Durban has had a great festive season. The beaches have been full and the city has been humming with energy and optimism, says the writer.
Even Durban's fiercest critics cannot deny that the new beachfront is a triumph of urban development and management, writes Imraan Buccus.

Most commentators have marked down 2016 as a really bad year for South Africa. The downward spiral began with South Africa dealing with the finance minister fiasco, Guptagate intensified, together with debates around Zuma's failed presidency, corruption and continued assassinations in Durban prior to the local elections. And 2017 is set to be a tumultuous year, politically, also.

But after a torrid 2016, Durban has had a great festive season. The beaches have been full and the city has been humming with energy and optimism.

Even the city's fiercest critics cannot deny that the new beachfront is a triumph of urban development and management.

Writing in The Mercury recently, former city manager, Michael Sutcliffe, reminded us about the spatial nature of under-development in South Africa and how far we have come in terms of integrating city spaces. It is truly wonderful that thousands and thousands of people have the chance to enjoy the beachfront over the festive season.

The beachfront is now an open and democratic space that is open to all residents in our city that is as impressive as any public space anywhere in the world. It is certainly the best-constructed, best-managed and most impressive public space anywhere in South Africa.

Public services are often shocking in South Africa. But down at the beachfront, rubbish is collected first thing every morning. No doubt we can do with less littering, though.

The police are a discrete and reassuring presence and the lifesavers provide an excellent service to the public. Private services are often pretty pathetic, too, in South Africa but on the beachfront one now can get an excellent meal and a world-class espresso with a warm smile.

The beachfront is not just the most important asset in our tourism industry. It is also one of the only spaces in our country where South Africans of all colours and classes can come together to enjoy our country together. The social value of this is invaluable.

And this genuinely world-class space is, along with Durban's pre-eminence in the popular music so enjoyed by our youth, making the city a far hipper and more exciting place to be for people in the rest of the country than it used to be a few years back.

With the right vision, this new excitement about Durban could be put to good use.

Of course the critical thing is that the beachfront must be kept out of the hands of the tenderpreneurs.

The likes of Jay Singh and Shauwn Mpisane have done massive damage to public housing in the city and if the beachfront falls into the hands of the class that gets government contracts in exchange for political support it will soon be run into the ground.

But while the municipality must be congratulated in the ongoing achievement that is the new beachfront their real success here does raise real questions about their failures elsewhere.

If the City can build and maintain a world-class public space, the question arises as to why education is such a disaster, policing is increasingly politicised and brutal, and why public spaces in the poor parts of the city are often in a terrible state.

Even in lower Glenwood, parks are overgrown, poorly managed, if it all, and have become sites of public danger rather than public recreation.

The success of the beachfront shows us that the City and the state in general can do things well, even brilliantly, when it really wants to.

The lesson for us is that if we want a state that really works, if we want world-class parks in Phoenix and uMlazi, if we want decent public housing, proper hospitals and the like, then we, the citizens, will have to create the pressure that will create the political will to deliver.

Without that pressure, the public purse will continue to be looted.

Ordinary South Africans are not willing to accept a political class that is more predatory than developmental.

Things have been hard in South Africa and without much sign of hope since the Marikana Massacre. But we are often reminded of what our democracy was supposed to be like. And Durban shone with promise over the festive season. There is no reason why our whole city cannot be as well-managed as our spectacular beachfront.

It's time to put our shoulders to the wheel.

There is a window of opportunity which, if made proper use of, could make sure that Durban's future looks more like the wonderful, open and democratic space of the beachfront, or the People's Park, than the closed, private space of South Africa's malls and the gated communities around it.

* Buccus is senior research associate at ASRI, Research Fellow in the School of Social Sciences at UKZN and academic director of a university study abroad programme on political transformation.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

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