South Africa

Op-Ed: Mashaba’s Johannesburg job is tough, but not impossible

By Stephen Grootes 19 September 2016

Something both the ANC and the DA agree on is that the fate of Joburg is the fate of the nation – that if it does well it will pull the whole country along with it, and if it does badly, we’re all in trouble. Finally, after a bit of a pause following the local government elections, we are beginning to get a sense of the possible future direction for the city. As a commuter cyclist, I’ve been a bit surprised by the amount of noise generated by the closure of the cycle lane project. Still, the substance of the city’s new plans is far more interesting. By STEPHEN GROOTES.

As a Joburg resident, it’s hard not to feel sorry for the people who run the place. Nowhere else in South Africa apartheid geography displays quite as strongly as Joburg, and nowhere else is as big, as complicated and as difficult. But Herman Mashaba wanted the job, and now that he’s caught the bus, he must deal with it. He’s hampered, of course, by the fact that he doesn’t have a majority or even a working coalition. And, to an extent, by the fact that he is, by his own repeated admission, not a politician. After his speech last week we now know what his priorities will be, and what he is happy to ignore.

Mashaba has always said he wants to be a champion of small business. He makes bold promises about helping to create more firms, of ensuring that it is easier to create jobs in this city than anywhere else. But despite his promises on this, despite making it the centrepiece of his campaign, it’s still hard to see how he can actually do it. He simply does not have the power to change labour laws, or economic policy, or the ratings agencies’ decisions. It may seem unsympathetic, but he now runs the risk of looking as if he has just been full of bluster on this issue.

That said, it is not a bad thing to have such a vocal champion of small business in an office such as this one. In just the last few weeks in office he has said far more on the subject than the Minister of Small Business Development, Lindiwe Zulu. The value of the bully pulpit can be immense. Every time some legislation goes through Parliament relating to smaller firms, he is likely to have a view, and that view will be very much in support of these owners. And in terms of policy, perhaps he will be able to make some changes. He says he wants to align all the policies of the city to this. Fine. But this runs the risk of being watered down into a situation where an MMC (Member of the Mayoral Committee) says their new plan to fix traffic lights is really aimed at job creation.

In the end, though, despite the economic size of Joburg compared to the rest of the country, it is hard to see how he can possibly make much of a dent in the real unemployment problem. That’s not to say I don’t wish him luck on the issue.

Mashaba has said much about cleaning up corruption in Joburg. This relates to what people call the “corruption dividend” – if you just stop corruption you suddenly have a lot more money available to improve services. Mashaba will absolutely find some examples. One of the problems the ANC battled with in Joburg, as around the country, was how to discipline errant office-bearers. In one case a councillor actually encouraged people to hijack a building, and then broke the law by reinstating lights and water services after the owners of the building had had them cut off. This kind of situation may well be easier for Mashaba to manage. And the fact that those councillors in the ruling party are sitting on the knife-edge of a confidence vote is likely to discourage this behaviour in the first place.

That said, it bears repeating that Mashaba is unlikely to find much evidence of institutionalised corruption. Parks Tau is simply not the kind of person to let this happen. So, Mashaba will have to make much noise out of the corruption he does find.

Despite the fact that he is a political novice, Mashaba is probably all too well aware by now that you campaign in poetry and govern in prose. One of the first acts of his administration was to announce the implementation of water restrictions across the city. Probably not what he would have preferred. But, in what could turn out to be a master stroke, the person making the announcement, the new MMC for Environment and Infrastructure Services, Anthony Still, is also the person who was the first Managing Director of Joburg Water, and an expert in his field. There really is no one who would have more credibility to do this, and to inspire confidence in the city’s residents.

For the DA, which prides itself on competence, he is the perfect appointment.

Something else that seems bound to change is the city’s slogan. For years and years the city’s middle-class residents have stifled giggles at the phrase “Joburg, a World Class African City”. Particularly while stopped at a broken robot, or being waved through an intersection by an Outsurance Pointsperson, or clunking over a pothole, or sitting in the dark, or jumping over a puddle from a streaming water pipe. Perhaps nothing has been as symbolic as the perceived distance between the city’s leaders and the city’s residents than this phrase. It has been a joke, in some ways a disgrace, and in even more ways a mistake.

It was inherited by Tau, bequeathed to him by his predecessor, Amos Masondo. While the branding people may have loved it, and talked about how African is world class, and aspiration and the whole bit, politically, it was a disaster. It was setting the city up to fail. It was an unnecessary over-reach that made it look like no one in the Mayoral Parlour (it really is called that) in Jorissen Street actually lived in the city.

And one of the strongest criticisms that can be levelled against Tau is the amount of money the city spent just before the elections. Time and time again we saw and heard about how well it had done, often with his voice and image attached. It was so obviously city money being used to promote Tau, who was the ANC’s candidate for mayor. This happens everywhere as one of the advantages of incumbency, but it was particularly blatant in Johannesburg.

Mashaba says he is going to stop this, and the spending that accompanied it. No doubt Tau and his colleagues will be standing by, calculators at the ready, in 2021 when Mashaba runs for a second term (presuming that his administration does survive that long – he is running a minority government).

But almost any slogan for the city is going to be an improvement.

And then to the cycle lanes. You don’t need me to tell you Joburg is not friendly to cyclists. Traffic moves quickly in this city, and the faster it moves, the more deadly it is for those of us on two non-powered wheels. There is no culture of commuter cycling, drivers are not used to cyclists on their roads, don’t necessarily believe in sharing, and sometimes forget that cars have come standard with indicator lights for quite some decades now. The overwhelming majority of people who cycle to work are those who work as gardeners or similar jobs. Bikes are almost free to run, and need a relatively small capital investment upfront. After that, keep off the main roads and watch your back.

There is, of course, a small but growing group of middle-class people, such as myself, who live in the suburbs around Sandton and ride in every morning. It’s free, good exercise, and sometimes quite fun.

That said, I was taken aback when Tau’s administration said they were going to introduce cycle lanes across the city. It did just seem unexpected. Tau himself is a keen cyclist and can be spotted in cycling races around the city from time to time (as can Gauteng Health MEC Qedani Mahlangu). But still, there was very little indication two years ago that this was going to be such a big policy for the city.

Unfortunately, the lanes created for bikes in Sandton have been a disaster. They are always blocked by cars or taxis. Often pedestrians crowd around them, simply because they have been designed so badly that there is nowhere else to walk. It beggars belief how they were designed in the first place, why there’s a curve that basically means pedestrians (who outnumber cyclists in Sandton by around a thousand to one) have lost space, and so have to put themselves in danger by walking in the cycling lane itself.

I realise that this sounds very ungrateful. But what is the point of 500 metres of cycling lanes in Sandton when they don’t link up to anything? As someone who benefits from them, I still can’t justify them.

Therefore, Mashaba’s decision to scrap the project “until the roads in Joburg are tarred” makes sense. It can’t really be faulted. And it plays to the constituency he has to keep happy, the Economic Freedom Fighters. They have used the cycle lane project as the focal point of their attack on the ANC in Joburg.

All of that said, in the longer run, I can’t help but feel that Tau is going to be proven right, and Mashaba wrong. Ten years ago the idea of allowing people in Paris and London to ride bikes for free would have been laughed at. Now both cities have areas dominated by bikes. Barcelona and many other places are following the trend. Need I remind you, cycling is free, makes traffic non-existent and is good (free) exercise. The only thing you can’t do on a bike is take a phone call (unless you have decided life is no longer worth living).

It will take some time, but in the end the case for encouraging commuter cycling is simply overwhelming.

It’s been said many times that Mashaba has a mountain to climb. He has given every indication that he is willing to do what it takes to reach that ascent. We now have some indication of how he’s going to do it. It’s going to be an interesting five years. DM

Photo of Johannesburg at night by Nico Roets via Flickr


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