-important economic results, such as higher GDP, job creation and better service delivery. In 1996 the writer was on the Board of the Western Cape Trade and Investment Promotion Agency (also known as Wesgro). Extensive work was done on what can make the City of Cape Town and the Western Cape internationally competitive. Seven clusters were selected, diligent followed from a planning and implementation point of a view and the positive results of an agreed plan going forward are clear to see.  

Cities must create an enabling environment for economic growth.  If success in this direction is not achieved, ghettos will increase and cities will not be the engines of growth that it is supposed to be. 

 A journalist from Nelson Mandela Bay asked me some time ago what I believe attracts me to this City and why am I always excited about the prospects of this City becoming an international competitive city.  At the Mandela Bay Development Agency, we pride ourselves in the “concept to completion” role the Agency plays.  The intention is not to plan and design urban renewal projects (in the Central Business District (CBD) and townships) for the past and the present, but for future generations. Market assessments and public participation therefore needs to assess the needs of the youth and how those needs and energy created can be harnessed in the design and implementation of urban renewal projects.  

Urban planning and design is not only a matter of engineering infrastructure; it is a matter of creating social infrastructure engineering that not only looks at the impact of bricks and mortar, but also the impact on society at large.  

So what is it that makes Nelson Mandela Bay showing such enormous potential to be an effective blue collar, industrial, workmanlike city that is not only competitive in manufacturing, but also competitive in tourism and real estate and attracting visitors not only for its manufacturing potential, but also its heritage, art and tourism potential? Working in the City and borrowing from other readings maybe one can see a Nelson Mandela Bay emerging along the following lines. Some of these elements we have, but some we need to create.

 The world is moving away from terrified, monogamous young people dressed head to toe in Uniqlo or Gap. The trend is changing away from the stereo-typical modern salary man to the complex real world individuals we are. 

The unrests that swept many cities in 2015 and 2016 in so-called emerging market countries is actually a measure of how the new middle classes in these countries aspire to make things better.  Future economic development will be around the middle-class, not around the high end market. 

Nelson Mandela Bay always had an industrial, blue collar culture.  Many people saw that as a negative element in the City, but it is this blue collar industrial culture that will be the hallmark of the City’s future economic development.    Twenty years ago blue collar was out, today it is in.

Low levels of racial polarization and a sense of classlessness is some of the city’s strongest attributes and can become a key ingredient in economic development. High levels of racial polarization and a low sense of classlessness are very prevalent in some of the so-called successful cities in the world.

Nelson Mandela Bay is fortunate to have a city with two ports and a sea that is warm enough to swim in through the year. 

The development of Stanley Street and the Baakens Valley is slowly seeing entire neighbourhoods designed around hipster economics and the creative economy.  The previously maligned hipsters are now crucial signifiers of a successful city economy.  When one looks at the people who arrive at the Valley Market at the Tramways, one is astonished to find that these are youngsters that are finding a place where they can congest and signify an economy around hipster economics.  It is these areas of hipster economics that contain vintage clothing stores, micro-breweries, gay clubs and coffee bars that are not owned by global trends, but the young creative people doing their own thing. 


Although one should not take the following term wrongly, but any successful city must have a massive ecosystem of gay, lesbian, transgender and sleazy heterosexual hangouts that are safe to visit.  These are places where Jo Corporate and Johanna Corporate feel comfortable where they want to live their lives the middleclass way. 


Every successful and competitive city needs to have a local government that is credible enough to mobilise global capital and local savings.  But not so big that allows the global elite to run things through their usual mixture of aristocratic men’s club and organised crime.  It needs to build the credibility to ensure that the monies raised flow into the communities where it is so urgently required. 

A successful city must have many signs of art and theatre, not only expensive art and theatres, but art for the common man on the street and street theatres.  In this respect one needs to think of the congestion of theatres in the CBD of Port Elizabeth, particularly the recently upgraded Athenaeum, the recently upgraded Opera House, the Grand Hotel and many other smaller venues.  These theatres are not only areas where the elite can parade their jewellery and fur, but for the man or lady from New Brighton playing the saxophone to the pure delight of all the citizens of the City. 

A successful city has bicycle lanes and an effective transport system.  In this regard Nelson Mandela Bay is doing particularly poor.  But if other cities in South Africa can get it right, then maybe we can see young couples on cold nights, riding home, hand in hand on a bicycle.  If one uses Uber, we will find that these cars are operated by young individuals who are not your typical taxi operator, but a person who has been given the opportunity to run his own car as a taxi, his own business.

A livable city must have great architecture – old and new. Other than Cape Town, Nelson Mandela Bay, and in particular Port Elizabeth, have the second biggest collection of heritage Buildings. If one can turn around the Tramways Building, a building on its knees, to become a truly community building creating revenue stream, not some A grade office block, why not do it with the Old Mill or the Feathermarket. Think about Haarlem in Amsterdam, a ghetto in the past, but now an intangible, positive atmosphere, emerging from a combination of bricks, renovation and re-use. 

 Also, an economically vibrant city should ethnically mixed and tolerant and hospitable for women.  Some of the safest cities in the world are actually ones where women can live equal or modern lives and not in a society locked down by religious conservatism or harsh policing of minorities.   

Also townships must be townships of hope.  Hopefully one day we can get away from the term township and refer to New Brighton and Helenvale as merely suburbs of Nelson Mandela Bay.

Any city must have a democratic political culture that people are proud of (as reflected in the last local government elections) where people can feel free to regularly hit the streets and protest against unfair practices and to self-identify themselves as part the city’s social and economic solutions as they navigate very day life. 

Obviously not all the above mentioned criteria for a successful, economically vibrant middle-class city are present in Nelson Mandela Bay.  As mentioned, we are failing badly in the creation of an effective, safe public transport system for the factory worker and the wealthy business person who are sick and tired finding parking. Of all the elements above, the only one though that is glaringly absent is a good public transport system. 

With our blue-collarless, industrial/manufacturing background, classlessness, low levels of racial polarization, theaters, great architecture, emerging areas of hipster-economics, sleazy (not always safe) bars, townships of hope we have a recipe for a strong economic development agenda in the post-recession era that is based on the energy of the middle class, keeping its blue collar industrial culture very much in place, creating that all important tourism real estate sector.  It will be the imagination of political and business leaders that will build the best cities in the world, not the linear, dogmatic planning regulations, but exalted visions of urban spaces transformed by the character of the people.

The recent local government elections have shown that democracy is working and that inhabitants have spoken.  It is an exciting time, not for politics, but for economic development that reaches those that have not been reached for a very long time. Through the creative economy and through tourism real estate development.

Writes Mandela Bay Development Agency Chief Executive Officer, Dr Pierre Voges