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Report Back on the Grahamstown Conversation

Held at PRIME, 63 New Street on Thursday 25 August 2016

Congratulations to Grahamstown Business Forum (GBF) for staging this valuable and well attended event. Thank you to Acting MM Riana Meiring who attended along with her Makana Directors. The excellent venue was provided by Mynhardt van Dyk from The Rat and Parrot.

There was a diverse cross-section of about 160 Grahamstown people who came to hear

  • Tony Lankester : CEO National Arts Festival
  • Nomhle Gaga : Executive Mayor of Makana Municipality
  • Matthew Lester : Professor Rhodes University Business School

Proceedings were introduced by Richard Gaybba, vice-chairperson of GBF. He outlined how this event is a starting point, to bring ‘people and ideas’ together, for the wider benefit of Makana. This point was taken up by Matthew Lester who pointed out that Grahamstown has a wealth of brain power, far exceeding the average for a city the size of Grahamstown. Richard then introduced the partners behind this event and also drew attention to the fact that the three speakers are major role players in Grahamstown.

Richard explained that GBF is a voluntary organisation, representing the business interests within Grahamstown and welcomes new members to join. He also highlighted the advantage of the various organisations in Grahamstown communicating and working collaboratively to improve the running of the city.

He then spoke about two current GBF projects, both connected with cleaning up the city centre. The first is a partnership between GBF, Makana, Creative City and Grahamstown Residents’ Association to clear up the streets, with particular thanks to Mike Webber who is providing his Rentall Skips free of charge. The second is a plan to replace all the broken dustbins in the city centre and reach an agreement about servicing the bins so they are emptied regularly.

Tony Lankester : CEO National Arts Festival

Tony covered a wide range of issues which he discussed under the headings:

  • Is the National Arts Festival going to move to Cape Town?
  • The Festival has lost its vibe
  • The press article: Grahamstown we have a problem

The answer to the first question is no, The National Arts Festival’s home is Grahamstown and will remain so unless it became impossible to continue here. In this regard, the water problems experienced this year have to be solved so there is no repeat.

The NAF has been growing steadily, so it is not a ‘bad thing’ that it stayed near its highest level, but did not expand further this year. The artistic performances were as good, if not better than any previous year with around 2,500 performances. If festival has ‘lost its vibe’ that is a reflection of activity in town. NAF does not run the restaurants and other services in town. There is scope for inventive business people to offer more services to festival goers.

A lot of thought was given to the Press article, and the timing of the article. The reality was that the word was already out that Grahamstown as the NAF venue had a water crisis. It would have seemed strange if NAF did not comment on this state of affairs, though the article was published after this year’s festival had finished. It actually had the effect of drawing a line under the problem and stopping further comment. Hopefully it will help inform the necessary dialogue that now needs to happen in Grahamstown.

Tony then went on to talk about ‘threats’ and ‘opportunities.’ Amongst the threats he identified are the inelastic capacity to grow accommodation further. He also spoke about the experiences of festival goers who used to praise Grahamstown businesses for not unduly inflating their prices for a captive audience, but that is no longer true. Threats posed by inadequate infrastructure.

It was interesting for the non-business community to witness Tony as CEO of NAF telling business people about niche markets they were missing – for example reliable baby-sitting services, secure taxi services (including to nearby towns) and a central point to take care of all accommodation bookings. He also spoke about the possibility of freeing up some of the more exclusive houses in town for renting during festival.

Nomhle Gaga: Executive Mayor of Makana Municipality

The Mayor began by stating that Grahamstown is her home, where her heart is and that she aims to be the Mayor for all 80,000 residents. She also pointed out that it is the people of Makana who pay her wages and that she is here to serve.

The Mayor then went on to outline numerous projects and upgrades that are in the pipeline, including substantial funding to further improve our water infrastructure, the sewer and water-treatment infrastructure, and a ‘waste to energy’ plant that would necessitate the upgrade of our electricity reticulation. She linked this latter development to resolving issues over illegal dumping.

The Mayor also drew attention to Makana’s determination to further improve revenue collection beyond the gains made to date. Issues with meter reading are being addressed, personnel issues tackled. There is a moratorium on staff overtime and also action on fleet management.

She gave a great amount of detail about a variety of funds, some in the R100 millions, to solve Makana’s infrastructure problems, that have either been secured, promised or applied for. The main water and sewage improvements are due for completion in 2018.

The Mayor also drew attention to the fact that businesses and individuals have a role to play, for example businesses ensuring that their buildings are painted and kept in good repair. She concluded by stating that she is committed to reduce staff costs and ensuring productivity, and stated that a clean city is non-negotiable.

Matthew Lester: Professor, Rhodes University Business School

Matthew provide many insights into the current challenges facing Grahamstown. He started by outlining some of the assets that the city enjoys such as its University, quality schools, certain businesses and more. He then outlined some the deficits such as the sharp divisions and inequality, water and infrastructure challenges, the ‘fees must fall’ protest and the wider economy.

This outline was then given more substance as graphs were presented showing the degrees of inequality, unemployment by age group.

He explicitly drew a distinction between successful businesses run by entrepreneurs and ‘survival businesses.’

Apart from giving a very clear account of the severity of the challenges facing Grahamstown, he also stated that some stakeholders do not have ownership, they do not own the problems, but they still want ‘their slice.’ As such these stakeholders can be a serious nuisance.

Matthew then moved the conversation forward towards some measures that would alleviate the problems and help Grahamstown move forward. He advocated that the survivalist businesses should be assisted to move into the mainstream through upskilling, mentorship and guidance. There is no shortage of ‘brain power’ in Grahamstown.

Finally, he showed graphs indicating profitability against ethical business and promoted the view that the most successful businesses work to a good ethical code as well as being profitable.

For his full presentation see: http://criticalthought.co.za/the-destructive-power-of-the-negative

Questions and Answers

The evening was given a further professional touch by having Chrissie Boughey, RU Student Affairs skilfully handling the question and answer session.

Questions

  1. There was a complaint that NAF did not talk with businesses enough.
  2. A questioner said that The Mayor had failed to explain her Vision for Makana.
  3. The Muslim community, numbering about 500, needs approval to build a mosque.
  4. Makana communications are deficient, and that there should be a ‘Makana Municipality page’ every week in Grocotts.
  5. Poor Communications by Makana were raised as the main problem by a few questioners, how can we access more information good or bad?
  6. In poorer schools, performance is hampered by poor parenting, and that social workers should be deployed to address this need.

Answers

  1. Tony answered stating that any businesses are welcome to come and talk with NAF, to share ideas and solve problems – he welcomes visitors as it can get lonely perched at the monument.
  2. It was pointed out that the first presentation: Grahamstown we have a problem was largely concerned with issues of maintenance and ageing infrastructure. The Mayor’s speech had addressed those concerns, and that fixing water, sanitation, illegal dumping and electricity infrastructure would be an excellent achievement, hardly lacking in vision. The Mayor repeated that she is determined to get the Municipality working more efficiently, attending to peoples’ needs and to produce a cleaner city.
  3. The questioner was referred to the fact that plans are in hand, with planning permission to be agreed for the site to build a mosque.
  4. This was accepted as a valuable suggestion which could also help to answer question 5. It would be looked at after the meeting.
  5. See 4.
  6. This is not directly something that Makana can action, as it falls under education.

Conclusion

The meeting concluded with an endorsement of The Mayor’s resolve to fix Grahamstown problems, the need for active citizens to get involved with Grahamstwon Business Forum and Grahamstown Residents’ Association, and that The Grahamstown Conversation needs to continue.

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