For 12 years, I have been councillor for Ward 102 — what is called Randburg in Johannesburg. It has been a true privilege, but I leave with a cry for the beloved city.
Ward 102 is extremely dynamic and it incorporates a critical central business district, the Randburg Civic Centre, formal and informal trading markets, two taxi ranks, multiple recreational facilities, a fire station, a sports club, the Randburg Sports Complex, multiple shopping centres and a variety of key businesses such as Multichoice and others.
Basic service delivery across the city has seen a decline over many years, and I often wonder what it will take to recover. Along with that is a great worry for our beloved city.
The residents and businesses who go about their day have little concept of the complexities of local government and the little power that their councillors hold in terms of getting the City to deliver on the basics.
What we have lacked for several years is a strong, committed, and, most importantly, stable coalition government. Coalition governments are a new concept to politicians and political parties.
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What we need are a few political parties who can get it together and keep it together. What we do not need and should avoid at all costs is having upwards of nine (or whatever the number) political parties, some with only one or two seats, wielding power, promises and puppetry, and failing dismally. This failure is scary; it is the failure of ensuring basic service delivery.
The only people who have the power to change this are the voters. Voting for strong, large and committed political parties that can keep and hold a coalition together is critical over the long haul of a term of office and beyond.
In the 2021 local government elections, only 54% of registered voters bothered to vote in Ward 102. This could be due to various reasons.
Residents just want delivery
The frustrations around the transition of nine executive mayors since 2016 have led to a lowering of expectations of service delivery.
As each mayor comes, they blame the last, and it will take an age to catch up to acceptable limits, and with each passing year, the needs get greater.
With the City not fully delivering, ward councillors are expected by their constituents to shoulder the abuse and blame, often at the expense of their well-being.
Councillors are, from the view of the residents, fully accountable for service delivery, but in fact are not responsible for the delivery of basic services as, by law, councillors may not interfere or give instructions to City officials.
Councillors can merely ask and often need to beg and exhaust council processes such as written or oral questions, debates and motions and the media to get things done. It is a strange system of accountability.
With the above said, service delivery is still hit or miss. More miss. In Region B (in which Ward 102 is situated) there are no fewer than 15 City WhatsApp escalation groups including City Power, JMPD, City Parks, Joburg Water and Joburg Roads Agency (which is the worst of them all).
IT systems for logging have been paid for but failed, so we manage by WhatsApp. A working system should allow for internal checks and balances, escalations, performance monitoring and the rest.
But ward councillors are expected to post escalations to these groups all day and all night, or else the depots will often not know to attend to issues such as fallen trees, power outages, reinstatements etc.
The City of Joburg is effectively run via WhatsApp.
It is unfathomable that a city the size of Johannesburg, with the largest budget for capital and operational expenditure, fails to have integrated and working systems and resources to monitor service delivery which ensures it takes place without the need for ward councillors to be so intertwined in the basics. Could this be a deliberate way to obfuscate the reporting of service delivery performance in the city?
Do we have too many officials doing too little and lacking accountability? Most probably.
Is it easy or quick to change the status quo? Not at all, for a variety of reasons.
The 12 gory years of Ward 102
In the more than 12 years I have been involved, I have seen enough, both good and bad, to write a book, with the last years giving me an insider view into how cities fail.
From multiple-day power outages; the inability to repair burst pipes; the undeveloped social housing in the Randburg CBD; the constant theft and vandalism of substations and cables coupled with the lack of interest to secure substations; the lack of attention by City Power to the over 300 “plants out of service” (May 2022); potholes left unfilled; work stoppages due to lack of uniform availability, and contract mismanagement resulting in multiple strange deviations.
Furthermore, disputes between entities and departments around who should be cutting the grass growing on islands and in road gutters; the 011-375-5555 call centre having serious and regular malfunctions; the lack of fire truck availability; a municipal planning tribunal lacking independence; irregular outdoor advertising installations which are spiralling out of control, and the lack of integrated information technology systems that allow ward councillors to monitor the output of spend and service delivery.
We believe that City Power is due shortly to have a change in repair contractors, which may result in the delay of repairs. These are the same “bakkie and ladder brigades” which at times hold City Power to ransom and fail to arrive with tools, cherry pickers or lighting. Both City Power and Eskom are to blame for the power crisis we are in, on a local suburban level, for various reasons.
Over the years, Ward 102 has had its fair share of capital expenditure projects – however, it has been far below what the ward needs to keep up with ageing and failing infrastructure and growth, be it new developments on vacant land or the densification or subdivision of the larger older properties in the suburbs of Bryanston.
Of the City-funded projects, I’ve seen a few where there has been a haemorrhage of funding (akin to looting) with zero to little value for money or project delivery accountability.
It is the norm to appoint contractors and subcontractors (often twice or thrice) who are ill-equipped to do the work, then overspend and underdeliver, and at times not even complete the project. When questions are raised, answers are not forthcoming.
The Randburg CBD and surrounds
My dear Randburg. Once a beacon receiving awards for the most beautiful town, now a place feared by many. With sprawling and uncontrolled informal trading across the pedestrian mall, petty crime is at an all-time high with law enforcement lacking.
The City of Joburg owns many land parcels in the Randburg CBD and fails to complete land transfers and development without delays and litigation. The Joburg Development Agency was due to start a public infrastructure upgrade in early 2023, but the project has been put on hold due to budget constraints.
And if this and all else fails, the Randburg CBD may be on its last legs.
With the fall by court order of the Randburg Central Improvement District around 2015, Randburg has been on a downward trajectory. The City has simply forgotten that the Randburg CBD exists and needs intensive care.
The City’s own Randburg Civic Centre is a disgrace and overdue for a private-public partnership redevelopment but is now entangled in litigation.
Some days I wonder if only a fire in the Randburg Civic Centre may see it redeveloped.
Of late, ward councillors are encouraging residents and businesses to get more actively involved in cleaning their streets and suburbs, securing their substations, cutting grass, replacing damaged and missing road signage, repainting road markings and the like. These are simple tasks that the City should be doing.
One only needs to visit the City of Cape Town to see their vehicles out and about from early morning into the evening.
These vehicles and teams are seen continuously cleaning, painting, removing weeds, cleaning out kerb inlets (ahead of their winter rains — they have a documented winter programme, which I have never seen in the City of Joburg), trimming trees, resurfacing roads, checking and painting fire hydrants, issuing fines for vehicles parked illegally and a myriad of other visible basic service delivery tasks.
It is largely not their ward councillors chasing this basic delivery, but it is the result of a caring and long-term stable government with systems in place. Such systems are desperately needed in the City of Johannesburg.
Councillors partake in oversight committees, of which the City of Johannesburg’s ones pale in comparison to Cape Town where meetings are held regularly, reports are served on time and available online — all holding officials to account, to deliver on the basics.
Such oversight committees and meetings in the City of Joburg tell a totally different story, are hardly held, are attended infrequently by officials, and where reports are delayed — most likely on purpose — frustrating councillors and ultimately service delivery.
Equal to the number of incredible City of Joburg officials are ones that coast along; are often on some form of leave, are unresponsive and do not have the City’s best interest at heart. Maybe they have lost interest due to the intricate complexities of the politics of the hour.
Of late, we are seeing an increasing exodus of City officials retiring or moving to work in other municipalities where things work and where delivery is truly visible and manageable; where crisis management is not the norm. The City of Joburg has recently lost two of their expert minds to the City of Cape Town.
I care deeply for Johannesburg but feel let down by the City, its officials, the voters and politics. Many ward councillors are at the end of their tethers. Joburg is likely simply too far gone. I don’t need to tell you that — it is visible everywhere.
The failure and frustration of the inability of the City to deliver simply get passed onto the ward councillors, who are expected to deliver but have no authority to do so.
Time to say goodbye
As I bow out after 12 years of tireless service, I give thanks to voters who put their trust in me, my councillor colleagues, journalists and friends I have made along the way.
Joburg you are broken. It is going to take a miracle and its voters to get you right. I wish you well. DM