I’ve spent two years exploring South Africa and have never ceased to be amazed at the enormous disparity between towns as “Destinations.”
Take tiny De Rust near Meiringspoort in the Western Cape as an example. It has far greater attraction than Mokopane — 200 times larger — on the edge of the Waterberg in Limpopo. De Rust has a welcoming main street and a lively café scene. Mokopane hardly encourages a stop yet, digging deeper, it has so much unused potential — from adjacent mountains and Makapan’s World Heritage Site to the Nyl River.
Mokopane has a very attractive golf course — which the municipality swapped with the mine for water infrastructure. But then one looks at Phalaborwa, also in Limpopo, where the mine sold its golf course to a developer and, today, Hans Merensky Estate is to Phalaborwa what the V&A Waterfront is to Cape Town.
Thinking of the spectacular views from Rotary Way which runs along the mountaintop above Hermanus, I didn’t discover a single road onto Mokopane’s mountain!
I also visited Mosesetjane, one of Mokopane’s more rural townships on tribal land (where the only municipal service seems to be a water tanker for funeral parties). But it was clean, friendly and there was an evident sense of pride in spite of poverty. It has more sense of place than Mokopane town.
Looking at the success of towns, it all boils down to two (or maybe three) things:
- The competence of municipal government to understand that their responsibility goes far beyond service delivery — they must also create attractive places where entrepreneurship flourishes.
- Citizens who expect and demand more of their local government.
And then there is the third item:
- Mines and other non-sustainable industries are, in most cases, a kiss of death for any town. They tend to “take ownership” of towns, they stifle entrepreneurship and lower expectations for environmental quality. (Yes, there are exceptions and I refer to one below. But mining towns are essentially utilitarian and lacking in whimsy and delight.)
Turning towns around
The failure of many towns to provide a “sense of place” or adequate framework for entrepreneurial growth stems from a lack of a meaningful Urban Design Frameworks. Few municipalities understand the complexity of developing urban places that work, let alone entice, enthrall and are enjoyed.
Mthatha in the Eastern Cape is just one example of a totally and utterly dysfunctional town. East London’s CBD has no attraction value at all.
Catalysts for change
Many towns owe their renewal, to a lesser or greater extent, to one or more catalysts. There’s always value to understanding this and looking for potential new catalysts.
In Cape Town, the pedestrianisation of St George’s Street and the development of the V&A Waterfront played an important role.
The high level of urban management within the V&A Waterfront led for calls for this to be replicated in Cape Town’s CBD, which led to the establishment of the Cape Town Partnership — a very successful private-public partnership that ensures the city is one of the most desirable destinations in the world.
In Napier, like many small towns in the Western Cape, an influx of city folk saw buildings being sensitively restored and a new community vitality.
In Graaff-Reinet, the purchase and restoration of historical buildings by the late Dr Anton Rupert’s Historical Homes of SA saw a resurgence of town pride and home-owners came to the party.
In Cradock, Sandra Antrobus, a farmer’s wife, got into antiques and then building restoration, and ended up buying and restoring a whole street — Die Tuishuise — which has become the face of “Destination Cradock”.
In Phalaborwa, Rio Tinto looking forward to the time when mining will cease, endowed the town with R176 million and the Palabora Foundation. The outcome is that local learners outperform others in Limpopo province and a wide range of skills training for adults is provided. The Foundation also funds the local tourism office, arguably the best tourism office in the province not funded and managed by Limopo Tourism itself. What is tangible is the pride in Phalaborwa. Other mining towns wish their mining companies would emulate Rio Tinto’s lead.
And then there is the example of two catalysts for change that don’t achieve the leverage they could:
Shark cage diving at Gansbaai is big business and attracts the most remarkable stream of international celebrities. But they are bussed in and bussed out in a day and the spin-off for the town is nowehere as great as it could be.
The Western Cape’s Route 62 should be a money-spinner (job creator, etc) for the 11 — 14 towns along the route, which is only 70km longer than the notoriously dangerous N1, with three towns along its route. But the failure of Western Cape Government and SANRAL to effectively promote the alternative prevents Route 62 from reaching its full potential.
The awards programme needs to achieve a few things. It needs to:
- Help local government discover how to create “People Places” that nurture entrepreneurship;
- Involve citizens and past visitors so that they engage with local government and destination marketing organisations to identify what works and what can work better;
- Identify catalysts for change and encourage other catalysts to emerge.
I’m grateful to Mariette du Toit-Helmbold for this definition of a destination by the Communication Group: “At its simplest a destination is a place where people want to be. It is a special place, it is more than just bricks and mortar; it is a place whose greatest assets and experiences occupy people’s minds and hearts.“