Opinionista Paul Berkowitz 10 May 2013

Open letter to the Joburg Mayor

Dear Mayor Tau, how are you? It’s Paul here, from Joburg. We don’t know each other well, but I think we need to talk.

Mayor Tau, I read a transcript of the state of the City address (SOCA) you made on Thursday. It’s a lyrical, inspiring speech and I want to get swept up in the excitement of it all, I really do, because I love this city.

Luckily, experience and cynicism cuffed me around the head a bit and poured cold water down my pants. After I collected myself (and changed my pants) I decided to write you a letter. It’s too late for this year’s budget and IDP, but maybe there’s something of use for the future.

As I said, Mayor, I am fond of this city and I believe you are too. You even strike me as a personable and friendly man, which is a bit irrational because we don’t know each other well. This affinity I have with you (real or imagined) means that I will talk to you about my reservations and fears for the city’s future and hopefully you won’t feel I’m being too personal.

Let’s agree that the legacy of the city’s spatial and economic development casts a long shadow. We can also agree that the amalgamation of different councils and districts into the modern metro has not been seamless and some problems persist – mainly the multi-billion rand gorilla in the room, the persistent billing and collection snafus.

Let’s also acknowledge (ok, I’ll acknowledge and you’ll pretend you didn’t hear me) that it’s hard to run a city that has so many units and agencies and little fiefdoms that sprout up like mushrooms in the manure of bureaucracy. It’s also not fun to be a political animal in Gauteng, on the province or the local level: it’s been tricky for the mayor of Tshwane and the premier and it’s probably tricky for you.

On the other hand, you’ve been intimately involved with the development and planning of the city since 2000 and you’ve been instrumental in the development of the city’s economy since 2004, including its infrastructure and transport. It’s unfair to heap too much praise or blame on any one person for what happens in the metro, but if anyone is a legitimate target it’s you.

There have been successes under your watch, notable the infrastructure upgrades in Soweto. Pleasantries aside, I’m not wild about the SOCA. I know it’s a broad, thematic approach and that the details will come in the next few days when you present the budget and the integrated development plan (IDP) for the city. Hopefully you’ll allay my fears then, but let me unburden myself a bit.

I moved back to Joburg in 2004. I’ve been back for almost a decade (pretty much since you’ve risen in the ranks). I think my experiences and concerns are reasonably typical of my neighbours but I could be wrong.

To me, the city does not feel like it is running smoothly, Mayor Tau. It is a very complicated piece of machinery with many parts, so I don’t want to be overly critical, but this feeling I have is strong.

It is not just about potholes and stolen manhole covers, because those things happen everywhere, I do realise that. It is about large streetlights winking out one by one and never being turned on again. You don’t have to be Catholic or Jewish to know what a bad omen that is.

It is about fellow motorists driving without license plates or with broken lights. It is about the same traffic lights at the same busy intersections failing again and again, and taking over a week to be fixed each time.

It is about the traffic lights themselves being sabotaged and twisted around so that they point the wrong way in some Escheresque rendition of traffic flows. I don’t know who does this, but I suspect it’s people who are in the employ of tow truck drivers.

I pass these crippled lights most days and I imagine twisting the necks of the culprits until they also face the wrong way. I feel a little bit mad and a bit lawless with my dark thoughts and I imagine that I am part of the city and I might also need a bit of repair.

It is also about the much-mentioned and heralded Rea Vaya bus system in the city, and why it has taken about five years for nothing much to happen. I remember the redigging of Empire Road in 2009 because I had to take that road to work every morning. It was an awful time to be a commuter but we looked forward to the finished product.

That was five years ago, maybe more. I’ve taken the bus to Soccer City on a few occasions. I’ve seen a handful of buses use the original trunk route through the CBD, and I’ve never seen a bus on the extended routes, including down Empire Road.

Maybe they’re still on strike and maybe there is another reason for why the system is not working regularly, even on a limited scale. All I know is that it’s been five years and millions of rands and counting and it is not working.

When you announce in this year’s SOCA that there is to be a new series of developments along new ‘corridors of freedom’, I feel a bit dizzy. I am developing strong allergies to ever-new vanity projects and multi-year plans when it looks like past and current projects aren’t roaring successes.

I also don’t understand why a good portion of your speech was devoted to a vision of a city built around people-centric transport and development, but another chunk described this new road system that would drive development in the north-west of the city.

I have nothing against people living in Cosmo City but I question whether building more and more roads is the solution, even in a parallel universe where the buses and trains are so good that the native Johannesburger is induced to give up his or her private vehicle. The latest research suggests that, as the roads are built, more cars appear to fill them, and there isn’t much reduction in congestion.

The most successful and efficient cities are also the beneficiaries of random fortune. Manhattan, for example, is surrounded by water on all sides. As a result it was forced to build upwards. The land value of that island, per square metre, is among the highest in the world. Conversely, the per unit costs of providing bulk service infrastructure are very low.

The answer is densification, and there’s a really nice out-of-the-box CBD already there. Sandton and Rosebank are fast developing their own skylines, thanks in part to the rezoning laws of the Gautrain.

The solution lies in real integrated development, including mixed income housing and greater densification in the old leafy suburbs. Now that is really politically risky and hard to pull off, because it means challenging all the old and new money, but it is the real path to greater economic development and integration.

These corridors of freedom are not a sustainable solution to our development needs. Damn me as a cynic and a non-believer, but I am not excited by a new grand project with a new budget and a new set of projected deliverables.

Maybe I’m too harsh, and there are detailed plans included in the upcoming IDP and budget. I will be there next week to review the documents and maybe we can chat a bit further in the future. Please understand that I feel possessive over this city and I’m not placated by your words yet, fine as they are. You say your intentions are good and that you’ll take good care and so on, but I’m not ready to give you my blessing. DM


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