Mercury: Op-Ed on Emacambini

Developments need to be based on partnerships
Without government and communities working together, even the best-intentioned projects can do more harm than good

November 19, 2008 Edition 1

Imraan Buccus

NATIONAL attention remains fixed on the unlovely aftermath of Polokwane and the new political party, Congress of the People (Cope).

At times like this, we often forget the ordinary people who keep the country going, and in whose name most of the major battles continue to be fought.

It is also often in the name of ordinary and poor people that many elite projects are planned. One such project is a development that will be known as AmaZulu World.

Ruwaad, a Dubai-based developer, has announced plans to build a mega-scale themed entertainment development on the North Coast and, according to the company, it will be the “largest and most comprehensive of its kind in Africa”. Perhaps it is important to also mention that it will cost R44 billion.

Bearing in mind Emirati opulence and extravagance, the development will include a theme park, the continent’s largest shopping destination, an advanced sports village development, and will have activities and facilities that include hotels, resorts and spas, an agricultural village and a marina. The development will also feature residential homes and offices as well as six golf courses, an equestrian estate, a nature reserve, 22km of beachfront and a 106m-tall figure of the iconic Zulu King Shaka.

As usual, we are told that it would create economic growth and sustainability.

Somewhat surprisingly, there hasn’t been any serious discussion in the public discourse about a project of this magnitude, especially in a province where close to half the population lives in poverty and hell-like conditions. This vision of hell is often difficult to reconcile with our politicians’ focus on casinos, theme parks and stadiums.

The old story that these elite projects will drive economic growth and sustainability that will help the poor cuts no ice.

There is nowhere in the world where elite projects have done so much more than enrich the people who get the contracts to build and manage them.

Every time I hear about how a stadium or a theme park would save us, I can’t help thinking of Ngugi wa Thiongo’s brilliant Wizard of the Crow. In this novel, a paranoid dictator throws all his country’s meagre resources into constructing the tallest building in the world, which he calls “Marching Heaven”.

Of course, as the resources flow into the concrete instantiation of his manic ego, they are sucked out of the hands of ordinary people, leading only to a phallic excess of bad taste, amid profound misery.

I am not the only one to have a nagging suspicion that many who push for elite developments such as AmaZulu World are after little more than their own piece of the “Marching Heaven” action.

Given the nature of life in South Africa and the profound nature of our social crisis, our focus should be about putting the ordinary people at the centre of public life.

But there are scant signs, even with the rapidly changing political scene in KwaZulu-Natal and South Africa, of our own Evo Morales emerging from the new order. It seems like the government is set to continue to plough ahead with its tendency to plan and implement its own projects, rather than engage in a real partnership with its people.

Despite what we are told about the new project on the North Coast, there has been no real consultation with the people. There may have been token consultation to legitimise the process, but there certainly has not been true, meaningful participation in the decision-making around the project.

Thousands of people will be affected; people will lose land and be forced to settle in other areas. Experience and evidence in South Africa should be adequate warning to our leaders that such a process could be disastrous if solutions are not directly negotiated with communities themselves, rather than imposed on them from above.

And our leaders could draw lessons from recent developments in India. The very recent attempt by the West Bengal government to take away land for a Tata Motors project was met with unflinching resistance by the people of Singur, especially landless labourers and marginal farmers, forcing Tata Motors to withdraw its small car project from that area.

The movements of Singur have emboldened people across India and indeed the world to resist forcible acquisition of their resources and the denial of their rights in the name of development. Bearing in mind South Africa’s history of resistance and the mistakes we have already made – from the uShaka development in Durban, to forcing decisions on people in Khutsong and Matatiele, to the Joe Slovo settlement in Cape Town, we needed to have learnt by now that any successful development has to be based on democratic planning partnerships between governments and communities.

The inequalities and social fragmentation in South Africa is a crisis that must be addressed on the basis of respect and partnership.

Without that partnership, even the best-intentioned projects can do more harm than good. Nothing else has worked. Top-down planning, whether undertaken by the World Bank or socialist governments, has never produced a decent society.

Imraan Buccus is a research organisation and university based researcher. He is also a PhD Research Fellow at Nijmegen University in the Netherlands. He writes in his personal capacity.