Lessons from Durban

This piece originally appeared in NEXT in September 2009

By Tolu Ogunlesi

“Usually planning in cities is [done] around the egos of city managers who have [only] five years in office.” Those were the words of Dr. Mike Sutcliffe, City Manager, eThekwini Municipality, speaking in July in Durban, South Africa, at a recent media briefing on the challenges of preparing a city to host the biggest soccer event in the world. “Whatever we have to do in our city has to be sustainable… we really are looking at a strategy way beyond the Fifa World Cup next year.” Durban, South Africa’s second largest city, and part of the eThekwini Municipality, is currently developing 60 – 70 year city plans.

Nigeria, a country that builds for the present but never the future, would do well to replicate Durban’s foresight. It is worthy of note that the only airport in Lagos, the most populous city in Africa, was built thirty years ago, and has not been upgraded or expanded since then. “No rail project has been done in Lagos since I was born,” said Lagos State Governor, Babatunde Fashola, in a recent television interview.

The story is the same with bridges; the last ambitious bridge project in the state is now almost twenty years old.

Durban, self-acclaimed “Africa’s sporting and events capital” and first South African city to introduce free “basic services” as water and electricity, is using the World Cup opportunity to justify a long-term, city-wide infrastructure upgrade.

According to Sutcliffe, fibre optic cabling is being laid throughout the city; revenue generated from renting it out will be used to upgrade the bandwidth. The cabling is being laid along the sewerage system to enable it reach every part of the city. Similarly the city is experimenting with using the existing electricity cables to transmit voice. The principle of long-term thinking also extends to the ports. Durban is Africa’s busiest port city; there is a 30 to 40-year plan in place.

Further evidence of a long-term city vision: “This will be the only stadium in Africa that can host the Olympics,” said Dr. Sutcliffe. The stadium referred to is the US$370 million Moses Mabhida stadium, newly constructed for the World Cup. He added that the stadium is being built to be much more than a football stadium, that the plan is to ensure that “365 days a year, people will come here… for leisure sports.” Regarding the new lanes being planned for the city’s roads, Sutcliffe said “all of the future lanes are going to be for public transport” – the idea being to discourage private transport.

All of these developmental projects are providing new jobs. Thirty-thousand residents of Durban are currently employed to manage and maintain roads – mostly involving pothole-fixing; for 500 rand a month (approximately 9,891 naira) Durban is also putting in place a BRT system, as well as integrating all its transport systems – bus, rail, taxi. “In the next 5 – 10 years we want a single ticket that you can use to travel anywhere within the city,” Sutcliffe disclosed.

Faced with resistance from taxi drivers who think that the planned BRT system will negatively affect their business, the city took 30 of the “toughest and roughest” drivers to Colombia to see how an integrated transport system works.

There are lessons for the giant of Africa to learn from Durban. The cheering news is that the Lagos State Government, to cite the rare example, seems eager to genuinely transform the city. Governor Fashola, during a TV interview said “We are already looking beyond 2015… that’s why we have 15 – 20 – 25-year plans.” According to him, the population of Lagos is projected to be 25 million by 2025. He described the city as being “18 million people by the seaside; an underserved economy populated by people with a very high taste.” He also admitted that Lagos is in dire need of “a new airport, a new seaport, more roads and new bridges.”

That is not exactly rocket science; it is a given that every urban area will continually be in need of new infrastructure to match its growth rate. But perhaps we need to be thankful that at least one “state manager” has started by publicly diagnosing the problem, whilst many others are busy awarding contracts that hold maximum ‘self-enrichment’ possibilities, but no developmental value.

And as the Under-17 World Cup (to be hosted by Nigeria) approaches, we need our governments and LOCs to look beyond November 2009, as South Africa proudly proclaims its “2010 and Beyond” vision.

Sadly, amid the din of the disgraceful MRI test results, and the controversies regarding the NTA’s broadcast equipment upgrade, one imagines it will be hard to pass any message across at this time.

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