Small towns reservoirs of vast potential

I grew up in the small town of Alice, did my high schooling in the adjoining small town of Keiskammahoek and then returned to Alice to attend the University of Fort Hare.

By 1994, in my third year, I was one of millions who cast their first vote.

This exciting time also signalled that I was going to be a graduate and soon-to-be professional who would be working to develop post-apartheid South Africa. A year later, I completed an honours degree.

Aged 20, I had two degrees and some skills, had tutored and been a research assistant to two professors.

The small town and historic town of Alice had not only presented me with some great opportunities, but had groomed for me for a rewarding career.

Fast forward to the present, can the same be said of some towns today?

For many 20-year-old young people from villages or small towns, their lives almost seem to have ended before they even began.

What has happened to the kind of opportunities I had?

What has happened to the kind of small town living where municipalities had local economic development (LED) units that promoted socio-economic development?

Small town regeneration in the context of LED is not about projects. Regenerating the town is the project. It is not a group of mamas farming in it or grant-funded youth operating a car-wash. It’s about developing the town holistically as a place, as a people and economy. This holistic development is a project.

So my Alice for example, comprises the town and its surrounding villages. This includes Keiskammahoek and its 38 villages, Centani and its 44 villages.

To regenerate small towns, we should also know what this survival looks like.

A recent online exercise with friends and colleagues on LinkedIn asking them to define a town received fascinating responses.

These included “it is a gathering of people living in homes supported by trade and industry as required by them”. Another said a town was “a concentrated place where people conduct trade from different settlements…”

My conclusion was that people only know the towns as they see them. Conceptually, they struggle to put the idea of a town into words.

A Google search offers definitions such as “a built-up area with a name, defined boundaries and local government…larger than a village and generally smaller than a city”.

Seemingly, small towns are seen in comparison to something else: “Bigger” than villages but “smaller” than cities.

This suggests small towns are viewed for what they are not. They are not villages; they are not cities so they must be towns, right?

In my view, it is this “middlemen-ness” of towns that has brought about their decline. Their identity has not been sufficiently quantified regarding value, role and function, particularly when compared against cities and villages. And this uncertainty has caused confusion over responding to their decline.

Today’s policymakers debate the importance of infrastructure development in small towns. Others attempt to confine them to agricultural hubs. The concomitant funding for a project in a village will take place in isolation without the necessary support for the town to spearhead rural industrialisation.

I continue to be surprised by how little municipalities know about the towns they govern. They lack town profiles, data, information and, therefore, have no realistic plans for their towns.

StatsSA isn’t needed to collect such data – a group of unemployed graduates could do it in less than three months. However, the information remains unavailable with few or no requests for it.

But regenerating town economies is an extremely valuable exercise.

A regeneration programme brings life back into a town; promotes civic pride and a sense of belonging, improves the quality of life of residents, enhances the town’s collective contribution to the economy of their region, and positions small towns as natural points to accommodate the excess population from the neighbouring major urban centres or cities.

Towns are active players in the regeneration process. They offer many advantages. They are the alphas of industries. They are the “homes” of an estimated four out of five South Africans. They have vast amounts of land, dormant properties and available natural resources. Small towns have a pool of semi-skilled or skilled labour and have relatively low levels of crime.

It is time for LED managers to adopt towns as projects. Yes, new municipal demarcations will continue and town managers will no longer be part of the landscape. However, municipalities own these places and excitingly, a growing number of businesses are interested in them.

We need to fix our towns and make them socio-economically viable.

Phila Xuza is the director for the Centre for Small Towns Regeneration

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