A wave breaks into the wall at the Port Alfred beach. Picture: PICTURE: MICHAEL PINYANA
A wave breaks into the wall at the Port Alfred beach. Picture: PICTURE: MICHAEL PINYANA

The freshness of a week away from the city has been quite staggering and, I’d say, necessary for most of us after what feels like months of relentless slog and grim getting-on.

It’s also helpful when you start really losing perspective on SA – though, arriving back to a powerless, load-shed Joburg is one swift way of reminding you that you’re not on planet holiday anymore.

Still, a week’s jaunt to the Eastern Cape has been a healthy eye-opener.

Perhaps the most surprising element of it was the revelation that what was a moribund coastal property market just a few months ago is, apparently, now booming.

Speaking to locals in St Francis Bay, the unanimous view was: “There’s something happening.”

It leads to the resolution that, after Covid, you don’t necessarily need to live and work in the city anymore.

In SA particularly, where many cities are mired in grime, litter, crime and traffic, moving to small out-of-the-way towns where your connection to nature is that much stronger is an enticing prospect.

It may be too much to suggest a wholesale shift in SA’s urbanisation trend of the past few decades, but it’s in line with the global Covid-19 phenomenon in which the merits of many cities are now being critically reappraised.

The Financial Times, in particular, had a great read on this topic this week, based on the decision by fashion sandwich chain Pret a Manger to slash 2,890 jobs.

“The lay-offs,” it writes, “are emblematic of the crisis now facing city centres. The CBI, Britain’s biggest business lobby, has warned they will become ‘ghost towns’ unless office staff return to their desks soon. The UK government is launching a publicity campaign to encourage more people back to their workplaces.”

It’s a big deal, with big implications for city budgets.

As the Sowetan reported yesterday, Gauteng municipalities have lost R8.6bn in revenue since SA’s lockdown was initiated in March.

How this plays out will depend on how cities respond. Now is not the time to turn on your residents by imposing higher rates on, well, everything, to make up for those depleted budgets.

The New York Times has a great article on how many US cities are actually sending out lifelines to small businesses, even though some cities are expecting revenue shortfalls of 20%.

“City councils, mayors and governors see this help as a matter of survival — especially with Congress still wrangling over a second stimulus plan,” it says.

Now that’s what a responsive, caring city-state would do. Will the City of Joburg, to take just one example, consider actually cutting rates to help its citizens? Or will it continue extracting ever-more from its subjects, even as evidence of services becomes increasingly patchy?

It’s a profound question, which could ultimately make or break many of SA’s cities.

*Talevi is the FM's Money & Investing editor.

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