For the last 18 months, mayor Herman Mashaba has waged a war on Johannesburg’s poor. That war has been unreported by the press, and aided and abetted by the EFF. Now, having stripped the poor of access to free water in 2017, Mashaba’s administration is raising bottom household water tariffs by 17%, or three times inflation. Julius Malema holds an effective veto on the City of Joburg’s budget. Will he exercise it, or will he and the EFF turn betrayers themselves?
Since its inauguration the DA’s administration of Johannesburg has been quite a spectacle. It has managed to violate the law both in arbitrarily disconnecting small businesses and in flouting settled jurisprudence on evictions in the inner city. It managed to somehow run a 50% smaller financial surplus than the preceding administration, while underspending on capital projects by 20%. According to the City’s own committees, it is achieving less than 50% of its service delivery objectives. It’s a special administration that can simultaneously violate the law, extort small business, run down surpluses and underspend on capital projects.
Of course, Mashaba and the DA keep talking about the fabled “R12-billion” of corruption it has uncovered. If the journalists covering the City did some arithmetic, they might ask what exactly a city that spent R2-billion less than its budget, and ran a surplus of only R1-billion, did with all the money it’s supposedly recovering. The point being quite obvious: The R12-billion is, in today’s language, one hell of a post-truth number. Then again, if the journalists covering the City bothered to read the City’s own oversight reports all the way to page four, they might note both the Council and Auditor General commenting that most performance targets were not met and even those that were had little supporting documentation.
This administration’s special blend of incompetence, magical arithmetic, and moral duplicity has been most pronounced in its effect on the poor. Like its US role models, this government has simply devalued language. A budget that cut billions from service delivery capex was called “pro-poor”, and simply accepted as such. Targets were trumpeted with no examination. For example, the City claimed it would “upgrade” five times as many informal settlements as its predecessor. Except it cut the budget for upgrading by 10%. Not a single journalist asked what the administration meant by “upgrading”, that it could now get five times as much for a tenth off the price. The City stated figures in the budget speech that flat out did not exist in its budget, and no one checked the numbers. Donald Trump wishes Fox News treated him this way.
Maybe the R12-billion went into the upgrading, and just wasn’t accounted for. But note that one of the mayor’s cabinet members was fired last year for using City funds to pay for her mother to go to Spain. The member originally claimed she paid for the trip, a claim the mayor accepted because she submitted a “proof of payment” to his special investigating unit. It later turned out she faked the invoice on her PC. A corruption investigation unit that can’t see through a home-faked proof of payment is not very special – unless, of course, it is itself corrupt.
Coming to water, the first salvo on the poor was fired in 2017, when Mashaba and the DA revoked the free water allowance. In the past, everyone in the city had free water up to six kl per month per household. The allowance was there to ensure the destitute had access to enough water to meet basic needs. A massive court battle was fought about whether the amount was enough, but – outside cities on the verge of dry taps – the basic principle was uncontested. Then the EFF gave Jo’burg to the DA, and, as of July 2017, the allowance was revoked, except for those households the City would decide were poor enough.
Mashaba claimed this was so only the poor, and not the middle classes, would obtain free water. But how would the City know who was poor and should qualify? They would have to fill out a form. What form? It’s pages long, with reams of supporting documents, such as three months’ bank statements and a municipal bill as proof of residence (for the poor). Wouldn’t the poor struggle to fill this out? Maybe that was oversight. Maybe that was intentional.
The strategy is common among governments that serve the rich but are embarrassed by it. First, they announce they are protecting the poor by restricting access to only the “verified” poor. Second, they impose massive bureaucracy in the way of this verification. Then they rely on the fact that the programme now only benefits a small number of people, none of them of much interest to the media, to keep cutting the programme. Finally, they engineer the tariff structure on what remains so that the gains are redistributed back to the rich.
For this to succeed, one must have a couple of bad arguments on hand, and hope a quiet media won’t contest them. Hope, for example, that no one mentions that the “registration system” has covered a mere 150,000-350,000 individuals, or 3-10% of the population in a city in which 50% is below the qualifying line. When someone does, fudge the numbers to include other categories and assume no one will call you out on these. Claim that you have to raise money to cover shortfalls left from the last administration, and assume no one will point out that you have reduced the surplus, or that the last administration had a fully funded R100-billion capex programme that relied only on inflation-linked increases.
As long as the media remains quiet, or gets a headache every time it sees a number, all you have to do is hide from the people. You must make sure the public doesn’t know what’s, happening and if they do, they can only attack it in a small number of futile forums.
So the City has this year abandoned public participation in its planning and budgeting. It’s replaced Ward-level consultation with regional summits, going from 40+ public consultations, each covering an area of ~100k people, to only eight, each covering ~600k. It has said that, in passing tariff increases of 17% on a basic necessity of life, it will consider the process successful if 0.1% of the city’s population (6,000 people) can turn up at these meetings.
The old way was already something of a farce. The new is simply an insult. To rub salt in the wounds, City officials cheerfully admit that business has “its own channel”. The rest of us can take our place among half a million, in a two-hour meeting, half of which is taken up by City officials making speeches. But if you’re part of “business” (the businesses the City likes, of course), then please, come right this way to your own special access channel.
It is very likely that this gutting of meaningful public participation is illegal, under the provisions of the Municipal Systems Act. However, the DA’s administration of Johannesburg has shown that this is a party with no regard for the rule of law, at least when the law protects the powerless. It will brazenly ignore the law, just as it did with evictions and just as it does when it goes about illegally disconnecting services across the city, extorting the money needed to cover its incompetence, at least until it can extort that money from the poor.
So Mashaba has disarmed the media and gutted public participation. What else could stand in the way of this assault on Johannesburg’s poor?
There is one glaring answer. This assault can only proceed if the Johannesburg budget passes. The budget can only pass if the EFF vote for it. Last year, as the EFF’s national leadership fell in love with its own media image, the EFF in Johannesburg managed to extract not a single benefit for their constituents from their veto power over the budget.
The next budget comes up for vote in May or June. It can only pass if the EFF lets it. This then is the question: Does the EFF actually fight for the poor? Or do they fight for cool kids on campus and social media likes? This is a moment when they can abandon the poor of Johannesburg, or protect them. The party’s municipal structures clearly have no independence of action, so this comes down to a decision by Julius Malema.
Will he continue to enable Herman Mashaba’s assault on the poor, or will he protect them? What he does will be revealing. It may even be a signal. DM
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Luke Jordan is the CEO of Grassroot, a community organizing tech start-up he founded in 2015. He worked at the World Bank in India from 2011-14, and at McKinsey in China from 2005-10. He writes in his personal capacity, and the views expressed here do not reflect those of Grassroot or any other organization with which he may be affiliated.
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