'Citizen Kane' determined to make city clean and safe

07 March 2010 - 02:13 By Chris Barron

Fifty-thousand people of all colours and ages packed Long Street and jolled until the early hours.

There were no incidents. And by the time the city opened for business several hours later the place was spotless. No broken glass, not a shred of litter.

That's an extraordinary achievement, and if you don't agree, go and see what Joburg's comparatively tiny Zoo Lake area looks like one, two, sometimes three days after a party.

It didn't just happen, says Rob Kane, 50, who has been appointed chairman of the Central City Improvement District.

"It was the result of 10 years of hard work."

A decade ago the city centre was grim. There was crime and grime, traffic congestion and a sense of unease and disorder.

Vacancies were on the rise and commercial property rentals were low. It was not the kind of place you spent more time in than you absolutely had to.

That's when businesspeople like Kane, with a financial stake in the city, said "enough", and the CCID was born.

"It was largely driven by businessmen such as myself looking at the city, in which we had substantial investments, and seeing it run down," he says. "That's just not good business."

The CCID's goals were deceptively modest: make the city clean, safe and pleasant to use.

What it did not want was to appear to be setting up in opposition to the city council, and Kane is at pains to stress that its success is built on a solid partnership between the two.

"We don't do what they're supposed to be doing, we fill in the gaps. They cleanse and provide security. We have resources to offer additional security for specific events and then clean up afterwards, or take care of problem buildings."

The CCID went a long way towards improving the security situation by stretching out a hand to vagrant children who roamed the streets and lived on the pavements.

"We put our helpers on the streets to talk to street children to encourage them to rehabilitate and use the facilities available such as the Haven night shelter, and reintegrate them into society," he says.

"If there are children on the street, then the truth is they're probably children who want to be on the street."

He mentions the "give responsibly" campaign and is very disconcerted when I confess I haven't heard of it.

"It is one of the most successful campaigns the CCID has run," he says reproachfully.

Leaflets are handed out at traffic lights asking drivers not to give money or food to beggars ("it really just perpetuates the problem," says Kane), but rather to give to one of the many city charities looking after them, or to the night shelter which offers them a free roof over their heads.

"A meal and a bed is available to every street child," he says.

The CCID is also involved in trying to get the children to go to school.

''You hardly ever see a street child in the city centre any more," says Kane.

It's had a "dramatic" effect on crime.

Another effective tool against crime was street horse patrols. He says that practicalities ("we lost our stabling") and costs got the better of them and that they have been replaced by policemen on foot. Their lime-green Day-Glo bibs give new meaning to "visible policing".

Kane reckons it's safe to walk the city by day now. And at night?

"It's more perception than reality that after 6pm it is not so safe," he says.

All-night window shopping as in some European cities will probably remain a dream, he concedes, but "we want to extend the life of the city". He wants to see trading until 9pm within four years.

One of his jobs as chairman of CCID will be to sell the concept not only to retailers, but also to city dwellers who occupy about 3500 residential apartments in the city centre.

"You need buy-in from both parties in order to get the streetscape alive again. If retailers know that if they stay open they'll do good business, they'll stay open."

The most striking change to someone who hasn't seen the city for 10 years is the number of areas blocked off to traffic, and the number of outside coffee shops.

"The café culture has taken off in Cape Town," he says. "And we've worked with business and the council to pedestrianise areas."

Greenmarket Square is perhaps the most noticeable example of a space that has been reclaimed for pedestrians, and the result, says Kane, is that retailers there are up 40% on turnover.

He wants to see plenty more mixed-use development in the city and is encouraged by premier Helen Zille's promise to focus on the provincial buildings that occupy 40% of, and for too long have disfigured, the eastern part of the city.

"Some of them are fairly obvious candidates for upgrading into attractive office blocks or conversion into residential," he remarks. "There's huge potential there. There has been hardly any investment because most of it is owned by province."

Although he claims an almost spiritual affinity with the city, Cape Town's "Citizen Kane" is from Zimbabwe. He came here to study civil engineering at the University of Cape Town and went weak at the knees when he saw the place.

He went to the UK to save up money for an MBA at UCT's Graduate School of Business, but stayed longer than intended. He married an English woman, did his MBA at Bath University and started an engineering consulting business there.

After six years in the UK "you'll never hear me complain about Cape Town", he vows.

"It's quite a tough place to live. There's no entrepreneurial spirit."

He blames over-regulation.

To do in the UK what he's done in a few years in Cape Town - put up a R125-million mixed-use development called The Decks in Greenmarket Square, among other things - would have cost much more and taken him twice as long, he says.

"Here, if you have the determination and guts, you can do just about anything."

One discordant note in the symphony of praise heaped on the CCID for making the city such an enjoyable place to be in is from black people who complain that they don't feel welcome there.

Kane says he's never heard such a complaint.

"I think that would be very sad if that were the case, but I don't see the basis for it," he says.

He does not make the point that more than 40% of buildings in the city centre are black-owned, but does mention that the empowerment property group, Vunani Properties, of which he is a director, is 60% black-owned and managed.

Kane will fit his (unpaid) CCID work into any gaps he can find in his Vunani schedule.