From 1 to 2 October the future of Stellenbosch will be on the agenda at a conference organised by Mayor Conrad Sidego. Prominent Stellenbosch business and community leaders, including university vice-chancellor Russell Botman, PSG chairman Jannie Mouton, and FNB CEO Michael Jordaan, Media24 Chairperson Rachel Jafta, amongst others, will discuss how to turn Stellenbosch into the “innovation capital of Africa”.
Stellenbosch certainly has excellent potential. It has a world-class IT infrastructure (an initiative is underway to provide free wifi to all inhabitants), it is home to a university now ranked within the top 400 in the world (and second in Africa), it is close to Cape Town airport and the city, and last but not least, it is situated in one of the most beautiful valleys, surrounded by vineyards and (as many of my friends’ pictures on Facebook show) snow-capped mountains. The latter should not be a throw-away comment: a scenic environment that promotes a high quality of life is essential to drawing high-income migrant entrepreneurs. Not many of the Stellenbosch mafia – a tongue-in-cheek reference to Julius Malema’s comment – are originally from the region. And within the last decade or so, Stellenbosch has begun to realise its potential: Mxit, a social networking site connecting Africa, has its main headquarters in the centre of town, while on the periphery Technopark has emerged as a hub for innovative engineering firms (and related services).
So a conference to discuss the future of the town is an excellent initiative. However, the preliminary programme seems rather vague on the intended outcome; as far as I know, there has been no systematic consultation process to ask for input or comments. Reading down the list of keynote speakers, I see no mention of town planners, engineers, or scholars with ideas about city improvement. This is unfortunate, and suggests that the conference is more of a PR exercise than an actual policy debate. Yet, a discussion about its future is important because, although much has been done, there is much more to do to make Stellenbosch a mecca for African innovators. Here are a few ideas:
- Get public transport going: Building more roads and more parking will only exacerbate congestion. Instead, build five parking garages on the outskirts of town (one close to the train station, one at the entrance of Kayamandi, one at the entrance of Cloetesville, one at the entrance of Idasvalley and one at the entrance where the R44 enters Stellenbosch from Somerset West. From here, have buses move people on designated routes. This will require the buy-in from the municipality, the university, businesses and the taxi industry. Buses can be subsidised by imposing fees on cars that go beyond those points. This will allow more investment in bicycle and pedestrian lanes, which will allow the town to benefit much more from its beautiful (but narrow) streets and walkways. (Or think big: Why not build a modern tram on the middle of the R44 from Jamestown/De Zalze to Kayamandi/Nuutgevonden, connecting Technopark, Die Boord, the train station and the industrial area? And then two branch lines, one connecting Cloetesville and Welgevonden, and the other one connecting the taxi rank, campus and Idas Valley. Not only will this increase the incentive to settle closer to town (see point 2), but it will significantly reduce transport costs that especially affect low-wage earners.)
- Stop urban sprawl and densify existing areas: There is a reason South Africans and tourists alike love Stellenbosch. It is a university town spectacularly situated between the mountains and the vineyards. No one comes to Stellenbosch to see the security estates that are increasingly replacing the vineyards on the outskirts of town. The sooner we stop building more of it, the better. Firstly, it is low-density living, which increases the cost of public transport and therefore congestion (see point 1). Secondly, while the historic centre should by all means remain protected, there is no reason not to densify existing suburbs, especially those close to the university. This is already happening in the Weides, for example, but more of this can be encouraged by placing a moratorium on further expansion of the town boundaries.
- Make development easy: There are good reasons to be cautious in allowing development in Stellenbosch’s historic centre, but approval for construction projects outside those areas often face significant delays too. Much has to do with the neglected improvement of the town’s sewage infrastructure, which has necessitated a cessation of new construction projects (or forced construction projects to outside the town limits, see point 2). Not only is the state of the sewerage infrastructure inhibiting growth, but it also creates serious environmental risks to those areas (most farmers) downriver. Again. protecting the town’s natural heritage is important for attracting high-income individuals (see next point).
- Attract the smartest: Innovation is mostly the product of clever individuals willing to take risks. Attracting high-income earners must therefore be one of the most important priorities of the municipality. Here, Stellenbosch University is one of the town’s main competitive advantages. Use it. Cooperation between the municipality and the university is necessary: why not launch a campaign to market the university and the town elsewhere in South Africa? Not only that: if Stellenbosch is to be the centre of innovation in Africa, we need to attract the continent’s best talent, which requires cooperation from another source: the Department of Home Affairs. Encouraging high-quality human capital migrants – from South Africa and Africa, from expat South Africans and from foreign nationals – to settle in Stellenbosch is key to the long-run success of the town.
- Invest in the tourist experience: Innovation should not be limited to IT. Stellenbosch Tourism has improved the profile of the town considerably over the last few years. It now hosts annual events which cater to local and international tourists. The street art exhibitions are also great initiatives. But more can be done. While the Rupert Art Museum is world-class and the open-air Stellenbosch Museum (which takes you on a tour of several houses dating from the beginning of the eighteenth-century into the nineteenth-century) is interesting, the Toy Museum (housed in an impressive set of buildings next to the Tourist Office) feels derelict. And where would one go for a twentieth-century history of the town, with all its forced removals and segregation? Or a history of the wine industry? Why not dedicate a museum celebrating the most famous students of Stellenbosch University – people like Jan Smuts, CJ Langenhoven, Beyers Naude and Edwin Cameron (and Riaan Cruywagen)?
As the high demand for accommodation suggests, Stellenbosch is already an attractive town. But through innovative thinking, it could become a world-class home for African innovators. Here’s hoping the conference next week can be a catalyst for action.