Opinionista J Brooks Spector 17 July 2014

The middle class angst – a tale of service delivery in suburbia

Not a fairy tale on suburban discontents, but a contemplation of the political results on the middle class of the collapse of urban infrastructure. J. BROOKS SPECTOR takes a look at his own neighbourhood and the efforts his neighbours have taken to make-work.

This is a story about some of the small problems that bedevil life in the suburbs now. These are decidedly not the titanic life-and-death struggles that animate so much writing about politics in this country or elsewhere. But while these are not life and death struggles of leviathan proportions, they do clearly illustrate the difference between smirking while saying one is living in “a world class African city” – and actually being there.

They also help demonstrate why so many people in the ‘burbs can no longer find it in their hearts to support the governing party, despite the sentimental attachments by many to the ideas that animated that party’s rise to power in South Africa. And that, of course, is one of the reasons the current party in power is so concerned about going into overdrive to maintain its hold over Gauteng’s cities, going into 2016 local elections.

Over the past several weeks, the writer’s street and several neighbouring ones have been afflicted by strange, even seemingly supernatural, power outages. These are not the usual power outages that have been so euphemistically re-labelled “load shedding”. This neighbourhood and its surrounding suburb has clearly had its share of those as well, but the recent ones have been different.

What has happened was that suddenly, without warning, power would stop being delivered to every third house on the street. That sounds bizarre. If the power were cut to a street, one would expect that everyone on that street would be equally annoyed and inconvenienced. And cold and in the dark. But how in the world did Johannesburg Power manage to cut the power to the writer’s house, the house three doors away and two on the other side of the street, all while leaving various immediate neighbours still warm, well-lit, fully entertained and able to bathe and have a hot meal and a cup of tea or a coffee in full comfort? Did it manage to go unobserved that this strange event has been happening amidst the coldest weeks of the current winter, and repeatedly.

The usual procedure has been to call Joburg Connect, report the outage and get one of those useless reference numbers for the inevitable follow-up call. Repeatedly, but only after being told, no matter what time of day one called, that they were experiencing high call volumes so please stay on the line for another forty-five minutes. But at two in the morning? After a day or so of this, one inevitably ended up calling the local ward councillor who would suggest one went online to record the electrical supply fault. (Has it ever occurred to the planners of this system that if one has no electricity, one may not have internet connectivity or the power to fire up the trusty computer, smart phone or tablet to log onto the fault reporting website in the first place?)

Eventually, in the midst of one of these strange power outages, and armed with several of those precious reference numbers, by the second day, hungry, dirty and very cold, it was back to Joburg Connect to ask about any progress. After around an hour of waiting while the same music plays and the cell phone battery finally ran out and the cell phone time melted away (the house phone would be unusable because it was one of those cordless jobs that uses electricity), a real person finally came on line and in a slip of the tongue, gave out the name and phone number for a some mysterious regional team leader who held one’s fate in his hands. Calling him, his office promised to escalate the predicament (in bureaucrat speak) and eventually someone came by some ten hours later and fixed the problem. It turned out to be a fuse for one of three phases of electricity supplied to this suburb with most houses only gaining one phase. Every time someone does some construction work or renovations and their power tools make a larger than usual demand on the electrical power supply to that house, that phase’s fuse in some substation burns out for the entire neighbourhood.

In the past several weeks, it has actually happened several times for the same street. In the most recent occurrence for another phase on the street, and this time an 87-year old neighbour’s power has vanished – plus a dozen other houses. Armed with that trusty regional team leader phone number the writer tried to help, but it turned out that no one answers that particular number on weekends. Two days later, someone finally came to fix that fuse, this time over the coldest stretch of weather in Johannesburg for the entire year.  All of this, of course, is in the midst of the usual run of routine load shedding – both long and short versions.

The problem turns out to be that the power supply grid is simply incapable of dealing with those small but lethal fluctuations in the actual loads for each phase in one of these old suburbs, and that the upkeep on the substations to make sure things are current isn’t being carried out. The particular substation closest to the writer’s house is now totally overgrown with two-metre-tall weeds, so who really knows when the last time this particular fuse board was checked – or upgraded.

Meanwhile, like so many other parts of the city, the neighbourhood continues to sprout more and more signs for private security companies – with some houses even bearing two competing companies’ signs, just in case would be house breakers aren’t convinced about the interest in stopping burglaries. (Errant thought time: The writer is convinced there is some serious money to be made printing up laminated durable signs to sell that say something like: Don’t even bother, the house has been robbed twice already. Nothing’s left worth taking.)

Most people living in this neighbourhood are not interested in turning it into a gated community, even if the bureaucratic hurdles could be surmounted. Part of the neighbourhood’s charm is that it is still relatively open space. People do get out and walk; neighbours do greet each other on the street and beyond and many actually know each other and host the occasional street party; and there has been a long-time acceptance that people from well beyond the area will come and park here as well to enjoy the high street’s cafes, restaurants, shopping and pubs. In fact, astonishing nearly everyone, the neighbourhood’s businesses and residents actually beat back the city’s insistence on imposing an on-street parking payment scheme that cost local businesses a significant amount of their trade, but without providing any funding to keep the streets clean, repair the kerbs or maintain the sidewalks – the ostensible purpose of the parking plan in the first place.

Still, the neighbourhood is under a kind of low-level siege from opportunistic robberies and there are moves afoot to establish a system of street guards and night-time patrols and perhaps even a network of CCTV cameras and a central monitoring station. All of this, of course, is in addition to South African Police Service coverage from a station located about four kilometres away in another suburb. And none of this is free. All of it is in addition to the cost of taxes that pay for SAPS protection.

This suburb is one of the older ones on the northern side of Johannesburg. It was first laid out in the early 1900s and then largely filled in post-1945 with the development of modest housing for returning soldiers after the war. (White soldiers, of course.) Now the neighbourhood is increasingly an integrated one. Unlike some suburbs, this one is decidedly middle class rather than pretentious neo-Tuscan or faux-Provencal, although many of the houses have been artfully rebuilt by clever architects interested in using the relatively small five hundred square meter lots in creative ways.

As a result of its early development, the infrastructure networks are ageing and are increasingly in need of renovations and upgrades. As with the electrical supply network, the water lines are not ageing very gracefully, either. The water reticulation system is probably in even worse shape than the electrical one. The other week, a monster pothole suddenly emerged down the road from the writer’s home, when a water main pipe broke under the tarmac. This pothole has simply been made worse when Joburg Water finally arrived for its first visit after all the emails, log-ons to complaint websites and phone calls to people in city offices finally achieved some attention to the leak.

pothole 1

The workers who finally arrived, dug out the surrounding road and the deeper underlying red earth down more than a meter and a half to below the broken pipe – but then they unceremoniously dumped the large amount of extracted rubble on the other side of the street – well into the traffic lane. The pipe, however, has remained broken and water has continued to stream down the street at the rate of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of litres an hour.

pothole 3

Neighbours finally grew worried and put some sticks in the ground around the perimeter of this growing foxhole and added some red and white tape to at least warn the unwary from driving into the by-now-VW Beetle-sized hole in the middle of the night – where the streetlight had burned out a while ago. Then, the other day, Joburg Water workers came back to work on it for a while more, but the hole remains, the pipe remains broken, and the water continues to stream down the road, only now it is also delivering a gooey mud – as the water is now mixed with the newly excavated earth.

pothole 4

Various neighbours have contacted that Joburg Connect number again, called yet more city offices, emailed the mayor, the head of public affairs for the city, and anybody else whose phone number or email address could be winnowed out and who might conceivably be able to help deal with this mess. Most recently, the repair work finally began around just before quitting time on Wednesday but it is nowhere near finished – and at this rate, won’t be for days to come as the water continues to flow down the road.

Now, probably virtually nobody in this neighbourhood would look back to the old regime with much if any fondness – some of the people in the neighbourhood aren’t even white, while others were traditional voters for the Progressive Party – or were even secret ANC supporters. And probably everyone recognizes and appreciates the crushing need for the country’s government offices and programs to address a massive infrastructural backlog for housing and residential services.

And yet, by the same token, these are people who pay their rates and taxes, who are not rich, who have played by the rules, and who have striven to treat everyone fairly in a new country that they too wish to help build. But they are so tired of discovering that yet one more piece of the bureaucratic puzzle has lost track of their repair request, misplaced their city records, billed them for somebody else’s account, or simply shrugged off responding to their pleas for service. People can get outrageously tired of potholes that never get fixed, buses that wander off their routes capriciously and never arrive on time, water mains that keep bursting, electricity that stops without warning, and civic offices that never actually have the right document in the right place. Mayor for life Richard Daley of Chicago learned that to his detriment when the snow finally did not get ploughed and the trash was not picked up on fateful winter.

Actually, the writer thinks it is more than likely most of the people in this neighbourhood are not highly ideologically motivated, except, perhaps if an insistence on professional levels of service can be construed to define an ideological position. In fact, it seems reasonable to assume most of these neighbours would probably be perfectly happy to vote for the current majority party to remain in office until Jesus comes back – if the government of the city and province would simply meet its promises, answer its office phones promptly and cogently, apologize for problems and get its infrastructural programs on the go and effectively underway. At the local government level, it probably doesn’t matter all that much who is in charge, just as long as they actually do what they have to do to make things work right.

In a funny way, this parallels the argument columnist Jonny Steinberg and others were making just prior to the most recent election. In that view, the electorate as a whole, especially the poorer members of it, duly recognized that the party in power had delivered on many of its promises and deserved to be returned to office. There was more housing (albeit of suspicious quality), more homes and more families had piped water and electrical connections (even if the income to pay for this was not there), there were more schools (even if they were not always very good), and the social grant safety net had improved lives (even if the monthly payments were not overly generous). That, in turn, led to a real sense of gratitude towards the party in power – and thus all those votes in its favour when the ballots were counted.

But people in urban centres, and especially those in suburban areas and who were largely middle class, largely already have such amenities. And so, they worry that things will fall (or already are falling) apart, rather than improve, and so they may well be increasingly receptive of the importuning of alternative parties. The way out of this politically, of course, is for the party in power to make the city administrations under its authority perform.

Performance equals a sense of gratitude, and gratitude equals votes at the right time. Machine politicians around the world have learned that lesson over the centuries and these politicians simply have to follow the same furrow until that putative resurrection. Failure to do that, of course, leads in a different direction – and another political result.

But lest anyone think this is a whinge aimed solely at Johannesburg (and its ANC-led government), it should be noted that when our family purchased a small flat in Cape Town, the city failed to deliver a city tax invoice for over eighteen months. Then, one day, it arrived, but the property was listed as owned by the estate of the author’s late wife – who just happened to be standing there, very alive, when the invoice was received. It has taken four months to get that fixed and the name is still misspelled on the resulting invoice. But the views of the mountains, the vineyards, and the smell of the sea remain enticing. DM

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"Take a chance, won't you? Knock down the fences which divide. Tear apart the walls that imprison you. Reach out. Freedom lies just on the other side." ~ Thurgood Marshall

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