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Opinionista

Johannesburg is not falling apart — it is in the process of rebirth after the demise of a white city

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Councillor Geoffrey Makhubo is the Executive Mayor of the City of Johannesburg.

Those who say Johannesburg is in decline and falling apart hanker for a past when only those who were white had absolute right to be there. Neighbourhoods, universities, schools and even places of worship were supposedly ‘better’ when they were exclusive privileges of white people.

It has been a season of mourning the exaggerated news of Johannesburg’s demise. Almost every month there has been an article whose central point is that Johannesburg is in decline.

The tenor of the sentiment about Johannesburg not being what it used to be has been so similar that it is hard to not arrive at the conclusion that it is choreographed.

With election season on the near horizon, it is easy to see why such articles would become a dime a dozen. If you cannot win an election based on your capacity for the future, it makes sense to try to paint an idealised picture of the past when “everything was perfect” until “they” came and ruined everything.

The City of Johannesburg has many challenges, but that is no excuse to romanticise the past. This fixation with the rose-tinted view of how things used to be is commonplace in South Africa.

There is hardly an area of life where someone does not romanticise our past. Neighbourhoods, universities, schools and even places of worship were supposedly “better” when they were exclusive privileges of white people.

Of course, the language is not as crude but the sentiment about the trope “standards have fallen” is loud and clear enough for anyone to understand what it really means.

This is by no means to suggest that the City of Johannesburg is paradise. Far from it.

The city needs to improve in every department. We must improve our provision of electricity, the rate at which we close potholes and respond to emergencies. We must improve our billing system, refuse removal and cleaning up. Our Metro Police must do better to ensure public safety and by-law enforcement.

This must happen not just because we hanker to be the idealised city that some yearn for, but because these are challenges of modern cities that, unlike in our past, serve all the people and not just a privileged few.

This concerted story of Johannesburg’s glorious days has the eerie feeling of “Make America Great Again”. It is about creating a past where things were great for some. It has all the hallmarks of how those who were previously privileged think that every effort to normalise society and create an egalitarian society is an affront to them.

They hanker for a past when only those who were white had absolute right to be there, or if black, enjoyed the relative privilege of their dompas showing they were Section 10(1)(a) blacks — so called after the Influx Control Act section allowing for certain categories of black people to live in the city while the majority of black people were confined to the “homelands”.

As someone born and raised in Rockville, Soweto, I too remember the clean and neat Johannesburg. I also remember that this was a place where the so-called native had to make sure he was out of the city by sunset or risk the real possibility of being jailed and sent to farm potatoes in Bethal, in the then Eastern Transvaal (now Mpumalanga).

I recall how a dash to the fancy shops like Riggs just opposite the Anglican Cathedral on Hoek Street meant the real possibility of having to first negotiate a police van standing just outside Park Station with officers demanding to see your dompas, or if a big-boned young man, your “school-pass” showing you were allowed by law to be in Johannesburg.

Looking at Johannesburg through that lens, artificially clean and efficient because of keeping people away, it is easy to arrive at the conclusion that Johannesburg is on the decline.

That Johannesburg is not only on the decline, but also gone forever. The Johannesburg we have is one that is true to the Freedom Charter ideal that South Africa belongs to all who live in it.

This is a Johannesburg that has welcomed the foreigner and allowed her to set up her shop and home in a space that was hitherto only reserved for whites.

This is a Johannesburg which, like all of South Africa, must contend with the realities of rapid urbanisation and influx into the cities causing pressure on resources such as water, electricity, waste and landfill management, roads and homes.

These are challenges to be faced rather than weaponised for the short-term interest of gaining a couple of votes more than they otherwise would have.

Johannesburg is not falling apart. It is in the process of its rebirth.

It will not be reborn as a site of privilege and opportunity for some and squalor for most. It will be a site where one tax base for one city will be used to ensure that people grow up in a city where they know they have as good a chance of success regardless of whether they are from Diepsloot or nearby Fourways.

Our policy blueprint, “Growth and Development Strategy 2040”, makes a bold statement about the type of city we want to be by the year 2040. We are on track.

Johannesburg is a city of enterprise and innovation. We welcome ideas from anyone, regardless of their political taste, who wants to work with us to create the city of the future.

We will not avail ourselves to play nostalgic games about our city.

Nostalgia is a useful political gimmick. It works because the mind tends to choose the favourable about the past while suppressing the painful about the same past. That is why, after a while, some people return to relationships that were patently injurious to them or conclude that the past “was not that bad”.

As it turns out, nostalgia can even affect those who did not live in the past they idealise. They too buy into the romanticisation of the past. There is even a word for this form of nostalgia — anemoia — which is defined as “nostalgia for a time you have never known”.

This, hopefully, will get the attention of education curriculum creators who will put in our textbooks a history that tells the real story of South Africa’s system of dispensing privilege on grounds of race and gender.

While it is human to prefer to think of the past as being ideal, it is not always useful. We are here and now. We must work with the reality we have rather than the one we wish we had.

As Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez says of his protagonist Dr Juvenal Urbino in Love in the Time of Cholera: “He was still too young to know that the heart’s memory eliminates the bad and magnifies the good, and that thanks to this artifice we manage to endure the burden of the past.

“But when he stood at the railing of the ship and saw the white promontory of the colonial district again, the motionless buzzards on the roofs, the washing of the poor hung out to dry on the balconies, only then did he understand to what extent he had been an easy victim to the charitable deceptions of nostalgia.”

I reiterate. Johannesburg has challenges that must be faced head-on. This, however, cannot be done by conveniently choosing what to remember from our past. We owe it to ourselves and the future to avoid the deception brought by nostalgia. DM

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All Comments 23

  • If I hear that a town or city is described as “in decline”, what comes to mind is breaking infrastructure like potholes, trash not being processed as it should, sewage problems, housing shortage, improper development decisions, electricity breaks, water shortage and pollution, all of which affect social well-being and economic activity. This decline affects all people. We all want good functioning municipalities and good service delivery. I think I may have a vague notion of what you are getting at, and of course we know that some people reminisce about Colonial privilege ? Of course there is historic privilege that needs to be addressed and is a vast agenda in our society. But I don’t know if it will be a good thing to equate social urban transformation with the resignation to poor service delivery, as it seems your piece suggests. Can there be a person in the world who would choose not to have a functioning municipality? Cities will change inevitably. They should get better for all according the constitution.

    • Mr Mayor, there are hundreds of thousands of white people who do not look back with fond nostalgia at the Johannesburg that you remember. Instead, along with even more hundreds of thousands of black people, they long for a diverse, vibrant, clean, efficient, corruption-free African city which provides reliable services to all its inhabitants. Consoling oneself with the notion that at least the squalor, brokenness and neglect is now shared by everyone is counter-productive. And if the city is ‘on track’ then, judging by the rate of progress, it will take a hundred years to achieve the blueprint’s vision.

      • Now that we all have to share the ‘squalor, brokenness and neglect’ we are getting closer to being the “World Class African City” cANCer wants. These are the names of the Lagos slums: Agege, Ajegunle, Amukoko, Badia, Bariga, Bodija, Ijeshatedo/Itire, Ilaje. Our African City slums can be called: Geoffrey Makhubo, Jacob Zuma, Iqbal Surve, Gwede Mantashe, Mosebenzi Zwane, Julias Malema, Zandile Gumede, Ace Magashule, … They will NEVER run out of names.

    • We owe it to ourselves to avoid the self deception that spindoctoring a very erudite piece can magically erase close on 3 decades of mismanagement. Basics like refuse removal are not stretch goals towards a shine 2040 Jhb city goal

  • Is this dude for real? They must keep on renaming to “honour” their stalwarts with the decline and decay we see today due to State Capture……maybe take a train ride to Springs? Or to Randfontein? If you can……….🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🥴🥴🥴🥴🥴

  • To my knowledge pass laws were scrapped 35 years ago. Thirty-five. Years.

    Is this piece supposed to be satire?

    There is no hope for any of us, least of all for the poor, if this drivel is how the leadership of our top cities reason. Heaven help us.

    • Oh and Geoffrey Makhubo also has much to answer for when it comes corruption…EOH ring a bell? And the real irony is that such blatant corruption is one of the key reasons our municipalities including jhb are in such a sorry state.

  • Mayor, at least you acknowledge that the city faces challenges that need to be faced head-on but I really don’t see you or your administration as being part of the solution. It’s just a matter of how bad things have to get before we can say: ‘Yes, we’ve achieved an African standard’. I certainly hope that we see the back of you quite soon. And, I understand, that from today we line your pockets even more to pay for a deteriorating service.

  • So in conclusion. No matter how bad things are, it’s still better than apartheid and it’s all acceptable, because it’s in the name of transformation.
    So is the end goal Lagos or Luxemburg?

  • The mayor seems to be living in an alternate reality. May I suggest regular walks south from the civic center, over the railway tracks, with some of his staff, to look at the mess and speak with the people who live and work in the former CBD?

  • “Those who say Johannesburg is in decline and falling apart hanker for a past when only those who were white had absolute right to be there.”

    I wonder if that blanket statement means that black critics who recognise Johannesburg’s decline are hankering back to the days of pass laws. Or maybe they’re traitors? Who knows what goes through the head of someone who clearly hasn’t read the A-G’s report, which will tell him exactly why our economic capital is in the sorry state it is.

  • I am speechless!! The mayor of the most important city in the country, proud that it is falling apart!!! Read this together with the article on RMB and then understand why we have a skills, and investment flight.

  • What a sad confirmation that there are very few “statesman”-like politicians left. Typically, we hide behind a glorious vision of “Growth and Development Strategy 2040”. That leaves 19 years of decay to remain. Also typically, it is confirmed that it is better to be “free” in squalor, rather than improving life for all.

    The simple reality is that Local Government is meant to deliver services at base level, not play party politics. We’re talking roads, water, sewerage, refuse removal and waste management, electricity. Secondary to that (yet very important) are community services, parks, community halls, etc.

    Libraries are a provincial function. Safety and security, policing is meant to be a national function. Housing is a national function.

    Stop playing power politics and trying to resolve the national governments failures, or assist a poor performing national government, by delivering services on their behalf, and focus on your own functions.

    As it is now, Jo’burg (and many other cities) will be without water and sewerage, electricity and proper roads long before you can say “Growth and Development Strategy 2040”.

  • Goeffrey Makhubo is living on cloud cuckoo land.
    A city IS falling apart when:
    – there are hardly ant fire engines, and fire stations are closed down
    – the hospitals are closed/disfunctional
    – the water supply cannot be counted on
    – the rates go up while service delivery levels drop
    – the Metro police provide zero value, but wait for cash handouts

  • Maybe Mr Makhubo should get back to defending those corruption allegations instead of trying to excuse the incompetence and graft that has characterised his administration with race based innuendo? Taxpayers (black, white, green) just want competence and want to get what we pay for. We certainly don’t get it with the #sukaanc!

  • A typical response from a failed “public servant”, one of many, if not the majority. When it get’s hot under collar – Throw the race card. You should be fired for Gross Negligence and Gross Mismanagement of your portfolio.

  • Your racist tripe disgusts me. I’m shocked that DM would post such drivel, although it does at least make very evident how delusional you and the ANC are.

  • Instead of presenting a plan with implication dates, this idiot focuses on the past with no indication what actions he intend to take.

  • Geoffrey Makhubo, you can try and paint over the cracks but have no doubt, thanks the ANC Joburg is falling apart, literally and metaphorically.

    But don’t worry, your most skilled workers and functional businesses are already making plans to resettle in the Western Cape. They’ll be well looked after down here.

  • Thanks for the keys to the bike. I didn’t service the bike. I broke the bike. Who cares, it wasn’t my bike. Do you want to hear a quote from Garcia Marquez? Stay classy, Geoff.