If you've had the misfortune of being forced to use Johannesburg's roads in recent months – or to spend more than about five minutes speaking to someone who has – you may be under the impression that the city has a pothole problem. If you've been exposed to the right media, carrying the right advertising, you may be under the impression that chicken retailer KFC is fixing those potholes. Only one of those impressions is rooted in reality. Here's what really happened.
The City of Johannesburg is suffering from a bit of an image problem. It’s not just the potholes; call centre chaos and its denialist stance on its decaying electricity infrastructure doesn’t help. It’s thanks to such issues that mayor Amos Masondo is currently at the centre of a satirical viral campaign with the subtext “It’s okay! He’s sorting that shit out”.
So, clearly, Johannesburg needs a helping hand, right? Some selfless organisation, perhaps, which can help make life better for the denizens of the city as well as the fans that are due to descend upon Jozi during the World Cup.
Enter KFC. In a moment of inspired genius and good corporate citizenship, KFC rode to the rescue, to sort out the pothole problem once and for all. It did so in early March, by writing a cheque for R200,000 and handing it over to Masondo and Co, after getting the “absolute assurance” that the funds would go to “service delivery”. Of course.
Then, of course, it had to remind us how wonderful and unselfish KFC is. So it treated us to some, admittedly cute adverts, like this one:
Or this one:
The message, in case you managed to miss it, is that KFC is in your corner, spending its marketing money on infrastructure in the vague hope that, if you feel like it, you could perhaps maybe buy more of its yummy chicken. Or not. It’s up to you, really.
Except that isn’t the whole story. KFC did indeed donate R200,000 to the coffers of the City of Johannesburg. Then it spent R800,000 advertising the deed.
We at The Daily Maverick are used to seeing examples of hypocrisy every day; this is South Africa, after all. But to spend four times more money crowing about your good deed than you spend doing that good deed, that must rank as one of the greatest acts of breathtaking hypocrisy ever perpetrated on unsuspecting Joburgers.
Then KFC went one step further and challenged other companies to join in donating to this worthy cause. Because every company should be as charitable as KFC.
This, in turn, inspired the city government (which is as greedy as it is inept) to jump on the fried chicken gravy train. The Johannesburg Road Agency started echoing KFC’s call for new contributors, with JRA spokesman Thulani Makhubela saying the organisation was “looking at all kinds of partnerships from the big business sector that would not have no strings attached to them (sic)”.
Taking spin-doctoring cues from Masondo, Makhubela added: “We don’t know how big the pothole problem is. That is a really tricky question. The potholes problem has been contentious. We’ve been experiencing unprecedented rainfall that has caused the issue but I won’t go as far as calling it a problem. It is under control because we have teams that are working 24 hours to sort it out. We fix any problem that is reported to us within three days.”
The Daily Maverick put Makhubela’s three-day assertion to the test, using Twitter and Facebook to canvas city residents about the claim. One resident said he had ridden over a pothole for four months and that the JRA was lying. Another said: “If a water pipe bursts and pushes the tar up, it is reported to the road agency, which then piles tar on top of a leaking pipe, which means the process just repeats itself.” Another resident said he had been riding past the same potholes for as long as six months.
A city resident and journalist pointed out that the real issue was not speed but competency. “The JRA typically packs some dirt in with manual compaction and covers it with ready-mixed asphalt. This means the same hole reappears a couple of days or (at best) weeks later. The section of Witkoppen Road between the bridge from Petervale and the Braamfontein Spruit crossing is a good example of this – pervasive and perennial potholes that are fixed often but ineffectively.”
KFC’s publicity stunt imploded somewhat when a stink erupted around JRA CEO Dudu Maseko’s R767,000 “performance bonus” for failing to maintain the city’s roads adequately. Maseko received the financial pat on the back for spending only 70% her budget during the 2008/09 financial year and for failing on key deliverables. “According to the annual report of the entity, the JRA key deliverables such as pothole reinstatements, wayleaves, gravel road upgrades and kerb inlet maintenance were left hopelessly underachieved,” said Democratic Alliance spokesman on transport in Joburg, councillor Nico de Jager, at the time of that brouhaha earlier this year.
KFC obviously didn’t think about competency or the ethics of rewarding corrupt and ineffectual local government when it handed its R200,000 cheque to a beaming Makhubela. It was too busy promoting its corporate citizenship and general wonderfulness.
KFC’s spokesperson Nikki Lawson claimed ignorance as a defence. “The disclosures about the JRA CEO and the call from the DA were reported in the media on 25 March 2010, three weeks after our donation and public announcement. As a business we are obviously concerned about misappropriation of funds.”
Lawson says that since the day of KFC’s announcement the company has asked the JRA for details of how the funds have been used and which potholes were fixed. “Following the negative publicity regarding Dudu Maseko’s bonus and non-delivery, they have not been able to make any details about their service delivery public,” says Lawson.
When asked whether KFC would be rewarding city management financially for not doing its job in future, KFC said this was not its official policy then quickly launched into copious spin about how it was saving Africa from hunger.
By Mandy de Waal
Read the DA’s recent report on South Africa’s pothole crisis.