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