Central’s huge potential as a complex student village

Central, Port Elizabeth. File picture
Central, Port Elizabeth. File picture
Image: Deneesha Pillay

The coming decade will be critical for urban questions in SA.

The evidence in front of us is presenting three inevitable realities:

  • The high levels of poverty and unemployment will be urban problems. The country’s majority will migrate to our big cities in search for livelihoods.
  • The political and socioeconomic situation in the Southern African region is not promising either, which means our urban questions for this decade will include the problems and opportunities that come with immigration.
  • These urban questions will be contestations of the youth. In other words, the continent’s youthification of its population in the 21st century will be a political and an economic responsibility of SA’s major cities.

The state of readiness for our cities and their local governments to engage with these complexities is a conversation we need to begin having quite seriously.

For Port Elizabeth, these questions require the highest standards of said leadership and strong collaborative networks of stakeholder management if we are to maximise this opportunity.

First, for every country across the globe undergoing an unemployment crisis and massive youth urbanisation, the primary casualty of those realities is always the country’s institutions of higher education and training.

This is not unexpected.

As the possibilities of making a living depreciate broadly, young people and professionals whose labour value is under threat begin to enrol into education institutions to hopefully improve their competitiveness.

These questions are now on the agenda of every senate committee of every university in SA.

The higher education sector is running against time to rearrange the structure of its qualifications from classical specialisations into transdisciplinary optimisations.

This includes an appetite to equip graduates with practical competencies to be socially entrepreneurial and personally productive to take advantage of the opportunities that the digital economy provides in our times.

Yet, the process of accessing higher education and succeeding out of it remains a challenge for the overwhelming majority of first-generation students from underprivileged backgrounds.

For others who opt for an entrepreneurial corridor in our city, the economic environment does not provide them the kind of support they need.

For the destitute, our unstable local government continues to fail in the fulfilment of its basic functions, which is a major gap in our city that could possibly breed the ugliest tendencies of our society if left unattended by us local citizens for too long.

The Nelson Mandela University has decided to take an active role in these urban questions in numerous ways as a responsible party in Port Elizabeth’s youth urbanisation patterns.

The university sees these developments as socioeconomic opportunities for the city.

First, the city’s urban settlements such as Summerstrand, Central, North End, and Walmer have drastically transformed in their demographics and this has also reconfigured their cultural and governance priorities.

Second, the local businesses situated in these settlements have augmented their services to cater for consumption traffic that the 24/7 student economy provides.

Third, the property industry of these areas has been seriously rejuvenated by students at a brink of its collapse, especially in areas such as Central and North End which are located closer to what was a decaying CBD.

Fourth, the construction of the university’s medical school in the township space of Missionvale and Zwide will provide the necessary equitable access to public health care and generate indirect economic opportunities for those areas forever.

It is the area of Central, though, that captures my curiosity.

Located right at the heart of the city, it has massive potential to be the centre of our social vibrancy, a nest of our diverse working-class Southern African cultures, a youth hub where students and young professionals can congregate for dining and settlement purposes, and a possible space to host our tourism prospects which could generate sustainable  entrepreneurial opportunities for our local citizenry.

To make this possible, Central needs a hard-working class of local businesspeople, local government officials, university administrators, active students and a committed public to productively collaborate as a solidarity economy to awaken its prosperity.

The existing culture of working in silos with short-term accumulative motives will be unsustainable.

In this regard, the role players in Central should broaden their scope, and emulate national and international case studies while keeping their unique local context in mind.

No urban renewal strategy has ever been successful without targeted investments from the property sector and active engagement from primary stakeholders, which in our case are students.

If these collaborations can be properly managed in this manner, the area of Central will generate a prosperous economy going into 2030 that will be appreciated and legitimised by the whole city, where every stakeholder will ultimately benefit sustainably.

These are the kinds of visionary competencies required to actively address the urban questions of the 21st century.

Pedro Mzileni is a lecturer in the department of sociology and anthropology at Nelson Mandela University and writes in his personal capacity

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