The hard and undeniable fact is that, though we had a racist hell to live with under apartheid, everything worked in the city: the traffic lights; the Post Office; the sewage systems, also in black townships; the roads and railways were in terrific condition; the streets were clean, especially the CBD, including areas like Hillbrow, Berea, Bertrams and so on. But those days are gone.

The metropolis is in the throes of a mortal crisis and is dying before our eyes, writes Ebrahim Harvey

19 JULY 2022

Source: Business Day

In his book Johannesburg Portraits, Mike Alfred asserts that in the past the city, despite the brutalities of the apartheid period, had “developed a vibrancy associated with the gift of life itself. Where else do we see squatters exuberantly papering the walls of their shacks with sheets of Sunlight Soap or Coca-Cola labels? Where else do we hear with one ear symphony music while on the other channels our own city-bred brand of jazz? We are only now becoming aware that downtown Johannesburg is a priceless showcase of 19th and 20th century architecture.”

But under the accumulated weight of a growing, multifaceted and unprecedented socioeconomic and political crisis enervating the city, things have decidedly changed. This great, richest and most powerful city in SA and on the continent is in the throes of a mortal crisis and steadily and sadly appears to be dying before our eyes.

All over, including in the central business district and neighbouring areas such as Hillbrow, Berea, Yeoville, Bertrams and Doornfontein, we daily see glaring signs of arguably the worst infrastructural crisis since the city was formed in 1886 after the discovery of gold. The enormity of the crisis is all the more striking because it was so unexpected after the first nonracial and democratic elections in 1994.

Since gold was discovered, Joburg was the home primarily of the majority black working-class who were violently driven by a combination of factors from their homes in rural areas to seek work in the emerging gold mining industry in Johannesburg in the 19th century.

It was black mineworkers, together later with Chinese, white and European mineworkers, who dug for the world’s most precious commodity in the dangerous and unhealthy bowels of the earth. We owe an enormous debt of gratitude to mineworkers, who laid the initial building blocks of Joburg.

But right now, Joburg palpably suffers from a general malaise which is nowhere more evident than in the gaping and dangerous potholes on roads all over. The railways are not running after tracks and other infrastructure were looted and vandalised; public hospitals are in arguably their worst crisis ever; the Post Office is in a dysfunctional mess; traffic lights are often not working and speeding cameras are down; there is faulty, failing and inadequate basic infrastructure such as taps, toilets and sewage in townships and schools; and so much more.

Remember this is not under apartheid. No, it is a most ironic, shocking and tragic reality that such a dismal situation exists today under a black majority ANC government. However, if you think these conditions, mainly as a direct result of municipal neglect, corruption, mismanagement and incompetence, are bad, go and walk around, if you dare, in the black townships, where things are considerably worse. Widespread poverty, unemployment and related social despair and crime are rampant there and in other black townships across Gauteng and the rest of the country, like never before.

Alongside all this infrastructural crisis and its multifaceted adverse effects on our daily lives, Joburg has become a destination and breeding ground for organised crime and drug cartels. Henri Lefebvre, the French philosopher, argued for the right of citizens to the cities in constitutional democracies: not only a right to physically be in the city, but also an associated and inviolable right and, in this country, a constitutional right to vitally important municipal services such as water, sanitation, electricity, housing, health and so on. This is exactly where the biggest crisis exists in Johannesburg in a purportedly post-apartheid SA.       

But despite the constitutional rights the delivery of these vitally important daily services in Joburg, especially in black townships, is arguably in the worst mess ever in its entire history, including under apartheid. We know about the terrible and virulent white racism of the apartheid times, but what we also know is that we never then had the current terrible state of our roads, railways, postal and health services, schools and so much more.

The ANC has also dismally failed in Joburg and elsewhere in a crime-ridden country to provide basic safety to its citizens. Arguably, the first requirement of an elected government, especially in a constitutional democracy, is to provide its citizens with safety, through visibly present, committed and competent police services. Instead, people are too afraid to go out for a walk in the city and its neighbouring areas, even to take a stroll in the CBD, especially on warm summer evenings. This city in so many ways does not belong to its citizens. Many or most people avoid the exercise of these basic rights, for fear of being mugged and assaulted or even killed.   

The fact is that it was under the rule of the ANC in Joburg, from the start of municipal elections in 1996, until it lost power to a coalition of the DA and the EFF in 2016 and again in 2021, that the city’s decline really began. While the ANC in Joburg opportunistically and expediently blames DA mayor Mpho Phalatse and her party for the present, most devastating crisis to date in the city, it all started under their own rule over many years.   

The explosion of socioeconomic inequalities, partly as a result of the widespread corruption, mismanagement and appalling incompetence by ANC administrations over those two decades, will have devastating consequences in the long term. The highest unemployment rate ever in Joburg has been accompanied by the growth of worsening levels of poverty, social inequalities, homelessness, hunger and much more, despite the lavish but essentially false praises of our constitution, especially for its Bill of Rights. There is a stark and ugly contrast between the rights in the constitution and those socioeconomic realities.

This is as a result of a combination of factors after 1994. First, we need to go back to the iGoli 2002 Plan of 1999, which laid the basis for the Municipal Systems Act of 2000. 

This new legislation provided for the commercialisation, corporatisation and commodification of basic services. As a result, the Joburg municipality transferred all its services such as water, sanitation, electricity and refuse collection, to its newly created companies, registered under the Companies Act, such as Johannesburg Water, City Power and Pikitup, and terminated their existence as departments in the municipality.

Once these processes were instituted people had to pay for all the services they received, notwithstanding the widespread black poverty and unemployment  the ANC inherited from the apartheid past after it took over in 1994. Shortly thereafter, prepaid water and electricity meters were installed and largely imposed in black townships in Soweto and other areas, much to the angry displeasure of residents, who vehemently protested.

Second, due to the ANC’s cadre deployment policy its leading members were placed in all the newly created municipal companies and in all municipal departments. Here lie the roots of the corruption, fraud, mismanagement, related patronage networks and stark and often embarrassing incompetence.   

I am convinced that a statutory commission of inquiry must be instituted to investigate corruption in Joburg and adjacent municipalities.

I am convinced that a statutory commission of inquiry must be instituted to investigate corruption in Joburg and adjacent municipalities. Joburg has the biggest budget, which by far exceeds that of any other municipality in SA. In 2022 it is an astronomical R70.3bn. What this simply means is that there was a great deal of money to loot in Joburg and neighbouring areas, such as Roodepoort.  

The hard and undeniable fact is that, though we had a racist hell to live with under apartheid, everything worked in the city: the traffic lights; the Post Office; the sewage systems, also in black townships; the roads and railways were in terrific condition; the streets were clean, especially the CBD, including areas like Hillbrow, Berea, Bertrams and so on. But those days are gone.

Joburg, despite the many evils of apartheid, was a great city, with that infectious vibrancy Alfred recounts, which somewhat mitigated the worse features of white racism that characterised it. Joburg’s history is unsurpassed and unparallelled in SA history. People either don’t know enough about it or as a result of disillusionment and despair at what has become of it, don’t want to recall those earlier, much better days and the unparallelled cultural dynamo and melting pot Joburg had been since its inception.

Don’t forget, objectively all of history, no matter what happened or not, is important. Joburg was once the home of men and women who shaped this city, such as Barney Barnato, Mohandas Gandhi, Ernest and Harry Oppenheimer, Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo, Bram Fischer, Helen Joseph, Helen Suzman, Moses Kotane, Sibongile Khumalo, Hugh Masekela, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Father Trevor Huddleston and so many more.

Indeed, such memories are a weapon of the still living. And when they recall these women and men who shaped the history of this city, they wish it could return, while they are still alive, to those much better days. I am certainly one of those.

But it is not just the names of these men and women whose lives and histories are forever emblazoned in our collective memories. No, the great events and places their names and those of others are associated with give them great agency, in one way or another. Perhaps most importantly, the great 1976 Soweto black student uprisings played a forerunner role in the decision by the National Party to release Nelson Mandela from prison and begin a process of negotiations which paved the way for the watershed 1994 elections. But look at the appalling conditions of townships in Soweto today and the shocking state of schools there and elsewhere.   

The huge expectations after the ANC took over the country in 1994 and the governing of Joburg in 1996, were natural and logical, especially in terms of the Reconstruction & Development Programme (RDP) — effectively its electoral manifesto — the 1955 Freedom Charter and the 1996 constitution. It would turn things around and for the first time in the history of SA black people would live in dignified conditions.

To the contrary, and so palpably and tragically evident in the city, especially in its black townships, the black working-class majority is worse off in socio-material terms than under apartheid. This is a telling and indeed staggering irony and indictment of the ANC.   

Go and see what Kliptown looks like today, the place where the Freedom Charter was birthed. The neglect, decay and general mess there is just too sad and tragic for words. But go also and look at the terrible poverty and joblessness and the sordid mess in black townships in Bloemfontein, where the ANC was born in 1912.

Then go and look where the ANC’s political and economic elite live in former white suburbia in Joburg. So massive is the chasm between the two that you can only wonder how much longer it will take before social explosions bring the city to its knees, as we saw happening in parts of Durban and Gauteng a year ago in 2021’s July riots.

Joburg is, and even more so today, the city of the moneyed rich and powerful, but after 1994 has had a small black elite and more numerous black middle-class. However, they have been devastated by the combined effects of the Covid-19 pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February. Interestingly, the media does not focus much on this key matter, though it devotes great space to the rise of the black middle-class in the 1990s and 2000s.

The undisputed fact is that the few wealthy mining, industrial and financial barons, as can be seen on the JSE, still run the economy of SA, which is why today in purportedly “postapartheid SA” social justice not only remains elusive but the social conditions of life are worse than under apartheid.

Only the united action of citizens, drawing together in a united front those working-class and middle-class communities which have been mainly affected by this crisis, has the power to change things for the better and with it return the city to its brighter days. The magnitude of Joburg’s present unprecedented crisis requires urgent solutions for the inhabitants of the city and for future generations. Otherwise, things will get even worse.

• Ebrahim Harvey is an independent political writer, analyst, researcher, former Cosatu trade unionist and author of  “The Great Pretenders: Race and Class under ANC Rule”, published by Jacana in May 2021.