Durban dancer Jemma van Breda and her UNITY team have ambitious plans for the city’s derelict “tree house”. Sharing her vision is film director Lindo Langa. PICTURE: DOCTOR NGCOBO/ANA
Durban - Plans are afoot to transform one of the city’s most prominent derelict buildings into a “beacon of creativity and upliftment”.

With the blessing of the municipality’s Parks, Recreation, Arts and Culture Department, it is the brainchild of 19-year-old Jemma van Breda, a dancer, choreographer and corporate communications student. She aims to give the eyesore a massive facelift and turn it into an arts and culture precinct.

The plan aims to re-energise the arts industry in the country, while adding to the city’s regeneration plan.

Just as Durban’s International Convention Centre regenerated the area to become the acclaimed venue it is, the proposed centre has the potential to become a “global stage for arts and culture”, she says.

“If it can be done once (as in the ICC uplifting the area), it can be done again,” the upbeat Van Breda said on Wednesday.

The double-storey landmark building at the city side of Umgeni Road has been so neglected over the years that it has trees growing out of it. Vagrants called it home for a while, but it was boarded up to keep them out.

Van Breda plans to raise the millions of rand needed to renovate the “tree house” with corporate backing and crowd-funding. She has already had an encouraging meeting with a leading bank about the initiative.

“It is a daunting, monumental task, especially as it is a double-storey building, but we will pull it off,” she said.

Van Breda and Lingo Langa, a film director, recently had a meeting with Thembinkosi Ngcobo, the head of the department.

Van Breda recently formed UNITY South Africa, a platform for dance, music, acting, film, fitness, yoga, performing arts and “all things creative”.

After dancing in Los Angeles, California, on a scholarship she had been set to begin a career in the US when she decided to return home, to provide local artists with a platform to gain experience through international workshops and exchanges - and giving them a reason to stay in South Africa.

Van Breda told Ngcobo of UNITY’s vision and that a centrally situated creative space in Durban was needed for local talent, which often did not have anywhere to rehearse.

She had seen similar arts and culture precincts in the US and it was “awesome” to see how they had transformed neglected areas.

Ngcobo mentioned the building in Umgeni Road and, after Van Breda had paid it a visit, she realised it was ideal.

She hopes to get into the building with an architect in the next month to see how many rooms there are. She envisages a room for every art form, and a central stage. Only then, will she know how much the facelift will cost.

Asked if people wondered why someone of her age was doing something so ambitious, she said: “We are the next generation. We have a pool of talent and we know where we are going.”

Ngcobo said last night that the process of approval for the project had yet to be concluded, but four years ago the city had identified 16 precincts that could be turned into arts and culture centres in the hope of revamping the inner city. The building Van Breda wants was one of them, and there was another nearby.

The UNITY initiative will be launched at the Durban Exhibition Centre (Hall 6) at 12.30pm on Sunday. It is open to the public and is free.

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