Newsmaker – Jozi’s new headboy

2011-10-08 16:58

Aims to fix chaotic billing system and regain ratepayer confidence

Joburg’s new city boss, Trevor Fowler, took office this week.

He leads a team of more than 30 000 people and manages a budget of more than R30 billion.

Fowler’s sixth-floor office at the Braamfontein Civic Centre does not quite offer a panoramic view of the city.

Instead, the only window facing south offers a limited view of parts of Braamfontein and some of the north-south running streets of the CBD.

But speaking to the man one gets a sense that he doesn’t really need to see the city sprawled out before him.

He seems to have a solid plan to make Joburg a better city.

His office is filled with standard-issue furniture. It is bare of personal items such as photographs – perhaps a sign that he is yet to settle into his new position.

Fowler comes across as one of those dead-serious business executives who just do not have time for small talk.

He is a man whose carefully chosen words keep you on tenterhooks, wondering what is coming next, almost like a judge delivering a ruling after a long trial.

In fact, he looks like a character from the American legal drama, Law and Order – with his tall, imposing figure, black suit and businesslike demeanour.

He loves jazz, particularly the sweet notes of the legendary Miles Davis. And during his years of political exile in the US, Fowler was lucky enough to watch the great man perform live.

Fowler professes that, unlike most people who move in his circles, he doesn’t play golf.

“The truth is that I can’t (play it) and golf takes up a lot of time,” he says.

Fowler is a civil engineer by training and still holds a position at Murray & Roberts, where he worked after he left the Presidency in 2009.

He dismisses suggestions that his association with the company could raise questions of a conflict of interest when it comes to the awarding of contracts.

The city has checks and balances in place to ensure that everything is done according to the law and transparently, he says.

Fowler loves Johannesburg but does not like the mine dumps and the separate development – a legacy of apartheid’s Group Areas Act.

“If there’s one thing I find very difficult to deal with it is the fact that our city, by spatial design, creates separation between the people. The poor people live all the way out in Diepsloot, Orange Farm and have to travel hu-u-u-ge distances to get to the city.

It detracts from the ability to grow, to utilise the energy of the people,” he says.

He says some of the ways of dealing with this problem could be by adopting a development model similar to that of Cosmo City, a residential area that incorporates people of different income levels, while also creating work and recreational facilities that will reduce the need to travel long distances.

He reveals that on his return from political exile in the US, Canada and Botswana in the early 1990s he went back to his place of birth, Cape Town, hoping to settle there.

But the energy of Joburg captured his heart and soon he was back in the city, first in the construction sector and then as a member of the Gauteng provincial legislature in 1994.

In 1999 he was appointed MEC for development planning and local government in Gauteng. He says he had no idea then that he would one day be tasked with managing the city.

In 2004 Fowler was appointed chief operating officer and acting director-general in Thabo Mbeki’s Presidency and continued to live in his beloved Johannesburg during the five years he worked there.

He dismisses suggestions that his new job is a demotion. He argues that the city’s position as a significant contributor to the country’s gross domestic product and a hub of industry makes his job just as challenging as the one he had in the Presidency.

“It is a top-class city, a complex city, one that if we get right makes a huge difference to the people of South Africa,” he says.

Some of the major challenges he faces include replacing the city’s ageing infrastructure and fixing the chaos in the billing system, which has resulted in residents receiving absurdly high rates bills.

To date the city has still failed to rectify this problem.

Fowler concedes that the billing mess has had a negative impact on the confidence of ratepayers in the City of Johannesburg.

He says one of his major tasks during his term will be to “restore and build confidence in the electorate and investors in an attempt to achieve financial health”.

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