City of Johannesburg mayor Parks Tau delivered his first state of the city address on Thursday. The billing crisis and the city’s finances are under control, he said, announcing R100-billion will be spent on infrastructure over 10 years. The DA’s having none of it. By GREG NICOLSON.
Midway through his speech, Tau read a letter sent to the municipality thanking them for their role in providing a house. “My dark scars have turned into stars,” wrote Patricia Ntombizodwa Kubeka. “You made me a proud mother. I will die in peace knowing that I have a home for my kids. To the people who have done this for us, I would like to thank you,” read Tau, followed by applause from the chamber.
He read the letter after saying Johannesburg has built a solid foundation to meet the challenge of “transformation from a spatial, socio-economic perspective”. The city has gone from a racially divided city to a single municipality and is slowly rejuvenating the CBD, he told councillors. “More people than ever before now have access to basic services – water and sanitation, electricity and waste removal… We have also increased the city’s coverage to 98% for water and 91% for basic sanitation. Most households now have access to electricity.” He acknowledged challenges dealing with migration, ageing infrastructure, the environment, poverty and inequality. But the city would unite with its stakeholders, he said, and was hopeful, like the letter writer, that Joburg can achieve its 2040 vision.
Tau read the letter to illustrate the strides the city has made and provide unity and optimism, but the metropolitan municipality has been plagued by another issue prompting a stream of letters from angry residents: the billing crisis (those letters were probably too coarse for the public’s sensitive ears). The mayor’s address was preceded this week by a visit from the presidency to monitor how the billing problem was being rectified.
“We share their concerns. Therefore billing and customer services remain one of our top focus areas in ensuring that we regain the trust and confidence of our residents,” he said in a media briefing. “It is not acceptable for people to wait long periods of time to have calls answered, or have calls dropped when they eventually get through.” Financial management has improved, he said, and the city has an additional R486-million in revenue to the budgeted 2012-13 half yearly results.
But on Tuesday, local Democratic Alliance caucus leader Mmusi Maimane said, “One of the root causes of so many of the problems we are experiencing is the state of the city’s finances. This is most often experienced by Johannesburg residents via the billing crisis.” Maimane said the city needs strong and decisive action to save the “sinking ship”. “Practically, you can’t spend what you don’t have,” he commented, adding that if people are not held accountable for financial losses, the city’s finances will continue to deteriorate.
But Tau was confident the city’s books are in order. “Today we can say with much confidence that our institution and entities are much stronger and our financial position is sound.” In the year since he became mayor he said the municipality has established procedures to hold employees accountable and would review each on whether they were meeting set performance standards.
The mayor made an ambitious commitment to infrastructure investment. “We have identified key trade, manufacturing, construction, transport and tourism areas as engines for growth and we will be targeting labour-absorbing activities as well as promote innovation through ‘green economy’ initiatives. We will, over the next 10-years, invest over R100-billion in economic and social infrastructure.” Throughout the speech he emphasised the importance of stakeholders working together and suggested the money would be raised from partnering with business and working with other levels of government. Tau said the city has a R2.3-billion redemption fund, “in other words, cash in the bank”.
The DA asked where the money is coming from. Maimane said that two weeks ago the municipality had advertised in the Business Day for a R2-billion loan and had not heard whether it had been met. He pointed out that collection rates on services have increased recently because people are being cut off.
He also questioned whether Joburg has the capacity to make a R100-billion investment over 10 years. The city currently allocates an average of R3-4-billion on capital expenditure a year from a budget that averages around R30-billion. Maimane asked where the money would come from to start spending R10-billion a year and questioned whether the city could attract investors after it was downgraded by Moody’s last year and received its second consecutive qualified audit for 2010/11 because the auditor general had concerns over revenue management.
Tau cut an optimistic figure as he answered questions after the address and used all the key adjectives: transparent, accountable, sustainable, resilient and liveable. But journalists questioned whether he’s the right man to lead the city to the positive future symbolised by the letter he read. They asked whether he thinks financial mismanagement will blight his whole career, and as the former MMC of finance, should he not be held accountable for the current billing crisis? The mayor wasn’t fazed and said his team had recognised the problem and are rectifying it.
Despite predictions the billing crisis would overshadow the address, Tau was relaxed and joked with the chamber as his throat dried near his speech’s end. But he’s been at the City of Johannesburg for 16-years and was in control of the kitty when the billing crisis bit. His everything-is-under-controle message on Thursday was clear, but those whose services have been cut off and lives frustrated by outrageous billing mistakes and lack of recourse might be forgiven for not having as much confidence in the city as the mayor or Patricia Ntombizodwa Kubeka. DM
Photo: Parks Tau was relaxed and joked with the chamber.
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