Opinionista David Potter 2 November 2020

City of Joburg: Ward councillors are willing but only partially able

As ward councillors, we manage a lot of ‘traffic’ – more than anyone probably cares to know or could fathom to understand. SMS used to be the thing. Then email. Now it is WhatsApp. Day in, day out, night in, night out.

David Potter

David Potter is Ward Councillor in the City of Johannesburg since 2011 for the suburbs of Blairgowrie, Bordeaux, Ferndale, President Ridge, Willowild, Hurlingham Manor, Bryanston, Fontainebleau, Moret, Malanshof, Ruiterhof and the Randburg CBD. Member of the City of Johannesburg Environment and Infrastructure Development Oversight Committee.

It is getting tougher in the City of Johannesburg.

This is partially the fault of the Covid-19 lockdown, but that should not be used as the excuse for continued non-delivery of services in our city.

WhatsApp has thankfully and frustratingly transformed the City of Joburg escalation process. Despite many formal systems costing hundreds of millions of rand, the city is heavily reliant on WhatsApp. When councillors receive logged but unresolved issues related to power outages, street lights, water pipe bursts and other issues, these are escalated on one of numerous WhatsApp groups which the city entities or departments are on. These city entities and their officials are the ones actually responsible for the fulfilment of service delivery.

Ward councillors are not actually responsible for the implementation or fulfilment of service delivery. Ward councillors have a role of oversight to ensure that the city delivers on requests logged. Ward councillors are chasers. Day in, day out, night in, night out.

Furthermore, a councillor may not, except as provided by law: 

  • Interfere in the management or administration of any department of the municipal council unless mandated by council; and 
  • Give or purport to give any instruction to any employee of the council except when authorised to do so.

Understandably, when things go wrong, frustrations rise. These frustrations should not be directed at the councillor but rather at the many senior city officials in the City of Johannesburg who have the responsibility of implementing and fulfilling service delivery.

The Joburg Roads Agency, the entity responsible for more than 10,000km of road network in the city, has not made asphalt (tar) for many months. First, it was aggregate that they did not have, now we hear it is natural gas. By their own admission their asphalt plant suffers from management instability, insufficient skilled personnel and no contracts for aggregates, gas and maintenance”.

In August 2020 the Joburg Roads Agency appointed contractors to repair potholes and carry out reinstatements and other related work across the seven regions of the city. Launched with much fanfare in each region, these contractors have hardly made a dent in the number of reinstatements and potholes in Region B. Across all regions in the city you need to drive on what is left of the road, not on the left side of the road.

As at mid-October 2020, the contractors have seemingly stopped working in Region B (and maybe other regions), as they have not been paid for the first batch of work orders and so seemingly refuse to continue with the second batch. We believe that a senior Joburg Roads Agency official responsible for the signing off of these invoices is on temporary suspension. Potholes and reinstatements are mushrooming across the city and the rains have hardly even started.

Further to the labour and asphalt issues, the Joburg Roads Agency currently has no barrier rails, batteries for UPS backup power supply of traffic signals and other standard stock items. So be careful when you drive on public roads.

Switching over to City Power, an entity responsible for keeping the lights on. This is one of the busiest WhatsApp groups. While the depots generally perform (outside of the drama that load shedding and storms bring), there are serious shortcomings. The appointment of maintenance contractors is now before the courts. These contractors who were appointed to do work on the City Power network are often substandard, do not have the required tools or fail to meet basic safety requirements, are often required to return to do work again and again, or other contractors are appointed to do work that others did not finish or that failed. For a haemorrhage worse than at your local intensive care unit, look no further than City Power. The Special Investigating Unit has its eyes on Eskom and should certainly shift its focus to City Power.

Warehousing and stock management are not a strength of City Power. One just needs to visit their store in Reuven to wonder how this entity operates. It is now known that City Power does not have stock of 170-400 amp circuit breakers. Recently in Ward 102, two circuit breakers were stolen one afternoon. Suspiciously, this incident was not reported to City Power’s internal risk control department. When a contractor eventually arrived to replace the stolen circuit breakers, they arrived with only one, not two. Streets were without power for more than 28 hours because of circuit breaker theft compounded by a lacklustre approach of ensuring a “World Class African City” type of service delivery.

While City Power has significantly improved its outage logging system, there are still flaws. Nothing is more frustrating than sitting in the dark after the lights have gone off and receiving a “Cancelled” or “Closed” update by SMS. Anger levels rise and a councillor’s phone pings repeatedly, all because a City Power official probably clicked the wrong button. This can have the disastrous outcome of City Power ignoring individual outages, leaving many without power or working street lights for an extended period of time. Hopefully, City Power will look into the examples that have been provided to it recently.

Trying to call the City of Joburg call centre (011 375-5555) can be very trying. Recently, the City of Joburg moved its call centre to the middle of the Joburg Central Business District, leaving no centre elsewhere in the city to manage the hundreds of thousands of calls they receive should something go wrong. With moving the call centre came the implementation of a brand new call centre IT system. It was a disaster and one the city will not admit to. You would press for power and talk to water, you would call for an ambulance and talk to water.

At this point, it seems that the call centre cannot even pull recordings of calls without having to ask the implementing company. This takes time and requires external intervention. Any call centre will tell you that the basics are for managers to manage live or recorded calls. Imagine if the city receives a bomb-scare call and needs to pull the call in minutes for the law enforcement authorities. The phone rings and the mind boggles.

Development in the city is taking place at a phenomenal rate. For ages, councillors have requested that the city place town planning applications on the city website. After much nagging, this was done. However, the same 10 applications loaded on to the city website then (the end of August 2020), are the same 10 that still appear today. There is no detail on how the general public should submit their comments to applications, nor by when. The City of Joburg comes slowly out of the starting gates and then trips.

The Joburg Property Company, the city entity tasked with managing the city assets and maintenance, is another crumbling mess. For many months I have been requesting updates on a variety of JPC matters. These relate to lost revenue due to subleasing of facilities, confusion around the lease existence and expiry dates of large commercial leases in the ward, the continued failed development of a city-owned piece of land and the outstanding leases of critical land parcels in the ward. Joburg Property Company continues to snooze on revenue streams.

The entities, departments and the issues aside, it must be noted that the city has some amazing officials, both in entities and departments that function and entities and departments that do not function.

A star performer of late is the Randburg Walk-In Centre. The decentralisation of some of the critical back-office functions to the customer-facing offices has proven to be successful in the resolution of billing queries. As councillors, we receive far fewer queries than in years gone by. Queries that are old and are escalated generally get resolved quite quickly. The city has recently held open days, which has also given great focus to the resolution of old, stale and complicated queries. Much positive feedback was received related to queries resolved at the open days.

The Group Finance Department has finally entered the Fourth Industrial Revolution and allows for the reporting of city account-related queries via email directly to the regional mailboxes. It still needs some work, as the backwards and forwards can be tedious, but is a great start. As for the [email protected] mailbox, that has been a total hit and miss channel of engagement with the city for as long as I can remember.

It would be remiss to not mention the ongoing struggle of the Randburg Licensing Department. The online booking system initially brought great relief to the many who needed to renew their driving licence. Owing to the lockdown, it would seem that there is a capacity issue, and even if you have booked a slot, the renewal of your licence can take many hours. Drivers older than 60 have been allocated Wednesdays to renew their licence, without needing to book a slot. This past Wednesday I was flooded with complaints from many who were upset that they had been in the queue from around 7am and got to the cashier at about 2pm, only to be told to return the next day to pay. The treatment of the elderly and infirm is hugely concerning.

I have recently engaged with the stakeholders and raised the concerns of the booking system and the lengthy queues. There have been some general process changes in the last week on the eNatis booking system, but it is still early days.

Pikitup tries against all odds. The weekly collections have improved, but at what cost? The city has for a number of years struggled with the compactor fleet contract. At this point, a number of city-owned and leased trucks are used, which are old and tired and prone to regular breakdowns. If your refuse or recycling is not collected on the usual day, it will probably be collected the following day. Pikitup, tired of the city call centre, recently launched its own call centre where residents can engage directly around non-collections, log calls for replacement dustbins and report illegal dumping. After months of being out of stock of the 240 litre dustbins, Pikitup depots finally have stock again.

While the city continues to fight its own fires, it is to be noted that it has a very limited fleet of fire trucks – only five or six at last count. This has been the case for many years, with a few new trucks entering the fleet in 2019. There are fire stations in the city that have no trucks. WhatsApp groups rightfully blaze with anger when houses burn down. The red fleet tender issue is one that has existed in the city for a number of years, and it is now believed that the matter is also before the courts.

Joburg Water was another general star performer. When you logged a water or sewer pipe burst, more often than not Joburg Water arrived without any councillor intervention, sometimes within an hour of logging the call. However, this changed after lockdown. Many pipelines require replacement. In Ward 102 alone there are three suburbs demanding the replacement of their pipes. These suburbs are in a very long queue. Pipes will continue to burst because they are old and need replacing.

With the repair of pipes from bursts comes the headache of the digging and the failed reinstatement of pavements and road surfaces. Ward 102 has more than 100 reinstatements of tar, paving or curbing that neither Joburg Water or Joburg Roads Agency cares to resolve.

Affected by the lack of asphalt and the supply chain management issues, where Joburg Water has dug a road or pavement, it is likely that the damaged surface will remain. Councillors continue to highlight the lack of workflow between Joburg Water and Joburg Roads Agency. In a letter to my office this past week, it would seem the noise is being heard and that Joburg Water is doing its bit, but it is reliant on an ailing Joburg Roads Agency.

You should now have a clearer picture of “the state of the city”. This is not caused by your local ward councillor, but by an administration of officials who should just be doing their job, day in and day out to ensure that stock of the basics is readily available, that this stock is secured against theft, that corruption does not take place and that every rand generated from rates, grants, leases and other city revenue streams is put back into the running of the city. Sadly, this is not the case.

When you engage with your ward councillor, know that they have crafted good relations with city entities and departments and will do their level best to escalate your issue and park it where it belongs for resolution, but that the resolution does not lie with your ward councillor but with the willingness and resource availability of the city administration.

If the city has no tar, this is not the fault of your ward councillor. If the city has no valves or water pipes or fuses or circuit breakers or cables, this is not the fault of your ward councillor. If the city does not respond to your email, this is not the fault of your ward councillor.

Ward councillors are human, get sick, have families and need time off just as everyone else does, so expect delayed responses. Expect disappointment when issues raised are not resolved – this is not the fault of your ward councillor. This is the fault of the city administration. Be respectful of boundaries and understand the role of councillors in the value chain of service delivery.

Get involved. 

Look and log. 

Escalate.

Escalate again.

And again.

And then hope that the city has the resources required to fulfil what you log.

Escalate again, if necessary.

Hopefully, you can then give thanks, when what you have logged has been resolved.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead DM

Look and log city issues

If you need to know why your power has tripped or why you have no water or when the City will host the next billing open day, download Twitter and follow the handles below – they post updates throughout the day.

  • @CityPowerJhb
  • @JHBWater
  • @CleanerJoburg
  • @CityofJoburgZA
  • @CoJDevPlanning
  • @JoburgMPD
  • @CoJPublicSafety
  • @JoburgFinance
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