Nelson Mandela Bay has potential to reverse negative image and become a ‘magnet city’

The Donkin Reserve in Gqeberha, Nelson Mandela Bay. File picture
The Donkin Reserve in Gqeberha, Nelson Mandela Bay. File picture
Image: KAREN VAN ROOYEN

Bilbao in Spain, Christchurch in New Zealand, Changwon in South Korea, Pittsburgh in the USA, Malmö in Sweden — cities on different continents, with different stories, but all are “magnet cities” with positive pulling power that attracts new residents, business investors and tourists.

All have flipped their magnetism from negative to positive, reversing industrial decline or the  effects of natural disasters or pollution and congestion that repelled people, and have become vibrant and attractive once again.

In common with Nelson Mandela Bay, all are “second cities” rather than their country’s capital or major global cities.

Our city needs to do better in attracting and retaining investment that creates new employment, particularly with unemployment in the Bay now at a record high of 40%.

We need to reverse the negative magnetism of an unstable and unpredictable local political and economic environment and get the basics right — cleanliness, safety and security, effective and reliable electricity and water supply, maintaining roads and infrastructure, looking after heritage and tourism assets, and cutting out the red tape that hinders investment.

The needs are urgent, absolutely necessary for enabling the recovery of our local economy that has taken a beating during these last few years of instability and lack of attention to service delivery and maintenance, worsened by the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, to the extent that the city’s GDP in 2020 rolled back to its 2010 level.

Short-term solutions are needed where possible, but at the same time a longer-term view, guided by a bigger picture future vision, is needed too.

Informed by the fourth industrial revolution, the drive to attract investment needs to look at “future proofing” our economy, stimulating new types of investment that create new jobs not only in terms of additional work opportunities, but also entirely new types of jobs.

The concept of “magnet cities”, developed through research by KPMG International, is an starting point that provides inspiration and insight, and could spark some of the blue-sky thinking and bold leadership needed to turn our city around.

Magnet cities as buzzing with new ideas that kick-start new businesses, social networks and infrastructure; they are places where people, money and ideas “mix and ferment” amid a vibrant social and cultural life.

Magnet cities attract young wealth creators — be they tech start-ups or filmmakers or eco-industrialists — with not only the physical infrastructure they need, but with authenticity, and an attractive social and cultural fabric.

The pandemic has shown us that people really can work from anywhere and many companies have made remote working possible.

This is a positive that a city like the Bay, with its natural surroundings and quality of life, needs to capitalise on.

Magnet cities have a definable, clear identity — the values, interests, skills they are best known for.

This is not easy to do, but it can be done, and the researchers emphasise it takes a shared vision and a concerted effort by government, business, civil society working together.

They are well connected to other cities, facilitating not only economic activity but leisure and tourism as well.

Here again, the Bay has great potential, as a city with two ports and a tourism gateway to the Garden Route and the Eastern Cape’s many game reserves.

Business and government work with academic institutions to cultivate new ideas, and support inventors and entrepreneurs.

We have Nelson Mandela University, with its focus on engagement, sustainability, innovation and leadership, and other academic institutions, that we can work with in building and implementing a bold vision for the city.

The key success factor in all of these city turnarounds was strong leadership — mayors and civic leaders who worked more collaboratively with residents, business, universities, investors and developers than is the norm.

The leaders of these turnaround cities were able to get diverse role players on board; to withstand criticism, negativity and hostility; and to reject status quo thinking and embrace new ways of doing things.

Though they saw the ballot box as the ultimate test of their leadership and vision, pragmatism rather than partisan political interests was their overriding concern.

Our metro is now at a tipping point.

Strong, courageous leadership is needed, willingness to take decisions (and implement them) on the bold steps needed to achieve stability and certainty and effective service delivery towards both short-term economic recovery and a longer-term vision of a city buzzing with life, ideas and opportunities that entices creators of wealth and employment.

We need bold, brave decisions to unlock the potential of our city before it is too late and there is no coming back from the current dysfunctional state.

As we are days away from the local government elections, as an apolitical organisation, the chamber is committed to working with the municipality’s officials and political leaders in the best interests of the city, no matter which party they represent.

Our goal is to work collaboratively to achieve a stable operating environment for business, to protect jobs, and to grow the Bay as an attractive destination for new investment and talent.

Can the Bay be a “magnet city”?

It’s in all of our hands.

Denise van Huyssteen is CEO of the Nelson Mandela Bay Business Chamber.

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