By Tony Carnie & Greg Arde
Durban will never be the same again - after nearly four decades of uncertainty the city is finally getting a new "aerotropolis" which will transform the regional economy.
The official lift-off for the King Shaka International Airport and Dube Trade Port was confirmed on Thursday when the Environmental Affairs Department flashed the green light after finding no fatal environmental flaws to prevent the project from going ahead.
Despite some significant opposition and daunting social challenges, the decision was widely applauded as a catalyst for economic growth.
It will transform the character and shape of the northern part of the city closest to the airport, and create major ripple effects in the south as the existing airport is dismantled, freeing up this land for further industrial, manufacturing and harbour development.
The new northern airport will have a much longer runway, space for four times as many aircraft, as well as a major agricultural and trade cargo zone which is set to put Durban back on the national map as a serious economic player.
According to the environmental impact assessment (EIA) study, the project has the potential to double KZN's economic growth rate and create somewhere between 160 000 and 260 000 new jobs as it rolls out between 2010 and 2035.
Because of the limitations of the existing airport, Durban has become marginalised in relation to Johannesburg and Cape Town.
The report says the new airport could serve to reconnect the city to the global economy and also allow KZN to woo a much larger slice of the international tourism market.
Premier S'bu Ndebele was over the moon.
"This is phenomenal news... It means work on the construction of the R6,8-billion airport and the trade port will now begin in earnest," he said.
The Durban Chamber of Commerce and Industry's CEO, Bonke Dumisa, said: "We want the province to move forward and this will have huge impact."
Finance and Economic Development MEC Zweli Mkhize said the EIA decision had struck an intricate and sensitive balance between economic development, environmental conservation and the needs of communities.
He said the decision would allow KZN to meet its 2010 deadline to showcase the airport and the Dube Trade Port, unlocking Far East and Latin markets.
"Our message to KZN citizens is that the waiting game is over and KwaZulu-Natal will never be the same again," he said.
Businessman Mark Taylor, who has pioneered property development on the North Coast, said: "This is incredible news.
"A lot of people were sceptical about whether the airport would go ahead. It will bring direct flights from overseas and lots more tourists. It's very exciting."
eThekwini DA leader John Steenhuisen expressed concern about the infrastructural costs of the airport that the city would have to bear.
The DA estimates this will be upwards of R300-million.
"This will place an incredible burden on the city, already struggling to get ready for 2010."
Several protracted disputes around the airport have been settled and Municipal Manager Mike Sutcliffe said: "If the same spirit of finding common ground can be maintained for the next 12 to 18 months then I have no doubt that it will be a major asset for the city."
Development consultant Jeff McCarthy, who has studied the impact of the new airport and allied trade port, said they gave Durban's economy a "real chance" of becoming internationally competitive.
The three-year construction boom would mean thousands of on-site jobs and "tens of thousands" of indirect jobs.
"There is a lot of hype around the airport, but if you look beyond the construction phase, to when the airport will be operational, it will provide a new lease of life for many businesses that are currently constrained."
McCarthy said a recent study concluded that the biggest impediment to growth around the city was the lack of land for industrial development.
Freeing up the Durban International Airport site put 600ha of flat land on the market and competitive petro-chemical and auto industries could now expand.
"Big international companies have walked away from investing in Durban because of the lack of land."
Durban's motor industry could grow through space and by virtue of an international airport.
McCarthy said Durban had an opportunity for global best practice in logistics.
"In Germany, and Chicago in the United States, for example, they have 1 000ha logistics parks where they move containers from trains, ships and planes. In comparison, what we're doing by stacking containers in Clairwood is a Third World mess.
"The world has an open mind about South Africa, but the Afro-pessimists are there. This gives us a real chance to be different.
"This is Durban's only serious chip on the global industrial logistics table... It's very exciting.
"Durban is only here because of logistics and industry. The city was smaller than Pietermaritzburg in 1860. It grew because of the port and manufacturing," said McCarthy.
Rather than just an airport, the study promises the new "aerotropolis" will be a blend of components, including an IT hub, manufacturing zone, an export-driven farming project and specialist warehousing.