As a son of Athlone, Geoffrey Jacobs, the new president of the Cape Chamber of Commerce and Industry, is committed to improving the conditions of business owners and hopes to bring back the rich history that the area once had.
Born in Crawford, Mr Jacobs spent most of his years in Athlone as he attended Athlone North Primary School, and then Athlone High School where he matriculated in 1974.
After completing his BA degree and teacher’s diploma at the University of Cape Town, he spent 12 years as a teacher at Athlone High School, and eventually became deputy principal.
In 1991 he took up the position as the founding principal of Zonnebloem Nest High School in District Six. Even though he moved out of the area, he has always retained his connection with Athlone, most recently taking up the position of chairperson of the Athlone High School Alumni Association.
Mr Jacobs said that Athlone has changed over the years and was not the safe place he grew up in during the 1970s and 1980s.
“In those days, one could walk in most parts of Athlone without feeling threatened. Even gangsters and skollies had some kind of respect for others, especially older people and for their teachers. My uncle, Cecil Filies, was principal of Athlone North Primary, and he often recounted stories of meeting ex-learners from his school, and despite their new-found reputation as gang leaders and strong men in the community, they still had the utmost respect for him.
As a young high school student, I worked as a shoe salesman at the iconic Rucky’s shoe shop in Klipfontein Road, and there too, despite many attempts at shoplifting, very few succeeded against the beady-eyed Mr Ruckersberg. There was a healthy respect for people, regardless of race or gender. It was a fun, thriving, accepting community back then, with few racial and social issues. Whether we were from Rondeboch East, Kewtown, Bridgetown or Vanguard Estate, there was a camaraderie which transcended racial, social, class and language issues.
Lots of that has changed, and there is now an edge in relationships, everyone has an issue with everything, everyone is standing on their rights, regardless of whether they trample others’ rights in the process, and there is an anger and a propensity to violence, which we never saw in our day.”
He said that in the classrooms, back then, disruption was light-hearted, well-meaning and mischievous but today, anger and violence were default emotions, and the mantra is shoot first and ask questions later.
“Of course, on the positive side, the area has developed, and many of the retail places which were fledgling businesses back then are now economic giants – Wembley, Elite, Galaxy, Hilite, to mention a few. It’s exciting to see local business people stepping up and leveraging the many opportunities that exist in the area,” he said.
Asked why the job change, Mr Jacobs said this position gave one the platform to inform and influence policy and practice, particularly as it relates to business.
He added that businesses, especially small, medium and micro enterprises are the future of South Africa, as it is only in this sector that possible job creation exists.
“The corporate sector has been shedding jobs over the past decade, and the bloated public sector has probably reached its maximum and will be under pressure to bring staffing numbers to more realistic levels. For SMME’s to grow to scale, we need a massive injection of investment into this sector, as well as a concerted effort to develop the relevant skills. There is currently a disjoint between what our schools and tertiary institutions are producing in skills, and what the corporate and SMME sectors need. As president of the CCCI, I have an opportunity to help shape the conversation to address this current disjoint,” he said.
Mr Jacobs said the challenges faced by Athlone were the challenges faced by all businesses which included transport congestion, crime and violence, drugs and gangsterism, unstable electricity supply, low economic growth, and many more, but they were more felt in areas such as Athlone because of its rich history. He added, however, that the area had the potential to return to its glory days – a thriving economy, an interactive community, strong schools and a cultural hub which it once was.
“By bringing all key players together, the CCCI can play an important coordinating role in re-imagining Athlone. As a son of Athlone, I’m committed to this,” he added.