South Africa

STRUGGLING GIANT

Johannesburg’s emergency call for engineers, gas-detection experts after CBD explosion exposes dire skills gap

Johannesburg’s emergency call for engineers, gas-detection experts after CBD explosion exposes dire skills gap
Residents stand along the road that collapsed following an explosion in Johannesburg's CBD on 20 July 2023. (Photo: Gallo Images / OJ Koloti)

The City of Johannesburg employs more than 40,000 people, but its engineering teams have been depleted through years of cadre deployment, which has continued under the coalition governments that now run the city. Wednesday night’s explosion in the CBD has exposed its lack of capacity.

A panicked WhatsApp message from the Johannesburg development planning directorate reveals the city did not have requisite engineering or gas-detection skills.

“WE DEFINITELY NEED ANY STRUCTURAL ENGINEERS, CIVIL ENGINEERS, ELECTRICAL ENGINEERS OR WATER ENGINEERS/GAS DETECTION EXPERTS. The City COO has undertaken that they will be paid and will conclude contracts within the hour,” said the message circulated by WhatsApp on Thursday.

On Wednesday at dusk, a massive explosion ripped through Lilian Ngoyi Street (previously Bree Street) in Johannesburg, sending taxis and cars flying. One person died, and at least 40 were injured as the street collapsed.

By the end of Thursday, the city could not say what had caused the blast, and speculation veered from a gas explosion to informal miners who may have hit a pipeline. No experts spoke in the first briefings to the public, and Gauteng Premier Panyaza Lesufi took over the role of Johannesburg Mayor Kabelo Gwamanda, who was out of his depth.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Emergency teams race to find source of Johannesburg explosion as city centre remains volatile

The message circulated by a senior bureaucrat reveals that Johannesburg lacks requisite engineering skills and does not have the required gas detection experts. The city employs more than 40,000 people, but its engineering teams have been depleted through years of cadre deployment, which has continued under the coalition governments that now run the city. 

Residents and law enforcement stand along the road which collapsed following an explosion in the CBD on 20 July 2023 in Johannesburg, South Africa. (Photo: Gallo Images / OJ Koloti)

Destruction caused by an explosion in the CBD on 19 July 2023 in Johannesburg, South Africa. (Photo: Felix Dlangamandla)

Quasi-privatised entities

The boards of quasi-privatised entities such as the Johannesburg Development Agency (in charge of planning), City Power, Johannesburg Water and Johannesburg Roads Agency, which should fuel the city’s expertise, comprise mainly cadres from parties in the coalition government. 

The Lilian Ngoyi Street collapse has a long tail. Johannesburg experiences regular substation explosions, road collapses and massive water pipe bursts, which are common across the city now.

Despite years of warnings, the city and province have neither investigated nor clamped down on informal mining, which was flagged as a risk to gas pipelines for years. (See this 2018 report from TimesLive). On Thursday, the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy said there are no old mines near the explosion site.

Miners who burrow deep to get hold of the Reef’s last gold have before come dangerously close to hitting gas pipes. Michelle Banda reported earlier this year that fires had downed eight substations in Johannesburg in 18 months.

Johannesburg Water reported pipe bursts more than 55,000 times in 2021, and the pace has accelerated since then. When technicians cut into the ground to fix the water lines, cars fall into the gashing holes they leave.

The pits and years of under-investment have destabilised the road network, leading to regular collapses – smaller than the gash left across central Johannesburg this week but still quite common.   

The major arterial road through the CBD will be closed with barbed wire as authorities struggle to determine what caused the explosion. Video grabs showed smoke pouring out of the broken road, although Egoli Gas said its systems are stable, according to this report by Yeshiel Panchia. Egoli Gas, a privatised entity, supplies municipal piped gas across the city.

The road explosion reveals how Johannesburg’s infrastructure has withered as smaller and smaller allocations are made to maintenance and capital expenditure.

City’s budget squeezed

The city’s R77-billion budget is squeezed by its staff and contractor bills, which hoover up almost half the budget, leaving little available for long-term investment spending. Because there is so little money for shelters and services, the city’s homeless live in its parks, cemeteries and other open spaces. Without warmth, they make fires that, in turn, have seen many city buildings razed.

On Thursday, the Mayfair Bowling Club went up in flames when a gas heater exploded. The club has been the home of homeless people for years.

Video: A fire razed the Mayfair Bowling Club which houses homeless people on Thursday, 20 July 2023

Political instability has also meant that the city administration lacks leadership: its inspectorate, for example, is conspicuous mainly by its absence. Inspectors should inspect gas and other municipal lines regularly. 

The DA in Johannesburg warned that the WhatsApp emergency call for engineers risked corruption as it bypassed tender and contract processes.

“We also need to question why the call for assistance is not done through official supply chain channels. Neither the city nor the province has fully assessed the infrastructure damage; therefore, one must question on what basis the city plans to award open-ended contracts,” said councillor Daniel Schay, who leads the party on development planning. DM

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Niek Joubert says:

    And all of a sudden BEE is no longer a requirement! But the blinkered politicians will never learn.

  • Robert Pegg says:

    Another example of dysfunctional Municipalities. The ANC needs votes so they employ as many civil servants as possible no matter if they are qualified to do the jobs or not. Firefighters sit around the countries fire stations watching TV and playing video games. Poor management has resulted in a “couldn’t care less” attitude. There is no discipline in most Services. No training takes place, which used to be a daily occurrence. Many Municipal Fire Services have insufficient vehicles and equipment to render an efficient service. Huge delays are experienced when calling for assistance. Moral is at rock bottom. This is just one example which I can quote, being an ex Chief Fire Officer of a city Fire Brigade.

  • Concerned Citizen says:

    Isn’t it amazing that if you rule via wishful thinking with a communist ideology and victim mindset, with no accountability for your decisions or lack thereof, that there are still actual real world consequences

  • cathy.wardle says:

    Toxic gas built up in those storm water drains that surround the roads and then became flammable igniting the gas.

    One only has to see all the crud that is dumped in storm water drains in all neighborhoods and especially inner city flats which surround Bree Street to know that this could also be one such scenario.

  • Alley Cat says:

    “A world class African city” my ass!

    • Joe Irwin says:

      Cadre deployment of unqualified, incompetent and clueless individuals has destroyed what was once a world class African city.

    • Dee Bee says:

      Really grates me that they’ve started using that lie as a byline again! Nothing world class about the crumbling infrastructure, ludicrous increases in rates and taxes for no service delivery, the out of control crime etc etc. I also wonder if they’ve canvassed the residents of Zandspruit, Orange Farm, Diepsloot or any of the 181 informal settlements in Joburg to see if the roughly 500,000 residents believe they live in a world class city?

      • Dee Bee says:

        Those stats on informal settlements were off the City of Joburg website from an article published in 2016 – so if we assume that their data is correct that 10k people a month arrive in Jozi, it means that another 800k people at least have arrived since then, and let’s be generous and say that only half end up in informal settlements – that’s another 400k, or almost doubling the number over 7 years. World class? My (rhymes with class)!

        “There are at present 181 informal settlements across Johannesburg with an estimated 180 000 households and a combined population exceeding 500 000. Statistics show that 10 000 migrants arrive in Johannesburg every month from various parts of the country and the rest of the continent to seek better economic opportunities, further exerting pressure on the City to provide basic services such as electricity, water, sanitation and refuse removal, as well as housing, roads and other infrastructure.” Capital budget for the city that year? R3.9bn. Total budget? R55bn!

        • Ryckard Blake says:

          Do your totals acknowledge that living conditions and lifestyles in most parts of Doornfontein, Newtown, Hillbrow etc have become just as uncivilized as prevails in the “formal” informal settlements you count. Add another 1/2 million denizens for whom the availability of uncontrolled gas and electricity networks is absolutely BOUND to result in disasters like Wednesday evening in Bree Street.
          Have you actually visited these areas in the last ten years?

          • Kevin Schaafsma says:

            The City is legally entitled to collect Rates from me to use for everyone, based on the value of my property. The City has put up the value of my property by 20% a year for the least 5 years, when in reality the value of my property now is actually less than it was 5 years ago. If the City wants to collect rates on an increasing scale of property values it should make sure that property values do increase. The crime and grime and potholes in my residential area account for the value of my property not being what it should be. This is a travesty. There is money available to do what is required, but we know it gets eaten by cadre deployment and corrupt tenders with no work actually being done.

    • Ray Greyvenstein says:

      More like an African class world city…

    • Ray Greyvenstein says:

      I object to the American word that confuses “Arse” with a donkey…

    • John Millar says:

      “An African class world city” is far more apt in my view…

  • Dee Bee says:

    South Africa in a nutshell. A functionally illiterate Mayor, propped up by a Premier who it is becoming clear under the harsh light of day is little better at actually managing the province when it requires more than political grandstanding. Remember, when Ferial – correctly – says that Lesufi took over from Gwamanda because Gwamanda was out of his depth, that it was Lesufi himslef who said that Gwamanda was the best person for the job of Joburg mayor, before quickly adding that he would be given advisors to help him. Why can’t we just have leaders who are qualified for the job of running Africa’s economic hub?

    The lack of engineering capacity is a direct result of having a political administration that is utterly clueless about what is required to run a city: you don’t run a city on slogans, Lesufi, Gwamanda, Morero et al; you appoint qualified civil and municipal engineers, whose job is to ensure that the city’s infrastructure and services are reasonably maintained at all times. It’s not glamorous, or shouldn’t be, but it is vital to prevent incidents such as these, the bursting pipes, potholes, power outages and everything else that makes it increasingly expensive and unaffordable to live in Joburg.

    Just got my new rates assessment – off the charts increases, and for what? So Lesufi the politician can cover the puppet mayor’s backside with ‘advisors’ who are clearly not giving any advice on how a city is run? Just the usual ANC corrupt, inept mess. Time for change!

    • Jane Crankshaw says:

      Rate payers Associations in KZN have decided to withhold rate payments to Ethekweni Municipality until there is transparency and action. This municipality declared it was in the black at the beginning of the year and is now about to or has declared bankruptcy! Go figure!

    • Ryckard Blake says:

      You afford Panyaaz too much credit. It quite sickens me how, without fail, he seizes on every calamity as just another opportunity to raise his profile, get into the headlines again. No ways was he going to allow any Executive Mayor to steal his limelight on this major news event. Disgusting creature, Lesufi.

    • Zamfoot 1 1 says:

      You can employ all the qualified people you like, if you dont deal with the corruption around tenders etc, they would just be set up to fail and be blamed.

  • Ian Gwilt says:

    Que the various video mock ups showing Edwin Sodi rushing into the fray gorging cash and contracts.

  • Mark Hammick says:

    And where have the skills gone?

    Chased away by the ANC policies, which include employing the inept, the corrupt, need I go on?

  • Dennis Bailey says:

    You get what you voted for, Joburgers. You voted for chaos and should not be disappointed.

  • Jane Crankshaw says:

    Perhaps this is the lesson from which the ANC and EFF hopefuls will learn that BEE policies are destroying any hope of a decent future for SA. But then…perhaps not! They will probably just see this as another opportunity from which to feed – just like previous catastrophes! Let things collapse completely and when the tax payer has to fork out ( yet again) it’s an opportunity to get a slice of the action. This will only stop when the tax payer turns off the taps in my opinion. 40 000 employees and not one of them capable of doing the job! Wow!

  • Sue Hutchings says:

    South Africa is running on autopilot. We’re living in a s***show.

  • Hermann Funk says:

    Its skills and commitment that can rebuild this country. Not skin colour and party affiliation.

  • Hiram C Potts says:

    It’s called BEE…..
    The next episode in this tragic saga is the scramble for tenders to repair this shambles, which repairs of course won’t happen. They can’t fix potholes, let’s see how they handle this mess.

  • Jane Bezuidenhout Rabie Bezuidenhout says:

    She might spout bunkum, but she is a dangerous woman. She has a loyal following blindly accepting every word she speaks. Beware the fool.

  • Fanie Rajesh Ngabiso says:

    “Wednesday night’s explosion in the CBD has exposed its lack of capacity”

    It was exposed long before Wednesday.

    Keep going ANC – destroy everything for everyone.

  • John Forbes says:

    Could a lack of maintenance be the ultimate cause? A blocked sewer. Manholes bunged tight from lack of inspections. A gradual build up of methane in the sewer pipe running down Bree Street. Finally, a manhole is opened by a smoking labourer. Ignition, and the rest is history!

  • Mohammed Tikly says:

    Inept, corrupt and arrogant City Council. Sadly the skilled engineers and technicians have long gone, unable to tolerate the toxic politics of a once beautiful country.

  • Surely nobody is surprised at the situation government departments find themselves in regarding lack of engineering skills. As a professional engineer with 63 years engineering experience I have mentored about 50 young engineers of all races and both genders towards helping them become registered as professional engineers. WITHOUT EXCEPTION they are almost all seeking jobs overseas once they become registered.

  • Hester Dobat says:

    If our voters do not realise that voting for the ANC in the hope that they may continue getting a slice of the pie, or they might somehow do if they play their cards right, as beneficiaries of BEE and tender corruption and that the pie is never shrinking, our country will continue to drown in its own sludge. The fight is not going to continue for what is left of the pie, even if it is blowing up in their faces. They counter their struggle for power by closing ranks, but even they realise the writing is on the wall. Voters get what they vote for. Believing voting for ANC because of loyalty to Mandela and struggle heroes, are far in the past. Voters will continue to get what they vote for. Even if the road blows up under their feet. Too many voters do not realise the association and connection, between the chaos and the party who is in charge and they keep voting for. Until they make that connection, South Africa will continue to sink into ANC sludge till we all drown.

  • Bruce Levendig says:

    I have recent experience with Egoli gas. They lack any form of audit or regulatory ability on their gas distribution network.

    A gas leak at my premises that saw me use 100 times the amount of usual consumption per month for more than 2 months (measured, recorded and billed by Egoli) was not flagged as unusual. Had this been SARS on a VAT return the red flags would have been raised immediately. It took many phone calls to the Egoli “emergency” number to elicit a response.
    My point is that there are most probably so many undetected leaks in the aged and neglected piping system that detection in the ‘low pressure’ reticulation is realistically impossible. I have waited more than 3 months for factual information on the gas pressures and composition from Egoli without response. I suggest for the safety of all Joburg residents that the Egoli network be scrapped, as convenient as it is. Gas is not a substance to be played with. I will not even begin to discuss the environmental impacts of the ‘lost’ methane…..

    • Gregory Brooks says:

      Well Said! Not detecting a change in pressure is hardly proof that their leaking pipes did not build up to the unfortunate incident, the pipes are just still leaking.

  • Jon Quirk says:

    So we can attribute this to cadre deployment and affirmative employment practices? When will our government finally see the light?

  • Nic Bosveld says:

    Government at ALL levels is a job placement agency, regardless of skills.

    Deployees are too much happy, until a problem like this arises and competency is laid bare.

    Still, the penny battles like hell to drop.

  • T'Plana Hath says:

    #OnlyVans

  • Petrus Kleinhans says:

    The national rugby team shows what South Africa could be when we work together. The ANC government shows what a racist “we don’t need you, it’s our turn at the trough” turns us into. Clear as day is the invitation for South Africans to stand together and end this rout of our nation. The country is blowing up in our national face.

  • Brigitta Brigitta says:

    The tender process is precisely what is causing the problem. Due to massive prove gauging of substandard work, and often deliberate acts to spread up the need for maintenance.

  • Brian Doyle says:

    A good example when you have BEE and Cadre deployment. You end up with incompetent people running the municipality who are only there to enrich themselves. The ANC are both indirectly and directly responsible for the shambles Johannesburg is in.

  • Bette Kun says:

    Watching the struggle of about 5 workers (on Thursday morning’s live news) to get a pneumatic drill to work (corn Bree & something), no surprise.

  • Luan Sml says:

    Let us not forget that for every inept cadre sucking up our taxpayer money, there are at least 3 advisors/coznsuktants/contractors appointed to assist them…most connected as well!
    surely a great money-making racket for the ruling party (their words, not mine), 4 for the price of 1 !!!

  • David Pennington says:

    Why don’t they just buy a clomp of Cubans as per usual, hope this helps

  • Grant Turnbull says:

    And the uneducated mayor and mmc’s are totally confused. Let these half wit pokiticians sort it out if they have the time left from stealing all the rates and taxes we work so hard to pay and for which we get nothing in return.

  • Rob Wilson says:

    Johannesburg CBD has a toxic mix of ageing underground infrastructure which includes gas reticulation and uncharted old mine workings. Any ground movement from the old workings can cause things to shift and induce leaks from the pipes. Zama-Zama’s burrowing away at pillars and removing backfill will most certainly result in some movement. In the 1980’s, and right under the noses of the then resident mining houses with all the plans, the foundation excavations for the new Standard Bank building exposed old uncharted workings-and it was a big surprise. There are undoubtedly more surprises in store if things are not managed.

  • Gareth Murray says:

    A bigger question is what on earth is it that these 40 000 people do that “work” for the City of Joburg? Would love to know what kind of job roles there are, absenteeism rates, disciplinary cases, average monthly salaries, the literacy & numeracy levels of CoJ staff, educational qualifications, how many hours per week they actually work, how long their lunch breaks are & the benefits & perks they have thrown in. Maybe a potential story for DM to work on?

  • Lloyd Kaseke says:

    Ms Haffajee succumbed to the cheap shots temptation. Similar and worse disasters have occurred in the USA, Europe and Japan with no cadre deployment involved. Hoping her follow-up article will show her usual analytical insights into this unforeseen disaster.

    • Gareth Murray says:

      Can you name one similar or worse disaster in America, Europe or Japan caused by corrupt & incompetent party cadres that run a major city like New York, London, Munich, Geneva or Tokyo?

  • Christopher Lang says:

    Yes! Methane gas build up in subterranean drains and cavern is a real threat. My guess, however, is this explosion was caused by fugitive LPG gas leaking from an illegal installation or storage area which is situated near a stormwater culvert. LPG is a heavy gas and will find it’s way into underground cavities, which is why, in terms of municipal bylaws governing the installation of gas installations, they have to be a minimum distance from a drain or underground basement etc. In the last two years or so, there has been a critical shortage of gas bottles, for obvious reasons. What is not obvious however, is the huge expansion of the use of gas in sub economic housing and inner city slums.
    Unfortunately, South Africa’s ability to govern has been severely compromised by its political parties and total disregard for law and order! This country is no different to a soccer match without a referee!

  • Peter Merrington says:

    It’s sad, very sad. I know it’s selfish but I repeat how glad I am to live in Cape Town, city of my forebears, with proper, ethical, competent (DA) administration. Wake up, citizens of Gauteng.

  • Kevin Schaafsma says:

    What! Are there no long lines of Cadres who could be immediately deployed who are properly qualified structural and civil engineers? With all the money we are spending on the universities in NFAS funding? Surely we are pumping out STEM graduates like mad, to plug all the gaps in the power stations, mines, water plants, municipal services etc?

    I have a young family member who is a recently qualified white female civil engineering graduate from Tuks with an Honours Degree. Can’t get an engineering job. Got headhunted into financial services (quite common for engineering grads apparently), now looking overseas for greener pastures where she can work hard and honestly as an engineer, earn a good salary and pay tax. She’d love to stay in SA but it has sadly become apparent to her that she has no real future in SA. And this is not an uncommon story. #justsaying.

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