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We need to talk about Joburg’s rising tide of filth


Marius Pieterse is a professor in the School of Law at the University of the Witwatersrand, where he teaches constitutional and human rights law. He researches interplays between urban governance, local government law and socio-economic rights. His book ‘Rights-based Litigation, Urban Governance and Social Justice in South Africa: The Right to Joburg’ was published by Routledge in 2017.

While the DA and Joburg Mayor Herman Mashaba are quick to blame the ills of the city of Johannesburg on misrule by the previous ANC regime, much of it can actually be laid at the door of Mashaba himself. His executive, top-down style of rule and the DA’s fragile coalition with the EFF make for a city that is increasingly ungovernable.

This past weeks’ protests in Alexandra (April 2019), now spreading to other Johannesburg townships and suburbs, are multilayered and complex. A recurring feature of state responses to the discontent has been cross-political-party banging and blaming. The ANC bemoaned the seeming reluctance of Joburg’s DA Mayor Herman Mashaba to meaningfully engage the community, while Mashaba not only pointed to two prior decades of ANC-led governance in the city as the real cause of grievances but also accused the ANC of stoking the protests for political gain.

Cynical politicking may well be behind some of the unrest, and Alexandra does bear the scars of various governance failures at different levels, over many years. In particular, its juxtaposition to neighbouring Sandton has long epitomised Johannesburg’s unacceptable levels of economic inequality. But in recent years, the pressure-sores of this deepening schism have been overlaid by a growing, frustrating sense of decline and of increasing inequality in service provision under Joburg’s new, opposition-coalition-led local government. And while the electioneering side of the Alexandra protests will inevitably have a national flavour, we need to also have a serious conversation about the strains that structures of local governance appear to be taking.

Coalition government happened to Johannesburg almost by fluke. A drop in voter support in the 2016 local government elections meant that, while the ANC won the most votes in the Metropolitan Council by a decent margin, it garnered less than 50% of the total vote. This created an opportunity for opposition parties to join forces and oust it from power. While the DA, which won just above 38% of the vote, managed to cobble together a coalition of smaller parties, it could rule the council only if propped up by the political support of the EFF, which held 11% of the vote.

Given that the DA and the EFF were ideologically almost diametrically opposed the possibility of such support seemed far-fetched, but it was nevertheless forthcoming. And so it came to pass that former chair of the Free Market Foundation Mashaba, who joined the DA only shortly before the elections, became mayor of Johannesburg.

The collateral damage of this arrangement was the ousted Parks Tau of the ANC, who was generally regarded as a capable and at times visionary mayor. While it hadn’t always been plain sailing for Tau’s government (as attested by, for instance, their patchy record in dealing with inner-city homelessness, 2013’s much-maligned Operation Clean Sweep and a perpetually confounding municipal billing crisis), they did convey a sense of dedication, know-how and ever-increasing control over what was previously regarded as a near-ungovernable city.

Over time, this came to be reflected by a series of clean audits, credit-agency ratings that outperformed those of national government, successful urban regeneration and infrastructure projects, international praise for the Corridors of Freedom policy, increased tourist numbers and a general sense among residents of a city on the up.

There was thus quite a lot for the new coalition government to live up to, much as it also inherited a plethora of socio-economic challenges in a city not only bearing the scars of apartheid but also buckling under the brunt of a national wave of urbanisation, all while battling with ageing infrastructure and ever-tighter fiscal constraints.

The coalition government certainly seemed to hit the ground running. Mashaba boasted of a major shake-up in how things were to be done, from ridding the city of corrupt and inept staff to re-centralising a number of core service delivery functions which had previously been corporatised. Boards of dysfunctional entities (notably, the corruption-ridden Pikitup) were reconstituted, the plug was unceremoniously pulled on several high-profile ANC programmes (notably, the [email protected] scheme), a monthly volunteer community clean-up campaign (A re Sebetseng) was launched, and library and clinic hours across the city were extended.

But arguably Mashaba’s greatest success has been his management of the DA’s political partnership with the EFF, which he solidified to the point that the EFF at times openly supported his mayorship. Indeed, there were instances of the ménage yielding progressive results, with the EFF, for instance, successfully insisting that the council upgrade certain informal settlements and “insource” municipal security guards.

Combined with his lack of loyalty to any particular faction within the DA, Mashaba’s ability to keep the EFF on board has arguably elevated him to a position of significant strength within the DA’s Joburg caucus, much as members have reportedly been uneasy with the compromises that seemingly sustain the relationship. But this position of strength and its political foundation also emerge as significant fault-lines in the subsequent unravelling of governance in the city.

South African local government law, conceptualised at a time when — Cape Town aside — single-party-dominance was the overwhelming norm at metropolitan level, was not exactly structured with volatile coalitions in mind. Partly so as to enable dynamic and responsive leadership, a number of lines that constitutional lawyers typically take for granted — between legislative and executive bodies, between political leadership and the administration and between political parties and the state — are blurred in the South African local government sphere. South African local governance is further preponderantly executive-driven, especially in places such as Johannesburg, which opted for an executive mayoral system.

The upshot is that in cities like Joburg, especially when councils are divided, disinterested or dysfunctional, mayors effectively end up calling the shots. It is often difficult to hold them consistently accountable by way of official structures. Both councils and mayoral committees are typically set up almost as advisory committees that don’t really stand up to mayors, as long as they retain sufficient internal political support.

This moves mayoral accountability into publicly unaccountable party-political structures. As both Cape Town’s Patricia De Lille saga and the national ANC structures of the Jacob Zuma era showed, these may well themselves be compromised. But the peculiarities of the Johannesburg coalition suggest that even party structures do not exercise a meaningful hold over Herman Mashaba. As long as he keeps the EFF on side, his rein is not that tight.

As the wheels started coming off, this proved problematic in two respects. First, there is mounting evidence that EFF support has come at a price; amaBhungane investigations have revealed seemingly corrupt tender schemes (in roads agency tenders and vehicle procurement) favouring the EFF alongside the IFP, another coalition partner. Roads Agency staff’s attempts to stop this reportedly hit dead-ends, with Mashaba deliberately turning a blind eye so as to leave political coalitions intact.

Ethical implications and compromised leadership aside, this suggests a mayoral discretion severely straitjacketed by sinister coalition conditions, which risks drastically reducing governmental effectiveness. As if scripted, this is borne out by rumours that the Alexandra protests were sparked by Mashaba’s lack of response to EFF-orchestrated land occupations in overcrowded and highly contested township space.

Second, there is Mashaba himself. Though palpably committed to a vision of a better Johannesburg and willing to work his fingers to the bone to realise it, he appears to lack the world view, the governance experience and the people skills to effectively run a city of Joburg’s diversity and complexity. His governance style, which seems like a combination of former New York mayor Rudi Giuliani’s “broken windows” approach to urban management, Donald Trump’s conservative populism and his own prior experience as an uncompromising businessman, has often been as lacking in nuance as it has been uncompromising.

While quick to rebuke citizens for a lack of civic-mindedness, and fixated on disciplining vulnerable, easy-target scapegoats such as foreign migrants, sex workers and drug users, this approach has resoundingly failed to create the well-ordered, efficient, clean and safe city that it loudly intended.

At least part of this is due to poor human resource management. As too often happens when cities change political leadership, Mashaba initially appeared bent on ridding Johannesburg’s administration of ANC loyalists. An anti-corruption clean-up at the dawn of his leadership saw a substantial number of senior administrative suspensions and resignations. But an even greater number of top officials (some with a reputation of being among the best in the country) over time found their work environment intolerably hostile or unconscionable (as in the case of the Roads Agency leadership) and left. A skills and experience vacuum rapidly mushroomed within, and at the top of, many city departments.

While people have been replaced, this vacuum has persisted and its effects have dominoed. Tales of underspent budgets, dysfunctional boards and stunted project implementation (such as the lagging rollout of the third phase of the Rea Vaya BRT) became commonplace. Ironically, given all the broken-window shtick, these accounts were increasingly accompanied by reports of rapidly declining everyday urban management.

This was especially (indeed, disproportionately) visible in the lower-income areas of the city: Fire damage linked to a depleted fire engine fleet, sewage spills and blocked stormwater drains, haphazard and inconsistent traffic management, malfunctioning streetlights, perpetually weed-infested sidewalks. Most noticeably, despite “A re Sebetseng”, rubbish collection and waste management in the CBD, low-income and working-class areas deteriorated severely, with filth rising to levels not seen in a great many years. These areas have also seen reduced metropolitan police presence and a marked escalation of violent crime, swiftly reestablishing inner-city and poor neighbourhoods as “no-go” zones for everyone with a choice.

Complaints from inner-city tourism operators, Cabinet ministers, journalists and better-off residents have nearly without fail provoked loud denials and rebukes from Mashaba, who tends either to depict the situation as having been inherited from the ANC administration (much as it is difficult to fathom how today’s rubbish and weeds could practically have been bequeathed in this manner) or to invite complainers to themselves display increased civic responsibility in caring for their own environments.

Of course, the complaints linked to here have all originated from well-networked people with ways to make their voices heard. But Joburg’s history has taught us all too well that voiceless complainants eventually take to the streets. In Alexandra, where the neglect has been palpable, nearly all the above-listed laments have this week been furiously articulated. Political stoking and historical legacies might explain the vociferousness of what has transpired there.

But for all the depressing predictability with which the mayor has pointed to them, they do not mute the city-wide resonance of residents’ complaints and they do not mask the blocked pipes, the crumbled streets or the mounting filth.

Soon, national elections will be over and the opportunists will retreat. But if the decline into unequal basic governance persists, Joburg’s local fires may well long continue to burn. DM

Marius Pieterse is a professor in the School of Law at the University of the Witwatersrand, where he teaches constitutional and human rights law. He researches interplays between urban governance, local government law and socio-economic rights. His book ‘Rights-based Litigation, Urban Governance and Social Justice in South Africa: The Right to Joburg’ was published by Routledge in 2017.


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