Feeling inordinately proud about something isn’t an everyday occurrence. And when it does happen, it is cause for reflection. For me, that happened last Thursday when I went into the V&A Waterfront company’s offices to meet CEO David Green. It was my first visit into the offices in 15 years although I had popped into the reception several times over the years to say hello to the still-familiar faces.
I’d watched the Waterfront just get better and better since David Green became CEO — the obviously-evident fine-tuning — but it was the opening of the Watershed and the start of the MOCAA Gallery in the Silo Precinct that took my breath away.
When I saw Dave Jack, the Waterfront’s first MD, a few months ago, he asked if I had met David Green — “a true professional” — and when I said I hadn’t, he was insistent that he set up a meeting so I could interview him. I called Dave about setting up the interview when I knew I was going to be in town, and got through to him in Berlin! So I arranged the interview myself. It was surprisingly easy.
I really didn’t know what to expect of David Green or the Waterfront company 15 years on. So entering their new offices in the BP building certainly set the scene.
Sometimes one needs distance in order to see things more clearly… so where do I start?
I don’t think anybody could have anticipated that the V&A Waterfront company would be what and where it is today. After 40 minutes with David Green, I could only think of something I’ve said once before — Cape Town doesn’t know how fortunate it is to have him in Cape Town. (The last person I said that of is Dirk Elzinga — the first CEO of the Cape Town International Convention Centre.)
David Green has nurtured a new corporate culture at the Waterfront company. It is a winning culture. When it comes to responsible and sustainable tourism and property development, they are in a league of their own.
In 1994 I interviewed the late James Rouse, the father of the modern shopping mall, festival marketplaces and revitalised waterfronts (he developed over 30 worldwide), and a renowned philanthropist. He told me that Cape Town’s Waterfront would go on to become the best in the world, and he was saddened that he couldn’t have played a role because of the sanctions against SA at the time. Well, the V&A Waterfront company is determined to make it the best in world… and that’s not an idle boast.
I will be writing much more about David Green and V&AW elsewhere. I was truly honoured by the 25th anniversary book he gave me. I was delighted to meet Colin Devenish, Operations & Sustainability Executive — whose expertise is a far cry from V&AW’s early days — and Carla White, PR & Communications Manager (and yes Carla, I am actually reading every word in that book). And seeing Tabita Viljoen again was something really special. She was Derick van der Merwe’s PA when he was financial director and later as MD. She held things together during the messy changes and, I’m sure, must be an invaluable PA to David Green. She is one of the stalwarts, if not the stalwart, and her institutional knowledge is invaluable.
For me, the Waterfront started in 1979, ten years before development started, when I was asked to join the Minister of Sport’s Waterfront Steering Committee. Yachting was, or was soon to be, one of the few sports SA could compete in internationally. And the Cape to Rio yacht race needed a home base. Proposals polarised Cape Town, with architect Gawie Fagan proposing restoration of the historic precinct around the Victoria & Alfred Basins, while Louis Karol focused on the Granger bay area. My first battle was to get them on the same side saying, “Hey guys, it’s not either or, we want both!”
David Jack was already involved then but others who put in a lot of effort included Judge Louis Winsen, committee chairman, Prof Deon Retief and Muller Coetzee. Louis had to present the objections to a Waterfront to Gerrit Viljoen, sports minister, and one of the sharpest minds I’ve ever come across. When Louis outlined the vociferous objections from the chairwoman of the Somerset Hospital Board — that the waterfront would bring prostitution, vagrancy and drugs to the area — Viljoen clicked his fingers and snapped back, “Will it be drugs from the sailors to the nurses or nurses to the sailors?
In 1985, the waterfront was at the bottom of government’s agenda so I organised the Pierhead Festival which gained large-scale public access to the docks for the first time since the Suez Crisis of the 1960s. Sol Kreiner was the mayor at the time and he helped sneak the permissions through SA Railways & Harbours. We wanted to show Capetonians what a great place it really was. It was a huge success — so huge in fact that it was blamed for the less-than-stellar performance of the rest of the Cape Town Festival which ran at the same time. The entire cabinet had lunch there on one or other of the days.
I had asked Harold Gorvy, senior partner of Arthur Andersen and director on many boards (including Pick n Pay, who I needed as a participant) to chair my festival committee. He became so enthused by the opportunities that he told me to set up meetings with the Ministers of Tourism and Transport, which I did. We left with an undertaking that they would collaborate to investigate opening the harbour for development. The Burggraaf Committee was announced shortly after and Arie Burggraaf and I became good friends.
The formation of the V&A Waterfront company was announced on Thanksgiving Day 1988, at a function many would rather forget. The agency handling the audio-visual presentation messed up completely. The function started 1½ hours late and the AV still kept breaking down until chairman Brian Kantor took to the stage and told them to pack up and go home.
I moved into Dock House in May 1989 as builder Yusuf Arendse was clearing the derelict building of pigeons (and mountains of guano) making it habitable as the head office of the V&A Waterfront company. The Waterfront’s staff and management at the time comprised David Jack and Duncan Cloete, their secretaries and a tea lady/cleaner.
On a really sad note, I bumped into Hendrik Schoeman browsing around the Waterfront late in 1994. As transport minister in 1985, he had started everything happening, . He was pleased to see me but seemed very depressed and said, “You know, no-one will ever remember the role we played in making this happen.” Not long after, I heard that he had committed suicide on his farm in Limpopo. What makes this even more sad is that John Wiley, the tourism minister I had dealt with, had committed suicide prior to this. So this is my tribute to both of them.
If they are looking down on what is unfolding at Cape Town’s old docks, I’m sure they will feel the same pride that I have. And they will also be happy to know it is in such good hands.