Defend Truth


Johannesburg’s most famous pothole — the symbol of a broken city

Johannesburg’s most famous pothole — the symbol of a broken city
One of the weeds growing out of this Johannesburg pothole is about the height of an average NBA basketball player. The others are closing in. (Photo: Supplied)

A pothole on a leafy Johannesburg street has become a symbol of a city — and country — that is failing under the ruling party’s persistent corruption and mismanagement.

Rewilding is gathering pace in my Johannesburg suburb. It’s what nature does when left alone: reclaim areas no longer under human management. That can be a good thing. Rewilding is the method du jour for conservationists trying to restore ecosystems and reverse declines in biodiversity in various parts of the world.

But for a city of six million people, it can become a problem.

Of all the weeds — if that’s what they are — shooting through my neighbourhood’s shattered sidewalks and sinking potholes, the cluster at the bottom of my street is the most impressive. It’s even gone viral on X.

Seven months ago, city workers attempted to fix a broken water pipe that burst in the middle of the street, one of about 140 that reportedly fail each day under the City of Gold. They didn’t succeed, at least not entirely. Water still seeps.

When “done”, the workers heaved some gravel into the pit they dug, placed a yellow plastic road barrier beside it, and left. The city responded to our complaints by saying that it had no money to repair the pothole. That their workers had created it was immaterial.

johannesburg broken city

Potholes along Lilian Ngoyi Street in Johannesburg on 20 February 2023. (Photo: Gallo Images / Luba Lesolle)

Fast-forward to the present and one of the weeds growing out of the pothole is about the height of an average NBA basketball player. The others are closing in.

Passersby might assume that our street lets the weeds grow tall in symbolic protest at ANC perfidy and incompetence. Or we’re just lazy.

Perhaps the sadder truth is that we have become indifferent to the never-ending examples of ANC misrule. Not caring is one way to cope with helplessness.

A kingdom of contrasts

There is much talk about this year’s election being a defining moment for the country. One of the newest democratic entrants on the political scene, Rise Msanzi, proclaims: “2024 is our 1994.” No one who believes in integrity and good governance could wish otherwise.

But for all their well-intentioned efforts, new and not-so-new, none look poised to disrupt three decades of ANC dominance this year. “Nationally, their numbers don’t add up,” one of South Africa’s best political economists recently told me. We should all brace for a damp squib.

My street is in one of Johannesburg’s oldest and leafiest areas, affectionately known as “the Parks”. The weedy pothole flourishes in the shadow of one of SA’s great protected trees, a giant cottonwood in our neighbour’s garden, designated a “Champion Tree” by the government. It even has an official name: The Parktown Tree.

Many of us who live in the suburb can retreat from the escalating decay of our public spaces into private gardens that make newcomers to the Parks gape. Such is the colourful riot of plants and trees bequeathed to us by estate planners and residents of the area in the early 20th century. It would be hard to find a starker contrast.

Well, not that hard. Moaning about a weed, when half a million people in your city inhabit shacks, is to live in the kingdom of contrasts. Cognitive dissonance is about the only way our best selves can survive it.  

Joburg’s ‘Detroit moment’

Ten years ago, I penned an article with a young colleague from the state of Michigan, asking whether Johannesburg could collapse like Michigan’s biggest city, Detroit.

The famed “Motor City” was once the US’s — some say the world’s — wealthiest city. But in July 2013, Detroit filed the largest municipal bankruptcy in US history. The next day, a raft of mind-boggling statistics emerged. More than 40% of Detroit’s residents lived in poverty; 47% were illiterate. The city was home to nearly 80,000 abandoned buildings. In some neighbourhoods, house after house had been consumed by vines and undergrowth. Nature had taken over.

For Johannesburg, 2013 was a more optimistic time. “Africa’s world-class city”, the “New York of the 21st century”, the economic hub of the Global South — all seemed possible. Yet the governance trajectory was ominous.

Johannesburg broken city

Predatory regimes come and go worldwide, but none have observed their country’s by-far greatest economic engine — let alone the continent’s — break down with such alacrity. (Photo: Gallo Images / Luba Lesolle)

The failures that collapsed Detroit were a warning to Joburg. The historical fabrics of the two cities were similar: both were largely defined by race and, as their nicknames attested, a single industry. There were racially segregated neighbourhoods and poor public schools, abandoned factories and mine dumps.

The Washington Post columnist George Will controversially argued that the people of Detroit got what they deserved: “Well, what did they vote for? For 60 years, they voted for incompetents, malcontents and in some cases, criminals.” His counterpart in South Africa might reach for an even bleaker explanation, Voltaire’s: “It is difficult to free fools from the chains they revere.”

Is that why the ANC thinks it can put such a compromised toady in the Johannesburg mayor’s seat? Or claim that the city’s Municipal Public Accounts Committee is holding corrupt officials accountable, when everyone knows that they can steal with impunity (cases are known to take several years to finalise, by which time the guilty are on to their next gig)?

And yet, why more has not been done by national and provincial leaders to arrest the slide of Johannesburg before its “Detroit moment” arrives can’t be attributed solely to corruption and stupidity. Predatory regimes come and go worldwide, but none have observed their country’s by-far greatest economic engine — let alone the continent’s — break down with such alacrity.

Nothing is so important that it can’t be sacrificed on the altar of ANC politics. The water and sanitation infrastructure in South Africa’s third-largest city, Durban? Nope. Let the beachgoers eat sewage.

The best of us

That Johannesburg doesn’t find itself in an even worse condition is down to the nameless heroes who chip in every day where the state has departed. A friend in the city council tells me that volunteers working for Citizen Relationship and Urban Management, a citizen-led body that is meant to augment the work of city entities and departments, is now doing much of it for them. Cutting grass, sweeping the streets, picking up litter. They are the best of us.

It is their spirit and resilience that might stop Johannesburg from falling into the abyss. But they can’t restore its global pretensions. A city that functions better, is fairer and less unequal, safer and cleaner. That would be ambitious enough.

The storied US public servant and intellectual Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said:

“The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself.”

Many remarkable South Africans are trying to fix the country’s rotten politics. Perhaps they’ll put a bigger dent in the ANC than I imagine. But so long as the party’s biggest asset, the President, escapes blame for this omnishambles, “1994” won’t happen till (at least) 2029. 

Either way, nature doesn’t care. It just is.

Some years ago, when tiny shothole borer beetles started wreaking havoc in the Parks, fatally infecting many of the area’s majestic plane and oak trees with their fungus, I assumed that the Parktown Tree was also a goner. 

Each passing year, its leaves browned and fell earlier than normal, so it seemed. But the old cottonwood is still standing. Curiously, it’s looking stronger than ever. DM

Dr Terence McNamee is a Non-Resident Global Fellow of the Wilson Center (Washington, DC).


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Kevin Venter says:

    Well… I don’t know why these types of articles come as a surprise to anyone. Every living person in South Africa can see the result of corruption, ineptitude and zero accountability. Even the poor people can see it, only difference is that they don’t care because they are not driving a car through said pothole. They are not paying any tax so the widespread theft of public money through dodgy tenders and other criminal means does not affect them. The people who think a change in vote to another party will change anything are seriously delusional. Even if a halfway decent party gets a majority of the vote, how easy do you think it will be to undo the now endemic corrupt practices and people. If you want to see the outcome for South Africa long term, all you need do is look a little further north of the border and that will be your answer. Make no mistake that is what is going to happen in South Africa.

  • D'Esprit Dan says:

    Superbly written! Driving back from the airport in the rain yesterday, in a newer part of Joburg, it was like a slalom championship in Switzerland, but instead of whooshing around the flagpoles, it was avoiding the potholes as best one could. This sleazy regime that Panyaza Lesufi strongarmed into power is the worst collection of criminals. convicted (for fraud in some cases) or otherwise, that the ANC has yet unleashed on the residents. High time for rates boycotts. Perhaps, also, we should start taking all our rotten food from loadshedding and unplanned outages (ours are almost daily) and dumping it in council chambers? Make the sleazy, uncaring tenderpreneurs actually be part of the daily grind.

    • Milner Erlank Erlank says:

      The above is yet another well-written factual denunciation of ANC’s uncaring dogma-ridden ‘governance’ at all levels. Regrettably, it, too, will be sloughed off and ignored. With all three local TV talkshow stations now blatant ANC propaganda hand-maidens, the ruling party can afford to bask in wall to wall coverage and 60-million brain-washed adherents will vote us all lemming-like into the abyss of a truly failed state. The print and internet news media are awash with ANC failures, but you will scarcely find broadcasters putting hard-hitting questions to ANC exhibitioners endlessly occupying screen time.

  • Glyn Morgan says:

    Great article.

    “1994” won’t happen till (at least) 2029.”

    Lets try for 2024.

  • Fanie Rajesh Ngabiso says:

    A beautifully written piece.

  • Hermann Funk says:

    60 mio South Africans have given a minority the permission to ravage the country by remaining inactive.

  • Roberto Donadoni says:

    I visited Johannesburg and Pretoria recently over December. I was shocked at the rate of general decline in all suburbs. The biggest shock was the state of the robots in Gauteng. I’d guess that more than half of all robots are either not working or have been cut down and stolen for their metal. And everyone in Johannesburg seems to have just accepted their fate and treat the robot situation as normal. It boggles the mind that the so called “World class African city” does not have functional traffic lights at most intersections. Driving in Johannesburg is like the Wild West. Everyone does as he/she pleases and it is survival of the fittest/bravest! Sad indeed…

  • J vN says:

    Demography is destiny. There’s a reason Detroit and Johannesburg have much in common.

  • Morning- any practical advice on dealing with the city and roads that have disintegrated? specific people that may be contacted- ? precedents on legal action to have repairs done? the value of a petition? success of rate boycotts?

  • Michael Bowes says:

    Closet Conservationists? Rewilding? Mine eyes have seen the glory! I feel better now!.

  • louis viljee says:

    Brilliant piece beautifully encapsulating the rot of a country.

  • David Crossley says:

    I recently visited Cape Town on a short visit.
    What a revelation it was – clean roads, manicured verges, an almost complete absence of potholes and I did not see a single inoperative or vandalised robot.
    I wonder why?
    Could it possible be something to do with a competent local government, led by a highly motivated and effective Mayor?
    It certainly was a Damascus experience for me and something that could easily be achieved in Johannesburg.

    • Matthew Quinton says:

      CT is impressive yes, however I sadly disagree that this can “easily” be achieved in JHB.

      Sorry buddy, JHB is now a proper African city and the days of cleanliness and manicured anything are behind you, unless you want to live in a gated estate, where self management can give you an oasis of what once was.

    • James Leroy says:

      Couldn’t agree more! I went there recently for the first time in decades. I thought I was in a different country. There was still load-shedding (being a national ANC-created monster), but otherwise…… No wonder they want it to be a separate country.

  • Michael Whitaker says:

    OH! thank you. I really like that quotation. It encapsulates so well what is wrong with the ignorant votas in MY country. (Voltaire’s: “It is difficult to free fools from the chains they revere.”) The chains in this instance is the miserable and dangerous anc.

  • Senzo Moyakhe says:

    The painful reality we live with is that this deterioration of Jozi is a microcosm of what is happening to the rest of Mzantsi. It hurts.

  • Matthew Quinton says:

    A brilliant and well written article.

    Worry not for the future. You salvation is a 2-hour flight away.

    Move to CT and vote DA. Simple really.

    But you DO need to give up on JHB, Durban and Bloem. Their total implosion is inevitable and really really close now.

  • Peter Smith says:

    We have the same issues in Pretoria. Since 2016, the CoT spent R35 billion less than the Treasury guidelines on capital expenditure and about R30bn less on maintenance. More than 60% of their revenue is spent on salaries for 20,000 employees. The biggest department is the Metro Police with 4,000 employees costing nearly R4bn per year. So more than 31 per ward. And they could not even contain the recent strike which turned the city into a rubbish dump.

    There are some preconditions required for democracy to work. Voting for a clueless councillor proposed by a clueless party having no skills or experience running a muli billion operation that is highly technical of nature and requires meticulous financial skills obviously does not work.

  • Mendo Gampu says:

    ANC of Ranaphosa of Thuma Mina, oh that SONG entirely misinterpreted I do not think he understands what Bro Hugh meant shame on you Rama!

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted