Since the beginning of human history, cities have been where the young, energetic, and ambitious go to prove their mettle – and to gain some measure of freedom to seize whatever opportunities they can to advance themselves somehow, some way. They migrate from the drudgery of rural life, or from economic, social, political or racial oppression to seek their fortunes. This is true whether it was a short run to the city nearest to them where they believed a city would give them the freedom they could not obtain in their life as a slave, indentured labourer, serf, or tenant farmer; or whether it was via their flight to some half-mythical city on a distant continent.
As the founder of urban sociology, Max Weber, had noted, an old principle of law dating back to the Middle Ages held that “Urban air makes one free after a year and a day.” There was a darker reality too. The city also could be a place of alienation, violence, disaffection and great economic turmoil and distress as well. It all depended on how things worked out for an individual in the less regulated, less predictable circumstances of the city.
In his introduction to the book, From Joburg to Jozi, journalist and editor Adam Roberts had described the hold Johannesburg has had on generations. He likened the city to a near-mythic destination, at the end of a spider web of roads and rail lines that has arrived at an African version of the beckoning Emerald City of The Wizard of Oz. Johannesburg, Egoli, Jozi, whatever it has been called, has, since its earliest days, been feeding dreams and tempting newcomers with the possibilities of wish fulfilment (even though so many also crashed and burned on its harsh, unforgiving landscapes), on South Africa’s Highveld landscape. Or, as the lyrics of the very first song of Lost in the Stars, Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson’s musical retelling of Alan Paton’s classic novel, Cry, the Beloved Country, had it, “Train go down to Johannesburg; never come back, never come back….”
As the saga, well-known to South Africans, puts it, beginning in 1886, when a vast underground belt of gold ore was discovered lying deep under the land on a farm that eventually became the industrial landscape of Langlaagte in Johannesburg, internal migrants and foreign immigrants, bankers, investors, engineers, entrepreneurs, technicians, labourers, fraudsters, conmen, and thieves have all gravitated to this city as if it was a giant magnet. Some arrivals brought the mining skills they had used in Cornwall, California and New South Wales, while others could only come with their strong backs – and, for Africans, an increasingly desperate need to pay some onerous, colonial era “hut taxes”.
The result, at first, was a dusty, chaotic tent encampment that eventually grew into the richest, most cosmopolitan city on the continent within a hundred years. Along the way, however, an increasingly rigid segregation of people was imposed upon the city as well – first by British colonial custom, and then by the harsher precepts of apartheid, post-1948. Over time, ethnically polyglot areas like Sophiatown and Doornfontein were ruthlessly broken up and their African (as well as Asian and Coloured) residents forcibly moved to areas far distant from their workplaces or shopping, let alone any other amenities. The Africans were settled in those distant townships without even the benefit of the right of permanent residence.
By the late 1980s, the fanciful notion of a “pure white city” had been exposed for the illusion it had always been. New waves of immigrants from across Africa were moving into the city’s inner core, along with growing numbers of black South Africans. By the time the apartheid era officially was brought to an end, the spatial demography of Johannesburg had been undergoing a dramatic transformation – both in terms of increasingly reversing its earlier racial segregation, as well as via the city’s rapid expansion into new, widespread suburbs and a growing number of higher density developments such as Sandton.
Meanwhile, the economic base of the city had dramatically changed as well. There were no longer any active gold mines inside the city limits. A significant share of its old, heavy industrial base had vanished in response to shifts in the global economy, as many of those jobs and industries had moved to East and South Asia. Instead, the economic base of the city was increasingly built on financial services and as a national commercial hub. These changes had real impacts on the lives of new migrants as well as the city’s longer-term residents. Those with none of the high-level, technical skills required for work in those growth sectors could now no longer depend on the availability of strong back/pick and shovel work to carry them onward. Un- and under-employment became a major challenge for the city’s economy.
As successive ANC governments took over from the predecessor administrations of the pre-1994 period, in Johannesburg, they amalgamated the black townships surrounding Johannesburg, the heretofore independent City of Sandton and Johannesburg proper all into a much larger, unified metropolis. The ostensible reasons for this move were to provide greater economies of scale for service delivery and to attempt to provide increasingly equitable treatment to every one of this new supersized city’s millions of inhabitants in terms of civic services.
Despite some laudable efforts and successes in that direction, the city’s managerial and administrative infrastructure has proved increasingly unequal to many of the city’s challenges. Johannesburg residents have routinely become used to, but outraged by, the condition of their roads and parks, by the lack of consistent traffic control, by growing amounts of litter, by the chaos in the city’s billing and accounting departments, and by the general crime as well as the hijacked buildings in many parts of the city, among a litany of other complaints. The post-1994 administrations seemingly had apparently been prepared to let some of these tasks and problems go unanswered, rather than tackle the toughest and most obdurate challenges to Johannesburg’s governance. Statements by a whole roster of politicians about the city’s imminent rejuvenation have come at regular intervals, but the natural slide of things has meant investment has moved away from the older CBD and out to the new financial centre of Sandton or on to a residential ring that now extends – on the north – at least half way to Pretoria.
This past August, as a major element of the growing dissatisfaction with the ANC’s governance and performance in the country’s big cities, the Democratic Alliance (the DA) – in partnership with several smaller parties and with the tactical support of the Economic Freedom Fighters – took control of the city from the ANC with a minority government under the leadership of Herman Mashaba. Before his late-in-life entry into politics, Mashaba had been best known for building a major cosmetics and hair care company, “Black Like Me”, whose products were primarily aimed at African customers. Mashaba originally was from the peri-urban settlement of Hammanskraal, north of Pretoria. As he created his business career, he had begun with years as a travelling salesman, selling household consumer goods from the boot of his car across a wide swathe of the country.
Like so many other new-to-the-business-of-politics business people who have reconfigured themselves as politicians, Mashaba insisted, going forward, that his administration would be run along tough, no-nonsense business lines, rather than the usual slack, “good enough for government work” pace of government as usual. As part of his campaign to set out his agenda, the new mayor recently spoke to several hundred business and industrial leaders at a breakfast meeting of the American Chamber of Commerce in South Africa.
(Not too surprisingly, he drew a standing ovation from that crowd.)
In a speech that is clearly his standard message now that he is the mayor, Mashaba took care to reach out to some disparate audiences – both the business figures in the room, as well as other constituencies not at this particular event but who are carefully following what he says to anyone else. At its core, Mashaba argued he wants to run a tight, business-like administration that will be both pro-poor in its delivery of services, as well as intensely pro-growth and pro-business in its efforts and orientations. Whether such potentially conflicting demands – or even the articulation of coherent messages to such different constituencies and their demands – can be reconciled fully will be the key thing his critics in the ANC, the EFF, and perhaps civil society as well, will be watching intently for any presumed miscues and miscalculations.
Making all this work smoothly may not be as easy as it might seem in theory. His first effort was reportedly going to be a plan to tame a mismanaged city-owned entity – Pikitup, the trash removal company. The idea apparently was to divide it into about a half dozen smaller entities that could be managed more effectively by private operators who would bid for these contracts and be under contract to the city. Even before it was formally rolled out, the idea was opposed by the EFF, among others, presumably on the grounds that such a rescue plan could have a negative impact on workers now employed by Pikitup. Well, okay, try again.
When the new mayor was introduced to this Chamber of Commerce crowd, he was told by the emcee that American businesses in South Africa (direct investments, franchises, subsidiaries, etc) accounted for around 200,000 jobs. These ranged from thousands employed at major car assembly plants to small, specialised consulting firms with only a handful of professionals. Beyond employment, these enterprises also made substantial tax payments to the national fiscus and they carried out important corporate social responsibility spending, all around the country.
In response to that introduction, right at the top of his remarks, Mashaba said that by the end of his tenure in five years’ time, he hoped to help American businesses reach that same number of employees – 200,000 – in Johannesburg alone. That went hand-in-hand with his own description of what good measures of success would be for him in his tenure. These would be dropping the unemployment rate in Johannesburg down to only 20% from its current, horrific level of over 30%, and generating a citywide economic growth rate of 5%, thereby providing jobs for the many people now living in nearly 200 informal settlements who currently lack most basic services, let alone employment.
In his remarks, Mashaba insisted his government would provide an enabling environment for businesses to establish themselves and flourish, which would go a long way towards bolstering the economy and reducing unemployment. In doing this, Mashaba said, “We need to have our city back, develop high-rise buildings, low-cost and affordable housing and affordable commercial space for small, medium-sized and microenterprises.”
In approaching the housing crisis and the need for low-cost commercial space, Mashaba said, “The City of Johannesburg owns many buildings that will be audited and identified to provide low-cost housing and affordable commercial spaces for small businesses and shops to reverse the Inner City’s decline and bring business and people back into the Inner City.”
He said that he and his team have already drawn up a 10-point plan to tackle corruption, unemployment, the city’s stalled economic growth and the need for much more housing, as his administration tackles the rebuilding of “a sadly decayed ‘inheritance’ ”.
This plan called, first, for a “recognition by all present of the political arrangement imposed by the electorate in Joburg. This is necessary to help us move forward with speed and have respect for the electorate’s wishes.”
Second, Mashaba stressed, “Joburg must run a responsive and pro-poor government. This City can be business friendly and pro-poor at the same time. In-fact, the two must go hand in hand if we wish to stimulate economic growth, create jobs and deliver better services to our residents.”
Point three was that the city’s “plans and policies must be aligned for the City to work towards achieving a minimum of 5% economic growth. While this is an ambitious target, given that the country’s own economic growth rate is projected at 0%, we appreciate the fact that if we do not achieve this, unemployment will remain high, and our youth will still be out of school and out of jobs at the end of this term. We want Joburg to be the engine room of South African economic growth. This cannot happen at the current growth rate… [but] failing to kick-start the Joburg economy has dire implications beyond Joburg’s own borders.”
Point four was creation of a professional public service to serve the city’s residents at “the highest standards delivered by a civil service that is dedicated and proud. I cannot over-emphasise the importance of the creation of a professional public service. It is, indeed, a precondition for success.”
Point five was a promise to “ensure that corruption is public enemy number one in Joburg. Corruption steals from the poor and must be stopped. My administration will have a zero tolerance for corruption, in both the public and private sector. Investigations will be conducted into alleged fraud or corruption and the administration will work closely with law enforcement authorities to see to it that nobody is above the law. The days of a gentle slap on the wrist or redeployment to another department are over. Those found guilty of corruption will go to jail and stolen money will be reclaimed.”
More generally, as he ticked off the problems he has inherited, Mashaba said, “The level of deep-rooted corruption is scary.” In tandem with that, a further priority is to professionalise the city’s public service. As Mashaba argued, “You have no idea what we have inherited,” he commented about a 33,000 staff complement, rooted in patronage, mostly at its top levels, he said.
In terms of his housing plans, for point six, the new mayor pledged to “complete the official housing waiting list and get it signed-off within 90 days. Unlike before, it will be publically available at government offices and to communities to ensure that it is transparent”.
And that, point seven, Mashaba promised to “produce within 60 days a report on the number of completed houses built by the city and the province – but not yet allocated or handed over to beneficiaries. It is unacceptable that there are hundreds of houses that have been built but remain unoccupied when many of our residents live without acceptable accommodation.”
Point eight was to “fast-track the handover of title deeds – to ordinary residents, churches and businesses”. He went on to announce, “I am also pleased to inform you that we are currently processing 2,000 title deeds that will be handed over to beneficiaries, some of whom have been waiting for decades to own their own home. The handover of title deeds is a top priority of my administration, especially given the chronic legacy of a failure to do so in this City.”
The logic of such an effort is to give the new owners more economic leverage so that they can use a house as security for a loan to carry out home improvements or to help finance the start up of a small business. This helps get people into the economic mainstream.
Number nine in Mashaba’s roster of must-do’s was to tackle the way city-run health clinics deal with their customers and clients. He pledged to use one city health clinic as “a pilot project to investigate possibilities of availing our health facilities to residents for extended hours”. Rather than running just during working hours, Monday-Friday, Mashaba wants the clinic to be open before and after regular working hours and on weekends, to see if the delivery of health services can become more efficient, as well as more comprehensive.
His final point was to emphasise that his administration is going to do some serious, heavy lifting to revive the inner city “to bring people and business back into the heart of our City…. The success of this administration will be measured on our ability to achieve the revitalisation of our Inner City. Over the years, the Johannesburg Inner City has suffered from gross neglect, resulting in the flight of capital to areas such as Sandton and Rosebank. This can largely be attributed to a lack of political will in the previous administrations in our City.”
Well, okay then. There are some clear markers for his administration in all this to be measured by, and to serve as equally clear points of comparison between his administration and that of his two immediate predecessors, Parks Tau and Amos Masondo.
Mashaba was unabashed in highlighting the importance of foreign investment for the city’s future success. He underscored this, saying, “I want to assure investors that the new administration in Johannesburg is committed to running a responsive, pro-poor and business friendly government. Foreign investment will play a critical role in enabling our City to achieve the goals I will outline this morning.”
Central to all of this will be the rejuvenation of the central business core of Johannesburg. To achieve this, among other things, Mashaba promised a new approach in the city’s dealings with business. As he explained, “I was astonished to learn of the contempt with which they had been treated by the previous administration in our City [at a gathering of local business heads]. Fundamental basics of local government have let them down for years, coupled by an unresponsive government that ignored their desperate calls for assistance.”
Then, seguing to the pro-poor approach from the pro-business direction, he added, “It is the poor that have suffered the most as a result of the previous administration’s failure to reverse our Inner City’s decay,” citing letters to the mayor from children begging the city to fix up the decay. As one youngster had written to him, “The inner city has got deep secrets. It stinks in there because toilets are not clean, there are mice and rats and there are sometimes dead bodies.”
Then he made yet another pledge. “Together with relevant stakeholders, a plan for the revitalisation of our Inner City will be developed within the next three months. This plan will be centred on three pillars: crime prevention, upgrading and maintaining infrastructure, and cleaning our streets. The Department of Public Safety and the JMPD are currently in the process of finalising a plan which will see the enforcement of by-laws and visible policing dramatically increased in our Inner City.” If this truly comes about, you can just about hear the cheers already – from the poor and business leaders alike.
In doing all this, Mashaba is counting on his own business acumen, the energies and enthusiasm of his close colleagues and management team, and the support of constituencies across the city to help him slay all these dragons – or at least put them into large, well-secured enclosures. The biggest challenge, however, may be that so much of what he needs to have to hand is at the mercy of national (or provincial) government policies and administration.
He really can’t control the national (or international) economic landscape or the way national government financial and economic policies affect FDI or exchange rates, just for starters. Still, economists and public policy analysts are generally in agreement that a nation’s economic growth is something that largely comes out of its big cities.
As a result, if Mashaba can make Johannesburg’s profile a welcoming one for investors; if he can turn around the city’s many recalcitrant pockets of less than effective administration, and if he can show that his government can be both pro-poor and pro-growth/business simultaneously and successfully, he has a chance to make a real difference with Johannesburg. And if that happens, he has a chance to make an important impact for the nation as a whole. DM
Photo: Johannesburg Mayor Herman Mashaba (Greg Nicolson)
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