Mandla Sibeko.
Mandla Sibeko.
Image: Darryn Gwyn

When we talk urban functionality, our discourse often focuses on service delivery, maintenance, amenities, and, inevitably, potholes. These factors should concern us — we all long to be world-class — but in essence they are the support act, the streamlining for what we should really demand from our cities: a considered and effective cultural programme.

All other efficiencies are lifeless if they don’t feed into a much richer artistic artery, one that turns public space into a constantly evolving, enriching environment nurtured by effort, consultation, ownership, and, most importantly, investment. This is the foundation great cities are built on and, sadly, I don’t see a lot of it happening here at home.

I’m a big believer that our future is reliant on local and provincial leadership. Cities have the power to both shape a cohesive vision and rally citizens into participation. A sense of community is not some kind of feel-good lifestyle choice, but a very powerful force that can reimagine experiences, landscapes, and interactions.

The more we show support, the bigger the groundswell, the better our cities will truly represent our rich, complex, wonderfully atypical selves. And that’s the objective: when looking at your city, you should see yourself looking back
Mandla Sibeko

To achieve this state, city leadership needs to actively encourage its inhabitants to get involved and then give them the platform to express themselves. The outward-facing impression one gets from an urban space should reflect the characters and personalities of the people who sustain it. I’m talking more than the odd mural or public sculpture. I believe we need a network of immersive and engaging touch-points spread out across our suburbs, and these should be constructed via partnerships between the city and its people.

To do this, we need cohesion and co-ordination. In Jozi, it seems like a lot of individual groups are working hard to invigorate small sections of our cultural landscape, creating hubs and scenes, and perhaps even the odd strip. But to really change the face of an ageing city, we need a plan.

Yes, City of Joburg, I’m looking at you. I’d hate to think this lack of planning is, in effect, a lack of desire. If it’s about budget, then consider a recent report by KEA, an organisation that advises how to unlock the potential of cultural and creative industries. The report, called Culture for Cities and Regions, debunks the myth that investment in culture is inherently risky, finding ample evidence that it actually pays off. In addition to driving economic growth, cultural programmes increase social inclusion and innovation, and act as drivers for urban regeneration and intercultural dialogue. Sounds to me that this is exactly what we need right now.

Other countries are getting it right. Many foreign municipal mandates give incentives to businesses and citizens to invest in the arts. These efforts highlight culture’s real value. It’s no longer simply entertainment or heritage, but it becomes a force for engagement, interaction, and exchange. And the more we — all of us — show support, the bigger the groundswell, the better our cities will truly represent our rich, complex, wonderfully atypical selves. And that’s the objective: when looking at your city, you should see yourself looking back.

Sibeko is an entrepreneur and former director of FNB Joburg Art Fair

From the April edition of Wanted 2019.

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