Newsmaker – Parks Tau: My vision for Joburg

2013-05-12 10:00

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Tau’s ambitious plan on infrastructure, waste and jobs lauded?.?.?.?but with caution.

It may not have been the most auspicious week for Joburg Mayor Parks Tau to deliver his state of the city address.

A massive power outage had left those in eight of the city’s western suburbs without power from Sunday evening until about noon on Thursday, around the time Tau spoke.

Yet another outage on Wednesday infuriated those in the north of the city.

Despite his charm offensive in the lead up to Thursday’s address – kicking off his Go Jozi fitness campaign in Soweto’s Thokoza Park and handing over a house to 102-year-old Rozetta Alberto – furious residents and businesspeople flooded radio stations with angry words about what they wanted him to say.

But in an interview after his address, Tau simply said outages like these illustrated why it was necessary for the city to spend a record R100?billion on infrastructure over the next 10 years.

It is fitting that I interview him in the conductor’s room of the Linder Auditorium in Parktown, Joburg.

It is the venue of choice for symphony concerts after air-conditioning failures and other maintenance problems rendered the city’s grand City Hall unsuitable for the purpose.

Tau, the conductor of the City of Joburg, home to 4.2?million people, is about to orchestrate one of the nation’s most ambitious local government spending projects.

And a large chunk of that cash will be spent on City Power infrastructure so old that spare parts aren’t available locally and have to be imported from Germany.

Angry Joburgers demanding answers would have received little joy from Tau’s speech, as he didn’t mention the outage once. It was his vision for the city that dominated his address – not the state of it.

That said, the mayor’s plans are indeed magnificent. Even the official opposition DA agrees.

Arguably, the largest of them is the Corridors of Freedom plan aimed at addressing apartheid spatial planning, which has left the city’s poorest living on its edges, far away from jobs and cheaper food markets.

It entails well-planned transport arteries flanked by high-density housing and nearby offices, schools and recreation amenities.

“Over time, we will eliminate the need for private vehicles as the city progressively moves towards an effective public transport system, cycling lanes and pedestrian walkways,” he said in his speech.

Though many may scoff at the idea of being carless in Joburg, Tau later said he was “certainly prepared to drive” the project.

“I believe that Joburgers can make the choice. Most made the choice on the Gautrain.”

We joke that there’s no Rea Vaya, the city’s bus rapid transit system, route planned to Tau’s own neighbourhood of Winchester Hills, in the south.

He says he will take a Metro Bus instead. (In that case, expect him to be late for work, as the system is notoriously unreliable.)

Then there is the Go Jozi Campaign, set to be run everywhere from gyms and government offices to universities and shopping malls.

Tau himself, a keen golfer and football player, hopes it will help reduce the number of deaths from “diseases of lifestyle” such as diabetes and hypertension.

Also on the cards is a vast waste project by which thousands of unemployed youth will receive stipends for separating waste for recycling.

Another plan involves turning open tracts of land into food gardens to combat Joburg’s extraordinary high levels of food insecurity. (42% of residents go without a meal between one and three days a month.)

But still, this is where the city wants to be – not where it is.

This was illustrated by the calls Tau fielded on Talk Radio?702 on Friday morning from listeners seeking answers about why potholes and traffic lights take weeks to be fixed, why rampant corruption among metro police officers appears unchecked and why many officials treat them with disdain.

Tau says residents have to play a bigger part in the solutions.

“If you look at power outages, in Joburg we have determined that the dominant cause of power outages is people vandalising and stealing electricity. It’s humans that impact on the quality of service delivery,” he says in our interview, adding that cable theft causes about 60% of them.

There isn’t much the city can do to prevent what happened in the west from happening again.

“We’re investing in remote TV technology in certain areas, which enables us to pick up when the cable is affected. But then, we are investing in things that prevent cable theft instead of ensuring that more and more people can get electricity.”

Mmusi Maimane, the leader of the city’s DA caucus, says that although it is an “exceptional, bold and courageous vision”, he doubted the city had the capacity to spend R100?billion in 10 years.

“I can assure you that the city in the last three years hasn’t spent more than R10?billion, and now it wants to spend three times that,” said Maimane.

The City of Joburg has also had three consecutive qualified audits from the Auditor-General, and adding more money to the mix could make things worse, Maimane said. “You can’t govern the same way and hope for different results.”

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