Streets Ahead
Fairlady|May 2017

Bulelwa Makalima- Ngewana, CEO of the Cape Town Partnership, is hellbent on changing not only the city itself, but – more importantly – the way people experience it.

Anna Rich

It’s a striking panorama. The huge floor to ceiling windows in the lift foyer at the Cape Town Partnership take in some of the city centre, Bo-Kaap and the City Bowl, framed by Table Mountain, Lion’s Head and Signal Hill. It’s the perfect vantage point from which to make weighty decisions on the future of the city. Today, looking at this thriving space, with cranes swinging round the cement columns of new buildings, and trendy loft apartments crowning business premises, it’s hard to believe that it had been in decline, (no) thanks to the Waterfront and Century City. Something’s clearly working here! Much of the credit goes to the Cape Town Partnership, which emerged with a vision for a thriving, creative space for both work and play. We wanted to meet their inspiring CEO, Bulelwa Makalima-Ngewana, and had a great chat about life, the universe – and her love of cities (specially Cape Town).

For me, there’s always been this excitement about cities. Everybody from the rural Eastern Cape where I grew up went away to work. When they came back for holidays, there was a great sense of anticipation as the buses came in. I didn’t have anyone working away from home – my dad was a priest and my mum was a nurse – but all my friends did. At school the next day, their lunch boxes were full of sweets. And if you visited a friend, while they cooked round the fire, their parents told stories of city life.

I didn’t understand the politics of the migrant labour system and the separation from home. I just saw it from a child’s perspective – it was really nice to be in a city. A lot of kids with me at boarding school had been sent to the Eastern Cape because of the disruption of education in Soweto. We saw them as streetsmart – better than us.

I chose town planning because it sounded sexy. At the time, everybody wanted to be a teacher or a nurse or a doctor. Mike Sutcliffe, a lecturer from the University of Natal, came to Fort Hare to recruit town-planning students. During his presentation, I thought, ‘That’s what I want to do.’

We did seven subjects, including art appreciation and an introduction to civil engineering, so it was a potjiekos of aspects of the built environment. The fact that it included art and design gave me a broad perspective which I’m truly grateful for. A lot of what I’ve done in my professional life has been based on that perspective.

I love art. I love African art. I want to collect it, but I just can’t afford it. I did a tour of the new Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa. Gosh. Its transformation from an old grain silo is just incredible!

I chose the city before I chose the job. I decided I wanted to live in Cape Town, so I looked for a job here. 

When I moved to Cape Town, I decided to be like a tourist for six months. Every weekend, my family and I drove around the city. It wasn’t a struggle to acclimatise. I love it – the feeling, the light, the terrain. Yes, there have been professional challenges, but they don’t stop me enjoying the city. Once you’ve adopted it emotionally, you become very attached.

I’m often asked: ‘Why are you so happy in Cape Town?’ There’s this sense that Cape Town is an impenetrable space for black professionals. I meet a lot of corporate CEOs, and they all have the same cry: they spend lots of money recruiting black talent but struggle to retain them. So their question is, ‘What is this?’ My answer is that Cape Town doesn’t have as many social bridges as Joburg does. For Capetonians, there’s this long chain of relationships: they tend to remain in the space they grew up in, retain the same social circles, and send their kids to the same schools. So whether you’re black or white, when you relocate to Cape Town, it’s difficult to break into the social networks. In Joburg, if you meet someone today, you’re in their house tomorrow. In Cape Town, that never happens.

The Cape Town versus Joburg debate starts at the wrong end. You have to ask yourself, what is the unique character of each of these cities? And if that character speaks to you, that is your city.

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