Defend Truth


Johannesburg’s decline exemplifies SA as the sick man of Africa


Xolisa Phillip has had quite an adventure as a journalist in the roles of subeditor, news editor, columnist and commentator. She pretends to be Olivia Pope during the day, while still maintaining a presence in journalism – a passion project she cannot shake away. Journalism keeps finding Phillip no matter where she is and somewhat manages to hold its own space no matter where she is professionally.

The rapid decline of the City of Johannesburg is synonymous with the story of South Africa: once formidable and credible, but now faltering and undershooting potential. The contagion has seeped into every facet and contaminated the fundamentals that drove past successes.

There is something missing from the City of Johannesburg’s distinctive skyline: tower cranes, scaffolding, and traffic cones carving out construction sites. 

There was a time when South Africa’s economic hub lived up to its status and was pulsating with construction activity at almost every corner. These days, though, the rare sight of workmen painting the city’s long-faded road markings is as good as it gets.

Tower cranes, scaffolding, and traffic cones have become something of an endangered species – out of sight, in yet another sign of Johannesburg losing its shine. The City of Tshwane, home to the executive capital, is not faring much better either, as well as other metros in Gauteng and around the country.

The decline of Johannesburg, in particular, is concerning because the city is a gateway to the rest of the continent. Africa’s largest and oldest stock exchange is located in Johannesburg, and the city is host to domestic and global corporate headquarters. Mega deals are stitched and sealed in Johannesburg.

But the Covid period is not the culprit. The city’s problems predate the pandemic. Perhaps Johannesburg’s woes are a result of the metro falling victim to its own past successes. The most obvious manifestation of Johannesburg’s misfortunes, and surprising turn in circumstances for the worse, is the chaotic brand of political jostling to control its multibillion-rand purse strings.

The political machinations have attracted a crowd of oddball characters, who now occupy the public imagination and the highest seats of power in the metro’s council. The unmistakably murky backroom wheeling and dealing for council positions has delivered unto the new crowd the spoils of power while simultaneously widening and deepening the service delivery gap.

The tatty condition of South African cities and towns is visual evidence of the dual backslide in the quality of political principals at all three tiers of government, especially the local level, as well as development and economic outcomes. The City of Johannesburg is a macrocosm of this phenomenon – the whole system is glitching.

SA a shadow of its potential

For a country that famously absorbed the shocks of the 2008 global financial meltdown and subsequent recession by way of a successful infrastructure drive and spend, South Africa is a shadow of its potential. The country has not only lost economic ground, but a radical shift in its political fabric has unfolded before our eyes, tearing at the seams of a fragile republic.

In 2018, the current administration unveiled the Economic Stimulus and Recovery Plan predicated on five pillars including improving municipal social infrastructure and establishing an Infrastructure Fund. The other three pillars are: pursuing growth-enhancing economic reform, embarking on public spending supportive of job creation, and a commitment to resolve “urgent matters” in education and health.

Municipal social infrastructure and infrastructure funding are pivotal yardsticks of cities’ administrative capacity and political performance. The former points to the effective use and existence of internal capacity and the latter indicates a capability to forward plan.

Experts do state that private capital flocks in where there is adequate state capital expenditure on both social and economic infrastructure, but private capital beats a hasty retreat where there are no discernible signs a country will act on its plans.

Although a simplistic way of dressing up the complementary relationship between public capital expenditure and the movement of private capital, the correlation does exist between government action and overall economic results.

That is where the notions of investor confidence and policy certainty have tangible effects. Added to this are accountability, good governance, institutional capacity and political stability. Taken collectively, these intangibles are considered foundational to an enabling environment.

For years, the main argument in favour of South Africa was that the underlying fundamentals of the country’s economy were in place. The missing component was political will. Now, however, even that line of reasoning has been thrown into question.

The Economic Stimulus and Recovery Plan evolved into the 2020 Economic Reconstruction and Recovery Plan. The current administration identified enablers of the revamped 2020 plan as: resource mobilisation, regulatory reform, building social compacts, strengthening state capacity, communications and the digital economy, skills development, and economic diplomacy and regional integration. 

But neither the five pillars of the original plan nor the enablers of the current plan have delivered much momentum to crank up the country’s sluggish economic growth and stagnant employment creation. Instead, the rude awakenings keep piling up. 

According to the World Bank’s latest Africa’s Pulse, South Africa, a major economy in the region, continues to underperform.

What is happening in the City of Johannesburg is representative of South Africa’s story – getting by on past glory and successes as others work overtime to snatch the proverbial crown. 

If the City of Johannesburg is the sick man of the country’s metros, South Africa is the sick man of Africa among the major economies.

The missing tower cranes, scaffolding and traffic cones are the symptoms, but the economic medicine that has been prescribed so far has kept the patient going without curing the underlying illness. DM


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  • Cornay Bester says:

    Cape Town is cANCer resistant. A little DA goes a long way.

  • Beyond Fedup says:

    You are 100% right. Whilst I have lived in CT for 43 years now, I used to and continue to travel to JHB on business as often as once a month. Whilst I love the energy and “can do attitude in JHB”, I can see that this is wearing thin these days and there is a definite degradation in appearance and decline all around. CT by contrast, hasn’t lost its shine, in fact the opposite and continues to be a world class city. It faces numerous challenges like wholesale movement of populations from the eastern Cape etc., but it is a city that functions. I can only ascribe this to a very simple fact – DA versus anc. The latter is thoroughly corrupt, inept and criminal where patronage, gatekeeping, cadre deployment, nepotism and adherence to idiotic/OTT BEE policies are the order of the day whilst the former is efficient, responsible, accountable, not corrupt and follows market related policies where regular maintenance etc. is carried out. If SA wants to move forward, regain its former glory and successes, and realize its enormous potential – GET RID OF THE VILE AND USELESS anc!!!

  • Chaim Myerson says:

    The solution is simple. Bring in the folk who run Cape Town and within 5 years the problems plaguing Jo’burg will be over.

  • Selwyn Lange says:

    “Johannesburg – a world class Shitty”

  • Denise Smit says:

    It is not just Johannesburg, it is anywhere north of the Western Cape borders. Denise Smit

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