AT 11, she won her first award for good citizenship from her school in Saxonwold. Later, she became a junior councillor. These were the beginnings of big things for a person who can be described as small, but only in physical appearance.

Thanduxolo Mendrew, executive director for risk and compliance at the agency, takes over as acting chief executiveThanduxolo Mendrew, executive director for risk and compliance at the agency, takes over as acting chief executive
The Johannesburg Development Agency (JDA) bid Lael Bethlehem, its chief executive officer for the last five years, farewell on 13 July at its head office in Newtown. And judging from the praise given for her efforts during her tenure, she will be sorely missed.

Thanduxolo Mendrew, the executive director for risk and compliance at the agency, will take over as acting chief executive. He was also master of ceremonies at the farewell and his words rang true for many in the audience, counting among them friends, family, colleagues and fellow developers alike.

“We are bidding farewell today to one of the best managers local government has had.”

London visit
Bethlehem brought with her an “infectious strength” said Adam Goldsmith, the company secretary, reminiscing about their time spent together. Her mother, Marlene, recalled a nickname from past colleagues – the Duracell Bunny that never stops and never gets tired.

It is this energy and drive that turned the JDA into one of the finest Joburg agencies, a fact which has not gone unnoticed locally and overseas.

In December 2009, Bethlehem was invited by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development to London for a three-day stay together with the world’s top development managers. Their task: to review that city’s preparations for the 2012 Olympic Games, a serious pat on the back in anyone’s books.

And earlier in 2009, she was nominated by the Business Women’s Association of South Africa in the corporate category of Business Women of the Year.

Always the activist, colleagues remember her by one of her maxims: “If you waste taxpayer’s money, think of that woman living in a shack in Diepsloot”.

Prof Phil Harrison of the Wits University and urban development specialist, Neil FraserProf Phil Harrison of the Wits University and urban development specialist, Neil Fraser
This innate compassion shone through in everything she did, admitted Luthando Vutula, the chairperson of the JDA board. But be warned – don’t mistake her for a pushover. “It’s amazing that you can be so strict yet so compassionate,” he recalled, words which should be noted by her new colleagues at Standard Bank, where she will be taking over the position of director: real estate investment in the corporate and investment banking division of the bank.

For her, the last five years was simply a labour of love, Bethlehem said in her speech. And when asked to name her favourite JDA project, she typically took charge and suggested that she would prefer to highlight two – one big project and one small. It came as no surprise that the roll-out of the Rea Vaya Bus Rapid Transit system rated as her “big” favourite.

Standing at a price tag of some R3-billion, Rea Vaya was the project that “helped to rewrite the urban landscape of Johannesburg”. Building this from scratch was for her a huge privilege, she admitted, because it was the key element in the process of democratisation in the city.

Her other favourite was also a “from scratch” project which touched her heart: the little eKhaya Park in Hillbrow. What was once an unsightly piece of land was turned into an extremely beautiful park, she said. Working together with the eKhaya Neighbourhood Improvement Programme and residents of Hillbrow, this “small” project nonetheless came with a not-insignificant price tag of R6-million for a new synthetic soccer field, a children’s play area with safety surface, gaming tables, bins and lighting.

Inner city
“In the last five years, the JDA has not only led the regeneration of the inner city, we have also made a significant contribution to the development of Joburg’s township areas, and we have delivered major infrastructure projects,” she reminded everyone.

Lael Bethlehem shares a light moment during a media tour to SowetoLael Bethlehem shares a light moment during a media tour to Soweto
This included upgrading hundreds of inner city blocks, renovating 10 inner city parks, building two brand-new parks, building three new public transport facilities and renovating another three, building one brand-new museum, a new library, two new public buildings, three trader markets, a dance studio, a fashion square, a cricket oval, six five-a-side soccer fields, and many public art works.

This work was done by an amazing team at the agency and an outstanding political leadership in the executive mayor of Johannesburg, Amos Masondo, “who has given tremendous priority to both inner city and township development”, she added. She also acknowledged the important role the private sector, taking many forms, had played in the JDA’s success stories.

“Wherever we have undertaken our projects we have been encouraged by the way in which private investment has followed our work.”

Bethlehem is confident that the JDA will continue to serve the people of Johannesburg and indeed go from strength to strength. Speaking fast but pointedly, she gave her verdict, barely stopping to take a breath.

“We have a strong institution. It is a well-oiled machine. It is a small company but one with creative people, good systems and a good reputation.”

And from now on that effervescent and infectious energy will be channelled across the whole country, with her new mandate at Standard Bank to develop new properties for investment in all corners of South Africa.

Story: City of Johannesburg