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A departing Joburg councillor’s cry for his beloved, broken city

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David Potter has been Johannesburg’s DA ward councillor for Ward 102 – Randburg – for the past 12 years. 31 May 2023 was his last day as councillor.

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.

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.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Poor municipal management erodes willingness to pay for services, creates climate ripe for civil unrest

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.

Unresponsive

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

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Nic Tsangarakis says:

    Thanks David for your service. Really sad state of affairs.

  • Jon Quirk says:

    What exactly did YOU do in your 12 years? That the place, Randburg, is falling apart is self-evident, but all this article does is point fingers at multiple others – so what exactly did you do?

    We all know that Randburg started to seriously fall apart when Kortbroek sold his soul for a few shekels and an unlimited expense account, when he joined the ANC all those decades ago, but in your 12 years much could have, and should have, been recovered, but it demonstrably has not been, so what van you look back on as YOUR achievement?

    Progress begins with personal accountability.

    • Marie Venn Venn says:

      Please Jon, David Potter is clearly burnt out after years of swimming upstream in a highly dysfunctional system. I’m sure he had ‘his wins’ along the way but his article’s intention is to share the current state of affairs and say farewell, not to list his achievements.

    • Cathy Wardle says:

      Councilors are not responsible for the delivery of basic services (contrary to belief), as by law, Councillors may not interfere or
      give instructions to City Officials!!!
      Jon, this is not a explanation on his achievements but rather all the ways in which he has been hamstrung, particularly with a totally dysfunctional fault logging system which relies on WhatsApps, to get things done and then by bakkie and ladder brigades who often leave jobs incomplete!

      Again, I repeat service delivery is the failure of the City and not the Councillors who are expected to deliver but have no authority to do so. So Jon, what did you expect Potter to do?

    • Ulrike Hill says:

      I am surprised at this response. I respect your views, Jon, and am not sure why this negative outlook. As a ward committee member, I have personally experienced how our Ward Councillor, after only 2 years in the job, is taking enormous strain. Furthermore, I wonder if you understand what a Ward Councillor’s job is? The Councillor represents the community and has to liaise with municipal services. How does one implement security when police do not respond to calls. How does one organise pothole repairs when the response is slow and the work is broken into 3 stages. A CBD is much more difficult to manage than a suburb. At least the residents living in the suburbs can clean parks. Creating a united community in a business area that has slowly disintegrated 20 years ago is not easy. How doe you manage the homeless? The crime? The informal traders? Each of these create unattractive places and spaces. I have personally seen how Randburg CBD has gone from a wonderful shopping area to one that I avoid at all costs. Now that COJ is at an all time low, ward councillors are the ones that are burning.

    • James Donald says:

      I imagine David’s developed a thick skin Jon, but this jab is unfair and uncalled for, though I do understand the frustration.

      I can only imagine how hard he has worked over those 12 years; young talent from all parties must want to do these jobs.

      Something we forget to point out alongside stability is real investment. Randburg was bankrupt when it joined Sandton and others to become the metro. So post ’94, the city has been in constant austerity precisely as it started to try to serve everyone and exploded in size. But the plan was to get serious about spending and investment; ironically, the 2016 Zuma backlash undid its investment plans, stripped out capacity and killed (a precarious but ambitious) re-investment strategy (corridors of freedom). Cape Town has had stability; and, like jhb was doing, is finding its investment strategies. JHB has done well in so many other ways, despite apartheid and colonialism, but I agree with David’s sadness. It should not be doing well ‘despite’ democracy’; we have all the tools to do so much better.

      Thank you for your service and lovey effort in this article, counsellor.

    • Timothy Van Blerck says:

      maybe a quick read of the article would have saved you the time spend typing out this comment

    • Peter Oosthuizen says:

      Quite clearly a knee jerk reaction.
      Read, comprehend and respond if necessary. All absent in this comment!

    • John Pavlakis says:

      Shew – did you actually read the article? What did YOU do Jon? What have YOU done for your suburb?
      Councillors are sadly very limited in their ability to get things done when there is an ineffective and non-functioning government in place. What do YOU propose?!

    • Thomas Coggin says:

      We all know that Jon Quirk commented on a Daily Maverick op-ed he didn’t read with the deeply profound comment that “progress begins with personal accountability.”

  • Gavin Ehlers says:

    Indeed it is up to the voters. The ultimate outcome of government is ultimately on “them” – I refer to voters who consistently vote for the same failing government but expect a different outcome, or choose not to vote at all. As we hurtle towards another election, voters, this is now purely on you. Thank you for your 1% mayor. When will you understand that YOU are ultimately responsible for the people YOU choose to put in power. You only have yourselves to blame when it all finally ends in tears. Welcome to democracy.

    • William Shipway says:

      “The forest was shrinking, but the trees kept voting for the Axe for the Axe was clever and convinced the Trees that because his handle was made of wood, he was one of them.” Turkish Proverb.

      • Ashley Stone says:

        You hit the nail on the head!

      • Roelf Pretorius says:

        OK – but what does the councillors do to expose the “trees” to the full truth and information about what is going on? Because it is true that the councillor is not the one delivering the service; but his job is to expose the municipal officials to what needs to be done, and then communicate back to the voters/community what the response of the executive and officials were to this information, AND then to mobilise them to look for solutions, even to take the municipality on, like taking them to court or to report them to COGTa, the public protector, the auditor-general, the green Scorpions, or any other law enforcement agencies and getting them to take action. Eventually REAL councillorship is about community leadership; Iwas able to do that even though I was a proportional list councillor, not a ward one. I eventually had the TV News cameras of ALL the news agencies in the area to expose what is going on. And last but not least, to mobilise the community to vote in the right way and once they do it, to make sure that the administration realises why they voted like that. That is how democracy works; it is about mobilising the power of the community through their vote.

    • Paddy Ross says:

      Those residing in Joburg and who have the right to vote should look in the mirror to see who is responsible for the decay of their city. One doesn’t have to be Einstein to figure out why Cape Town is a functioning City while Joburg is falling apart.

  • David Walker says:

    I read an article like this with sadness, as well as intense relief that I am a resident of Cape Town and not Joburg. Above all else, the residents of the Western Cape must keep the ANC/EFF out.

  • Alley Cat says:

    “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.”
    This the same in Sandton and REALLY irks me! We pay ridiculous sums of money on rates and taxes? For what? So that we, the residents must do the jobs that we pay rates for whilst the majority of city officials sit on their asses and do FOKOL?

  • Dave Keating says:

    Thank you for your service, David, I know that you have done your best in extremely trying circumstances.

    We as the residents need to start demanding accountability from service providers to the City. For example – I was horrified at what the City was charged to implement the SAP software system. This was justified to the public by saying that this ERP system would enable automated comms between departments and the public and the city would run like clockwork – now we hear it is run outside of this by WhatsApp groups. We all know what a shambles the billing system is and where oh where is the rest of the functionality. SAP, the international behemoth, must be held accountable and investigated and, if they have not delivered what was promised it should be clawed back. Business leaders need to exert their influence on these suppliers and get them to perform.

    The same should apply to all of the derelict service providers to the council – time to name and shame.

  • Mark Marais says:

    The fact is that you get what you vote for or don’t vote for if you abstain! It is shocking to me how many suburban voters in particular are effectively betraying their councillors who have shown themselves to be selfless and diligent by badmouthing them and failing to support them at the polls. No wonder councillors are becoming disillusioned! The electorate needs to wake up.

  • Michael Jones says:

    What a truly sad state of affairs. Cry for my beloved Country as I do.

  • Steve Davidson says:

    Frankly, there is absolutely no hope for Joburg or Durban (Bloem is finished, no chance for it, although PE might still stand a chance) unless the DA is given full control like they have in Cape Town (and the Western Cape) where they are doing an absolutely fantastic job, despite what a few naysayers think, especially when we consider the continuing influx from the failed Eastern Cape of economic refugees.

    My suggestion? Make a 5 minute movie visually comparing Cape Town with Joburg and flight it on as many media platforms you can. And tell the viewers that it’s up to them – if you want dystopia, keep voting for the other parties like the ANC and EFF. If you want a place you can live in where the potholes get fixed and so on, vote en masse for the DA and give them that full control. Otherwise, don’t come crying to us when your city completely collapses.

  • Frans Flippo says:

    I have lived here for 7 years, the city happily takes my rates and taxes every month, but I am not allowed to vote on who runs the city and how this money is spent. How is that fair?

  • Hermann Funk says:

    If there is no or bad service delivery, citizens should refrain from paying rates and taxes.

  • Rob Rhodes-Houghton says:

    Why did you ever imagine that things would be different? This is Africa.

  • P B M .. says:

    I moved from Jhb to Emalahleni (Witbank) about 5 years ago because of employment contract reasons. We have Ward Councillors for the various regions. Each and every one of them do their level best to get things done. But because they basically also rely on Whatsapp messages from the public living in the various wards, to attend to a multitude of problems, they and the residents become exceedingly frustrated because of a lack of response from the various City Officials with whom they have to deal with. There are no working street lights, water leaks everywhere, potholes, rubbish not collected, umpteen cases of vandalism and and and – the usual 4th world municipal problems. But I take my hat off to the Ward Councillors who certainly cannot do any more than report the matters to the appropriate Officials. As has already been pointed out, they may not interfere with or give instructions to, City Officials. So any criticism or obvious negative jabs to a City Councillor is not only uncalled for but inappropriate. If anyone feels that they can do a better job, nothing but cowardice prevents them from standing for Office.

  • Sean Kerr says:

    The message is simple right – get out and vote. As responsible citizens we need to encourage every citizen to vote. If only 54% bothered to vote I’d like to think it could be or would be different if the other 46% bothered to show up. Voters care – it creates an emotional attachment and thereby, I’d like to think, a greater sense of holding the electorate responsible (not talking ward councillors – just for the record).

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