Grahamstown-Makhanda Stakeholders close ranks in unprecedented “circle of unity”

Stakeholder Imbizo at Council Chamber
Stakeholder Imbizo at Council Chamber

A diversity of multi-sectoral civil society stakeholders including faith organisations, businesses, unemployed people, schools, rate-payers, youth and cultural organisations, met at Rhodes University on 30 July in an “unprecedented show of unity” to reflect on the challenges facing the city.

City Mayor, Mr Mzukisi Mpahlwa, who also attended the gathering, gave an unscripted address followed by questions and comments from the stakeholder groups.

Speakers on a packed programme reflected the diversity of the stakeholder groups in attendance. They included Rhodes University Vice Chancellor, Dr Sizwe Mabizela, Mr Ayanda Kota of Unemployed Peoples Movement, Professor Harry Dugmore of the Grahamstown Foundation, businessmen Mr Mpumelelo Ncwadi and Mr Phenyo Nonqane-Lekoma, Reverend Dumile Monakali of the Grahamstown East Ministers’ Fraternal and Mr Richard Gaybba, Chair of the Grahamstown Business Forum.

Reverend Canon Dr Vicentia Kgabe, Rector of the College of Transfiguration, and the Director of the Rhodes University Business School, Professor Owen Skae, facilitated the day-long discussion. Use of an online platform, Menti, allowed participants to comment on or query each individual speaker anonymously in real-time.

“What unites us is far more important that what divides us. We are here today to reflect openly, honestly and constructively about our shared challenges. What brings us together here today is our commitment to the future of our beautiful little city,” Dr Mabizela said as he opened the gathering.

Cape Town-based businessman, Mr Mpumelelo Ncwadi, urged participants to “commit to ceasing certain patterns of unhelpful behaviours, as this tends to be easier than starting new habits. If people don’t think we can make a better future for Makhanda, then they should step aside and let those who are able and willing do it”.  

In his ‘consensus-building’ approach, Mr Ncwadi reminded participants that consensus did not mean agreement on everything. “It means that you can live with the resolution that is presented. If we are going to do co-creation, we’ve got to build consensus.”

Mr Phenyo Nonqane-Lekoma, a Rhodes University Alumnus and Managing Director of PIMC Development Communication & Research, based his talk on an article he wrote about Makhanda, This city needs a real plan.

Mr Nonqane-Lekoma referred to a basic urban development implementation model as a possible solution to reach the city’s goals, and he suggested that these stakeholder engagements be formalised and that regular open forums be held.

Mr Gaybba applauded the efforts to stabilise the socio-economic situation in Makhanda. “We are in a much better position today than what we were in at the same time in 2018. Yes, at times things aren’t ideal, but this is still a great place to work, to live, to play and to co-exist.”

He referred to the Mayor, the Municipal Manager (MM) and the new Chief Financial Officer (CFO), as ‘the three wise men’. Makana Municipality’s CFO, he said, is one of only 18 municipal CFOs to have received a clean audit from the Auditor-General in the last financial year.

“What strikes me about these three individuals is their humanness, willingness to engage and their lack of excuses and blaming of others,” he said. “And I don’t think in my time, we’ve ever had that before.”

Mr Mpahlwa started his speech by professing his confidence in the city’s stakeholders. “Since my return as Mayor last year, I’ve been contemplating putting together a Mayoral Advisory Council. However, I am reviewing this in favour of a broad-based stakeholder consultative forum.”

Mr Mpahlwa gave a very candid report of the municipality’s finances. “We are practically bankrupt,” he said.

He explained that of the R473 million generated by the municipality, it spends R471 million annually, which leaves very little for maintenance.

“Although R138 million is owed to service suppliers by the municipality, the municipality is owed a total of R492 million.” he explained. “And the biggest culprits are the residents.”

If the municipality was to be paid the R492 million it is owed, it would be able to pay off its service supplier debt and still have R354 million to spend on services. “This is why I am saying everyone has a role to play,” he said.

He explained to the stakeholders that the biggest issue halting Makhanda’s development was not water, but sewage infrastructure. “I am told Rhodes University has land that will allow them to double their numbers, but they can’t because of the sewage infrastructure problem. Same goes for the housing developments plans,” he said.

“It is true, we have very competent people in our current administration. All of the senior positions have been filled, except for the one of infrastructure, but we are going to fill that position very soon.”

Professor Harry Dugmore said he believed that Makhanda could offer “many revenue and job-creation opportunities if we can position it as a tourism and creativity hotspot”.

One of the main landmarks he highlighted was the 1820s Settlers Monument, which he believed could be turned into an even more valuable asset as a museum and conference centre that could embody the shared histories of the people of Makhanda, in a similar vein to the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg.

Reverend Dumile Monakali emphasised the necessity to engage in skill building for unemployed youth. He brought to light the growing problem of public nuisance, which is a result of unemployment and the many unregulated liquor stores and taverns cropping up in the town. He suggested academics and non-academics come together to create a technical college to inspire the disadvantaged youths of Makhanda.

Mr Ayanda Kota shared his belief that the positive changes seen around Makhanda are because of the people and not the government or municipality. “We cannot run away from the fact that there is disappointing leadership in this city,” he said. In order to turn over a new leaf, said Mr Kota, we need to stand together as “solidarity is key to the people of Makhanda”.

“Today each one of you showed tremendous commitment. By our mere presence here today, we have all made a powerful statement. We have taken upon ourselves a huge responsibility. I am grateful that we have taken that critical first step of this long and arduous journey together,” concluded Luzuko Jacobs, Director of Communications and Advancement at Rhodes University.

Short interviews with each of the speakers can be viewed here.