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Heaven or Hell: Put Jozi back on the High Road


Herman Mashaba is the leader of ActionSA. Mashaba is the former executive mayor of Johannesburg and founder of the People’s Dialogue.

As an entrepreneur, I discovered long ago that predicting the future is notoriously difficult. Policymakers, business strategists and thought leaders try to model scenarios about how the world might look in six months, one year, and even in five years’ time. Despite the unprecedented mass of data available, very few policy models factor in “black swan” events.

The popular concept is based on the title of Nicholas’s Taleb’s bestselling book The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. Black swan events have a major impact but are difficult to predict, like financial crises, wars, famines and droughts, and acts of terror. Looking in the rear view mirror, however, many of these events were probable and could even have been avoided. People invariably claim, “We saw it coming!”

Let’s try to model what South Africa, and in particular the city of Johannesburg, could look like five years from now, with two scenarios: heaven or hell. At the dawn of democracy, strategist Clem Sunter famously coined the “low road” and “high road” scenarios for South Africa. From about 2006 (although the rot set in much earlier) the ANC has decisively taken the low road that can only lead to hell.

Two weeks ago, President Zuma’s dominance finally expired when the Constitutional Court declared with impeccable clarity that he had broken the sacred contract between him and the people of South Africa. Instead of taking the moral high road and impeaching him, the ANC defended him – thus condoning his despicable actions. In hindsight, we all saw it coming, didn’t we?

As an aside, isn’t it frightening, as Leo Tolstoy observed, that “there are no conditions to which a person cannot grow accustomed, especially if he sees that everyone around him lives in the same way”. We have become too accustomed to the trauma of corruption.

I’ve seen this phenomenon of trauma overload in the townships where hope for change has long evaporated. The rubbish piling up on Johannesburg’s streets due to Mayor Park Tau’s ineptitude over the Pikitup strike is a metaphor for the state of the national malaise.

The Pikitup scandal at the local level almost perfectly follows the contours of how the ANC governs at the national level.

The biggest failure from the outset was not to remove Amanda Nair as Pikitup’s managing director. Facing serious allegations about crony tenders, the theft of company equipment, and incompetent management, she has twice been investigated, twice been suspended, and twice reinstated. No one can do a job as important as this with such a dark cloud hanging over their head. You only have to do a basic dot-to-dot exercise to see whose behaviour Nair and the local ANC leadership emulate. The interplay between the national and local ANC is striking.

In a giant feedback loop, we’ve witnessed the near collapse of basic education and the rise of the #FeesMustFall movement; the straitjacket of labour relations legislation (especially section 32) that is strangling entrepreneurship; the changing of finance ministers three times in one week last December; more than 8-million people jobless; and the endless, unchecked spread of corruption.

Of course, the ultimate “black swan” moment is still to happen: the predicted downgrading of South Africa’s credit rating to junk status within the next year. This will be especially devastating for local government because this is where the axe is likely to fall on frontline services. I still believe we can avoid this fate if we can have a positive change of government at the local level.

In South Africa, how do we avoid the hell scenario? In my experience of scenario planning, I predict that if the ANC performs moderately well – capturing in the mid to upper 50 percent of the vote — in the local government elections on August 3, Zuma remains safe. If this happens, the rand is sure to be devalued to junk status within the year, and the state will continue to be ransacked. With no fiscal space left, it will be impossible to service the national debt and pay for essential services. Flashbacks to the rubbish on the streets of Johannesburg in 2016 will almost look quaint in 2021. This is the hell scenario.

To avoid the hell scenario requires nothing less than the South African voters to vote with their feet. This is the heaven scenario. This is one when the voters elect the DA in Johannesburg, Tshwane, Port Elizabeth, and decisively returns Patricia de Lille in Cape Town. If this happened, the electorate would rescue the country from meltdown, irrespective of President Zuma’s fate. At this point, the best chance for South Africa three years out from a general election is to change the direction of the nation’s metros. The good news is that, unlike in most scenario planning, this would not be a leap in the dark. A vote for the EFF would be a leap into the dark abyss of unpredictability. Who in South Africa knows what the EFF would do in government? Where the DA has a celebrated track record, the EFF has none.

Ten years ago, the DA formed a seven-party coalition in Cape Town to govern the city. Five years later, after managing a complex coalition, the DA won the city with a decisive majority. In just a decade, the DA changed the trajectory of the city for good. By every indicator, Cape Town is the fairest city with the biggest spend on the poor in the country. It boasts the lowest level of inequality of all South Africa cities. And even the Johannesburg Stock Exchange has opened an office there. It gnaws me to the core that the JSE shows more confidence in the Mother City than in its own home.

I cannot over-emphasise how much South Africa needs another big DA metro win. Not for party ambition, but to avoid the hell scenario. As Johannesburg contributes nearly 17 percent to the country’s GDP, I reiterate that the great South African story cannot be rewritten if Johannesburg is not transformed. A Johannesburg win for the DA would re-energise and re-invigorate South Africa’s flagging economy in a heartbeat, for if Johannesburg works, South Africa works.

You, the voter, hold the power to choose. DM


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