2021 GROUND LEVEL REPORT
Joburg 58: Pinch me, I’m dreaming — in my ward, the ANC councillor candidate is a servant of the people
Ward 58 is one of Johannesburg’s hardest to govern, as the DA councillor has found.
Johannesburg’s decline is not only a news story, but a lived experience. In Ward 58, where I grew up and the place I still call home, the micro-state failure has been happening for years through different political party administrations.
Ward 58 is Fordsburg, Fietas, Mayfair, the Slovo informal settlement, Mayfair West and Crosby.
According to the city’s Integrated Development Plan, about 3,500 people come to Johannesburg every month, most of them from the rest of the country and some from outside our borders.
In Fietas, the city’s largest group of recyclers has moved into a disused warehouse and an open field. From here they fan out to neighbouring areas to sort waste at the source and to sell to the nearby recycling hubs in Newtown.
Fietas is a heritage district, famous as a multicultural hub of people cruelly dispersed by the Group Areas Act in the Seventies and appropriated for poor whites and baptised “Vrededorp” or Freedom Town.
The recyclers are a reassembly of a new melting pot. Recycling attracts a liquorice allsorts of people who can earn up to R200 a day, “Mfundisi” tells us. Asked if a councillor has come to ask for their vote, Clayton says: “Only the Indians and Muslims care for us. They give us food.” Councillors are absent from their lives, as is a caring government.
Ward 58 is a smorgasbord of people and nationalities. It is among the most diverse wards in the country by race and class. And it’s a microcosm of the developing world.
There is a Little Mogadishu — the Somalian district; a Little Dhaka — the Bangladeshi district; a Pakistani district; a Malawian quarter; and a sizeable Middle Eastern community with Palestinians, Syrians and Jordanians all there, too. This makes for an exciting ward free of the spatial apartheid of many parts of this city of more than five million people.
But it is also challenging to govern. Such rapid urbanisation has put an enormous strain on infrastructure. Power and water cuts are a daily occurrence and higher than in most other parts of the city. As people have moved to the wealthier suburbs, they have become slumlords, allowing more than 40 people to live in the area’s tiny homes built for white railway workers under apartheid. The place is buckling.
When the DA won the ward from the ANC (which has traditionally held it) in 2016, things got worse, not better, as I wrote here. The party, using identity politics, parachuted in a councillor who was not from the area — simply because he was brown.
Across the country, parties have learnt the hard way that the best councillors are those who come from an area. After many terms of imposing candidates on Ward 58, the ANC has finally come to its senses. Under a new method of appointing candidates, residents have chosen them, and Ricky Nair is running.
He has lived in Mayfair for 41 years. He and his late wife bought their home on the nominee system, where black people got friendly whites to buy properties for them. He grew up in Cato Manor and Chatsworth in Durban and was an activist and freedom fighter for most of his life. In Ward 58, he is “Uncle Ricky” to everyone.
He won’t say it himself, but Nair is a constant servant of the people, engaged in weekly feeding schemes, anti-drug activism and community policing.
There are 19,000 voters registered in Ward 58, and there are 19 different nationalities mapped in the ward. Nair has run a campaign of unity, and at his final rally in October, flags of many other countries flew as his cavalcade made a trip through the ward.
His unity campaign is an effort to deal with the suspicion and lack of trust that has grown in the community.
He names the ward’s problems as “grime, dirt and degradation”, which he blames on “unscrupulous landlords”. Like most candidates for councillor in Johannesburg, Nair says Home Affairs must ensure that the flow of undocumented migrants is more carefully managed.
If he wins, he says the job will give him access to and leverage over the city bureaucracy, which moves at a snail’s pace and all but ground to a halt under Covid-19.
He says a permanent generator is needed at the Brixton Tower so that the twin evils of power and water cuts can be curtailed simultaneously. The area often has both at the same time because the supply reservoir goes out when there is load shedding.
Homelessness in Ward 58 is severe, with Brixton Cemetery home to a sizeable and growing community. Nair has been working with homeless people for years and says the community consists of two distinct groups. The first is people who need shelters and a helping hand in their municipal land allocations. He has identified properties for transit shelters. The second group is comprised of drug addicts who feed their habit on urban streets where begging is the currency to earn the next hit. Nair has worked with nine addicts in the area to get them into a rehab centre in Magaliesburg, and he says they have stayed clean.
One of his most significant projects should he be elected is to get the city to work with the National Prosecuting Authority to ensure municipal courts are introduced for by-law enforcement. One of the reasons Johannesburg is in decline is because by-laws are not enforced in any way. The local rule of law does not exist.
Yola Minnaar is the DA candidate, and she is also highly regarded in Ward 58. She lives in Vrededorp and often gives food parcels and bread to the recyclers. Minnaar was ill on the day of the interview and was unavailable for the week.
Instead, Daily Maverick asked outgoing councillor Alex Christians what his ward experience had been.
How has your tenure been?
This has been the most challenging tenure I have had since holding public office from around 1999 in Pietermaritzburg. Many residents do not accept the essential role of a ward councillor versus their perception of the function.
What were the highlights of your term?
The elderly got back to their units (social housing units), and many cried as their dignity was restored by the renovations done. They had not had any joy with housing for over 10 years, and this was the first time government did anything to their units.
What would you have done differently if given another opportunity?
I would have started finding street representatives to learn and serve the area earlier without any personal gain in mind.
What difficulties did you experience?
The community did not understand that ward councillors do not run their wards. We are there to oversee that officials carry out their duties, and if they do not, we can escalate in terms of the processes designed by the mayor and his executive for us to escalate. Ward councillors will breach the code of conduct if they interfere with the work of officials or instruct them.
There were issues that did not get addressed, like electricity outages, water failures and illegal dumping, which blighted the ward. Why?
In 2016 (when the DA took over the city), a R160-billion backlog built up over the 20 years the ANC was in power. There is no way that I could resolve the electricity and water issues in five years. One of the successes was the upgrade of the substations that service the Ward 58 electricity supply. Joburg Water upgraded infrastructure in three parts of the ward. When it came to dumping, I put many initiatives in place. The city incorporated elements of Ward 58 into the inner city, and Fordsburg and Mayfair saw three shifts being introduced there by Pikitup. When there was a change of government, this fell away. However, the source of the issue is not the city, but the residents. I held various clean-up projects in different areas of the ward with the help of residents. So the problems were dealt with.
I felt that you focused on big-ticket items (new parks, a multipurpose community centre) without paying attention to the priorities the community felt were important.
That’s not true. In the first half of the year, more than 1,000 electricity and water escalations were made by myself. I highlighted big projects more in the ward to ensure that SMMEs and local labourers also benefited in Ward 58. When I took office in August 2016, during my 100-day listening tour of the ward, many residents and SMMEs complained that Ward 58 received little to no funds for projects, and they were excluded from applying in other neighbourhoods. During my term, just under a quarter of a billion rands was spent on projects in Ward 58.
Is it fair to say that your term was characterised by the privatisation of public spaces: a park became a taxi sales shop, a sports complex became a private school, the swimming pool became a private school, although the community said the space should be for all?
It is unfair to make allegations that the privatisation of public spaces can characterise my term of office. All public areas in Ward 58 still belong to the City of Johannesburg from 2016 to date.
The taxi business was leased from the Johannesburg Property Company before my term of office. The bus depot bought private land from a private school. The bowling club was a haven for prostitutes. Allegations about this were proven false by GFIS (the city’s anti-corruption agency) and recently by the ethics committee. The private school stopped alcohol sales, drugs stopped, and they cleaned up the facility, but due to bad publicity, it closed down. The city made it clear it did not have the funds to fix the swimming pool as it would cost more than building a new one. The city has a partnership with a school as per the community’s priorities, and the property still belongs to the city. DM