Sutcliffe's Achilles heel?

Mike Sutcliffe seems finally to have bitten off more than he can chew.

The eThekwini municipal manager has made a political virtue of a “chew-up-and-spit-out” approach to his critics—mainly the opposition, media and Durban’s ratepayers.

But two projects that book-end his time as manager are proving indigestible. The first is the endlessly controversial 2003 decision to outsource Durban’s municipal bus service. The contract was awarded to Remant-Alton, a consortium consisting of the politically well connected (the chairperson was former ANC provincial treasurer Diliza Mji) and the ethically challenged, including a chief executive convicted of bribing a municipal official.

When these issues were raised, Sutcliffe reportedly said: “Nothing with affect this deal.
This disclosure will have no impact. The company followed the tender procedure.”

Since then, the bus service has lurched from disaster to disaster, forcing the city into regular bailouts and, last year, the repurchase of the bus fleet for R405-million. Remant-Alton denies wrongdoing, but questions persist about whether the city’s unswerving commitment was linked to donations to regional ANC coffers. But Sutcliffe’s greater challenge may flow from the unlikely alliance of academics, architects and street-traders fighting the city’s plan to allow developers to build a mall at the unique Warwick Junction.

Last September Sutcliffe and his 2010 team tabled a confidential proposal in the city’s executive committee to offer a developer, Warwick Mall, a 50-year lease on the site.

This would involve the demolition of a listed building, the 1910 Early Morning Market, where Durban’s market gardeners sell their wares, and the displacement of some street-traders, who rely on a taxi and train hub through which 300 000 commuters move at rush hour. The proposal, part of Durban’s 2010 facelift, was advertised for comment only in March this year, with the planned “temporary relocation” of traders scheduled for end-May. The announcement hit unexpectedly widespread resistance.

The KwaZulu-Natal Institute of Architects (KZNIA) submitted a formal objection and met Sutcliffe and his team.

Said KZNIA president Miles Pennington: “The city intends leasing a very important commercial site in Durban’s Warwick Junction to a private developer, evicting hundreds of street traders at very short notice and under false pretences, as well as lessees of space in the Early Morning Market—all so that a developer of their choice—no tender process was followed—can lease the land for 50 years and build a shopping mall. No urban planning, no analysis of precedent, no traders, no informal economy!”

The KZNIA’s call for proper planning and consultation in an area they say forms part of “what makes Durban, Durban” fell on deaf ears. The council approved Sutcliffe’s proposal four days later.

But traders and other institutions have dug in their heels. Amafa, the provincial heritage body, has rejected the mall plan, while architects have questioned its economics, which entail unquantified city subsidies. A rowdy and well-attended public meeting last week drew a commitment from deputy mayor Logie Naidoo to consult further. A march by hundreds of traders this week to present a petition to Sutcliffe was blocked at the last minute after police denied permission.

Caroline Skinner, researcher at the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s school of development studies, says: “There are 673 trading sites there and over 50 market gardeners sell their produce.

These traders supply other informal traders throughout the city and are an important part of the city-wide fresh produce distribution chain. “By month-end the city aims to move them to temporary accommodation with no knowledge of where, and if, they will be accommodated longer-term— The traders have resolved that they won’t budge.”

Traders are backed by the formidable Streetnet—an international informal traders’ network - and have drawn support from South African Communist Party, despite the city’s intense behind-the-scenes lobbying to isolate and portray them as dominated by Indian interests.

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