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17 August 2017 03:59 (South Africa)
Opinionista J Brooks Spector

An Open Letter to the new Mayor of Johannesburg

  • J Brooks Spector
    brooks spector 02 BW
    J Brooks Spector

    Spector settled in Johannesburg after a career as a US diplomat in Africa and East Asia. He has taught at the U. of the Witwatersrand, been a consultant for an international NGO, run a theatre, and been a commentator for South African and international print/broadcast/online media, in addition to writing for The Daily Maverick from day one. Spector is a Writing Fellow of the Unit of Johannesburg’s Institute for Advanced Studies. He says he learned everything he needs to know about politics from ‘Casablanca.’ Maybe he's cynical about some things, but a late Beethoven string quartet, John Coltrane’s music and a dish of Pad Thai will bring him close to tears.

Now that Herman Mashaba has been in office for a few days, I’d like to offer some unsolicited advice about how he can begin to realise the potential of that slogan, “Johannesburg – a world-class African city”.

Dear Herman,

First of all, I’d like to extend my congratulations to you on your election the other day to become Johannesburg’s newest executive mayor. Residents of Johannesburg expect great things of you – and a great many things from you – during your term of office.

Of course, expectations of what you will achieve are already sky-high. Regardless of any efforts to keep all those expectations firmly rooted in reality, it is inevitable that your victory will give rise to wildly inflated, rhetorical over-expectations about what will be possible for you to achieve during your term of office.

Inevitably, there will also be some equally certain grumbling when you do not deliver fully on everyone’s expectations – or when some think that you are spending too much time on one part of this big, raucous city, at the expense of the rest of it. This will be especially true for you because you will be dependent on the support – or, at the very least, the acquiescence – of parties other than your Democratic Alliance to get anything accomplished. And some harsh criticism from others may be your daily bread and butter.

Crucial for your success will be keeping the wildest expectations by many – and the fears by some – in check so as to bring expectations in tandem with the hard realities. While you have been in office for only a few days, I have already heard at least one wag say under his breath, in the wake of your victory, “What? Do you mean to say all those potholes aren’t fixed yet?”

There will be more such cynical views expressed as the days and weeks go by and disillusionment by some with your administration – no matter what you do – will be hard to manage. Small successes, early on, will be crucial in managing expectations – and, longer term, in building a climate that will lead to yet further successes.


In setting out to deal with your early days in office, and crucial in building the right climate (actually a perpetual, continuing task for you and your team), you will always want to keep expanding the circle of people who will stand with you and who will wish you well on the things you hope to achieve. That will only come with real successes, however, not rhetoric. But to get there, in every single one of your public speeches, and in all of your public actions, you must convey convincingly that you are the mayor for all of us – rich or poor, black and white, South African citizen and foreign-born resident, northern suburbs and CBD dweller, young and old, those who are still hopeful and those who have already become deeply cynical.

Beyond the image you project, the actual choices you make about your priorities will speak more loudly than the words you use to discuss them. People will quickly begin judging your efforts as successes or failures by what actually happens on the ground, rather than on the grandiose plans and glossy brochures that never turn into real changes people can see in their daily lives. Johannesburg’s residents are weary of all those grand promises they have heard about a promised urban landscape that too often still seems as far away from reality as it did years before. It will be a very tough nut to crack to balance your natural desire to promise the Moon by virtue of your natural optimism, but then Johannesburg residents often feel let down when it comes to making things real.

So, what do we want you to do now that you have that corner office? Even though most of the city’s budget is already tied to mandatory expenditures, you will need to explain – and then carry it out – how you are going to make those budget line items much more efficient and the services they pay for that much more cost effective.

Start with the easy ones.

Announce that you are going to make sure all the traffic signals work, or are repaired within 24 hours, within 90 days. And, moreover, make it a matter of urgency that those outrageous potholes will be fixed within one week of their being discovered or reported. Then, if the people who are responsible can’t do them properly, find others who can and will. The citizenry will applaud you because everyone suffers when the traffic is a shambles. While you are at it, how about making transfers between the city’s four (!) bus systems a done deal, making the buses keep to their routes and schedules, and making sure the vehicles are in good running order and are clean. And figure out how to make transfer from the private taxis to the bus systems something that works as well. (Well, we can dream, can’t we?)

Then, move on systematically to tackle the city’s creaky billing system for its rates and taxes charges – and the meter reading process while you are at it. While your predecessor did achieve some improvements and you should acknowledge that progress, mistakes and errors that seemingly are impossible to fix continue to plague thousands of ratepayers every month. Find out why the system still has these problems. Then, set a timetable for rectifying all of this and stick to it. If the people you put in place or delegate authority to for fixing this can’t do it, find others until it is done.

Establish a hotline that generates real responses to residents’ complaints. And put more resources into that appalling “Joburg Connect” telephone number to ensure that the people who answer the phones have current, accurate information when someone calls the number. There can’t be unusually heavy call volumes at 03:00, but that happens far too often to be believable.

As you get these things sorted out, pick other relatively low-hanging fruit to harvest – and have managers who will stick to it and report back frequently until things are running right. Routinely.

Then you can move on to rehabilitate the city’s many parks and similar facilities that have become sadly neglected (or dangerous to users) over the years. Don’t ignore the road dividers and verges of major traffic arteries. They are the first advertisement for a city.

Perhaps you can adopt a system used in many other nations whereby a business or even a well-to-do family adopts a section of a road or a public park. They get the uniform signage to thank them for their contributions to the city as they pay a set fee every year to fund the necessary maintenance and care. While you are at it, maybe you can designate someone to rein in all that ugly, uncontrolled, rampant signage plastered everywhere and on every flat surface, advertising everything from particularly dicey love potions to tree felling and cut-rate painting and plastering. Signs should get a city stamp of approval on them beforehand or they should be removed – at the full cost to the people or the organisations posting those signs.

Perhaps, too, you can find the funds to support hiring many of the city’s desperately unemployed so that they can gather all the rubbish on every street and pavement in the city as a special emergency employment measure. This would help clean up the streets even as it would help the most impoverished at least to be able to buy food for their families until their economic circumstances can improve. I realise there are already work crews doing some of this in certain downtown neighbourhoods; but this city is a vast urban space and there will always be room for much more of this to be done. Perhaps you can even begin to get the residents of individual neighbourhoods and streets to devote some time to doing this themselves. Many cities across Asia do this regularly, and it helps give people a sense of pride in their surroundings – especially if they see all their friends and neighbours doing with them as well.

As soon as you get these relatively easy tasks under way, you can then move on to building a truly proactive business and jobs climate in Johannesburg. The city desperately needs an effective, fully functional, one-stop office where new businesses can get all their permits and permissions, regardless of whether such requirements are local, provincial or national ones.

Urban studies specialists and economists alike point out that national economic growth is really a matter of the growth of a nation’s cities. With the country’s urban population already more than 60% of the country’s total population and growing rapidly, the 21st century is going to be South Africa’s century of cities. Johannesburg must be in the lead.

Cities that provide the right climate for new entrepreneurs and businesses are the ones that attract others from around the nation and beyond. Accordingly, one of your most important appointments is going to be the special assistant who makes that climate a reality for Johannesburg. A “Business is Welcome in Johannesburg” shingle sign must be visible in everything this city’s government does.

You will want to convene a special commission of the city’s business community to have these corporate citizens help you figure out exactly what must be done to help grow this city’s economy. But don’t let them off the hook too easily. Make sure they commit themselves to rolling up their collective sleeves, supporting these initiatives financially, and seconding key staffers to help design and carry out such programmes too.

While you are doing all this, why not convene a gathering of the country’s biggest metropolitan districts to find out best practices already in place elsewhere and then figure out how to transfer such ideas to Johannesburg – or vice versa. It is time for Johannesburg to be the nation’s urban leader.

While you are at it, the city also needs to make maximum use of its protection services. Why not take the JMPD out of their cars and deploy them to crime hotspots throughout the city on foot, bicycle or scooter patrols? Make them the first line of defence – even before crimes happen. Or, at a minimum, set them to the task of carrying out a localised version of former New York City police chief Thomas Bratton’s famous “single broken window” edict in the way Johannesburg patrols its streets.

Or, perhaps, you can adopt the Japanese system of “kobans” – those miniaturised police kiosks manned by two-person teams, located in every neighbourhood in every big city in the country in order to give people an immediate place to go to when they need help. With modern communications, these mini-stations can be in touch with all the backup support they may need in a matter of seconds. As a bonus, the officers on duty soon develops a real knowledge of the neighbourhoods they are assigned to assist and learn to head off trouble before it happens. They can become the eyes on the street the way all those grandmothers used to be in old neighbourhoods.

While support for education and culture are still largely national (or provincial) matters, there is nothing stopping you from drawing upon the wealth of talent and intellectual resources to be found in the city’s universities and other higher education facilities, and its many cultural organisations. These sectors are magnets for attracting the best, the brightest, and the most creative of South Africa’s citizens and beyond. But, too often, they are largely ignored as vital resources for the city’s growth. The city’s universities must be challenged to bring their intellectual resources to bear on new and innovative ideas for encouraging growth in this city, just as the city’s cultural organisations must be brought together to co-operate in marketing their activities – and in planning their seasons – for the benefit of residents and visitors alike.

If business visitors could be encouraged to stay just one additional day to partake of the city’s many theatres, museums, galleries and other cultural attractions, think of the impact this would have on the creatives who live and work in this city already. Maybe the city could even market a special discount ticket to be used for this kind of effort. While you are at it, communicate special programmes like this to other cities around the world where Johannesburg already has sister-city ties, or where major numbers of business and other visitors already come here, so that visitors can avail themselves of what the city has to offer when they plan their trips.

Whatever you do, of course, you will need to make yourself and your senior team highly visible to the city’s residents. Start a regular rotation of visiting neighbourhoods to listen and learn, rather than to just promise and pretend. Much of this may be repetitive, but even that will be important to learn. Make sure these events are well known to all, and open to all residents. And well publicised.

Concurrently, you will want to take advantage of the capabilities of modern ITC to ensure that all of the city’s programmes, plans and offices are easy to contact by e-mail and social media, that all of the services are explained in an easy to understand format, and that every form needed to conduct business or other forms of civic engagement is easily available – and can be submitted – electronically. If it is a question as to whether all citizens can access such a system, make sure electronic kiosks are set up in every clinic, police station, library and community centre building throughout the city. Send someone to check out a place like Singapore where this already works, and adopt whatever will work in Johannesburg.

Finally, if the city’s electric power, water or sewage grids have a problem, make sure such issues are announced on the radio and television before they become major public relations and service disasters. Develop a regular way of communicating with all citizens so that they know that the city’s management is working for them. Johannesburg’s residents want to know that you and your team are dedicated to their well-being and welfare. And carrying out this roster of efforts probably won’t hurt your political standing either.

Oh, one last piece of unsolicited advice. Resist the urge to comment all the time on national affairs. Instead, focus like a laser beam on the city and its manifold challenges – or, at the right time, on the range of urban challenges and problems throughout South Africa, as a way of encouraging progress in Johannesburg. But, in the meantime, there is certainly more than enough for you to talk about right here and to keep you busy 24 hours a day!

All the best... Brooks. DM

  • J Brooks Spector
    brooks spector 02 BW
    J Brooks Spector

    Spector settled in Johannesburg after a career as a US diplomat in Africa and East Asia. He has taught at the U. of the Witwatersrand, been a consultant for an international NGO, run a theatre, and been a commentator for South African and international print/broadcast/online media, in addition to writing for The Daily Maverick from day one. Spector is a Writing Fellow of the Unit of Johannesburg’s Institute for Advanced Studies. He says he learned everything he needs to know about politics from ‘Casablanca.’ Maybe he's cynical about some things, but a late Beethoven string quartet, John Coltrane’s music and a dish of Pad Thai will bring him close to tears.

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