There is simply not enough money to remedy service-delivery issues in Johannesburg and Mayor Herman Mashaba refuses to entrap himself with unrealistic deadlines.
The businessman-turned-politician is not ashamed to admit that not even five years is adequate to resolve the backlog in the system completely, including repairs of basic things, such as potholes across the city, street lights, storm-water drainage, traffic lights, electricity and housing, all of which need an injection of about R170 billion.
On several occasions when asked by City Press about his turnaround time to resolve service-delivery issues, Mashaba said: “I cannot promise to deal with this overnight, it will catch up with me.”
Eventually he drops the bomb: “There is no chance that I can address them in the next five years.”
Money plays a big role in everything he is mandated to do in his coalition government, which is propped up with the backing of the Economic Freedom Fighters.
Last year Mashaba declared a war on potholes but, instead of decreasing them, they are increasing.
The repair cost has increased from about R5 billion to R11.8 billion for the 100 000 potholes found all around Johannesburg.
But, he said, officials at the Johannesburg Roads Agency have put in additional shifts to continue fixing roads in bad condition.
“You can’t go and tell people that the roads will be tarred within a year; we are only 22 months in office. Rather let people vote me out if they feel they want me to tell them I’m going to tar their streets overnight. I need R11.8 billion just for the roads alone, but now what about other services? My budget right now is about R8 billion for capex [capital expenditure] for the entire city.”
Since taking office about two years ago Mashaba has consistently apportioned blame to the previous administration under the ANC, particularly for the infrastructure lag.
“This city was used as an ATM without a PIN code. It was free for all,” he said, insisting that he wants to take residents into his confidence and make them understand the magnitude of the problems.
“I’m not a politician and will not lie to people and say that I’m going to solve their problems overnight, because that is how the new South Africa has operated in the past 24 years. Politicians make promises because they are obviously worried about the next election – but I’m not doing this job for elections.”
The straight-talking Mashaba said being Jozi mayor “was the last job I wanted but it’s rewarding”.
“So I need to be really honest with our residents when I tell them ‘guys, there is a 300 000 housing backlog and there is no way that I can just resolve it now but can build only so many with what we have’.”
Mashaba spoke of recent protests in the city’s townships, saying that similar problems were experienced last year, particularly in Kliptown and Eldorado Park.
False promises had led to that, he said.
He revealed how he nearly pulled out of a meeting he had been invited to by then minister of human settlements Lindiwe Sisulu and Gauteng province’s then MEC for cooperative governance Paul Mashatile precisely because of how uneasy he was about lying to people by making promises that he could not keep.
“They expected me to be part of a meeting, making promises to the residents and I said to them: ‘Please, before we make promises, show me the money. You cannot expect me to go to this community and make empty promises.’
“I do not operate on that basis. I operate on the basis of taking the residents into my confidence on challenges I’m facing and how much money I’ve got in terms of budget. Now look what’s happening,” he said, referring to sporadic protests in different communities across Johannesburg, forcing the closure of freeways, particularly in the south.
“They thought people are going to forget. Right now they [Sisulu and Mashatile] have all moved to different positions and people are asking for what they were promised a year ago, houses and whatever else.”
Mashaba said he should be judged on the interventions he has made, including insourcing of security guards at an increased salary of R6 500 from R4 100.
As many South Africans complain about a lack of cleanliness in the city, Mashaba has encouraged everyone to be a volunteer to help clean the city once a month for four hours as part of his Aresebetseng initiative, a Sesotho phrase meaning ‘let’s work’.
He got the idea during a visit to Kigali in Rwanda. He said everything comes to a standstill on the last Saturday of a month as Rwandans cleaning their city.
“I know in South Africa I can’t force anyone to be part of this. But in Johannesburg I’m asking people to please work with us to clean their neighbourhoods, streets or wards. Government doesn’t have the capacity on its own.”
Mashaba wants to recoup billions that were allegedly stolen by big businesses that connived with corrupt officials to avoid paying rates. His focus in the short term is not on the small fry but the big guns.
“I’m going for the political leadership and the business leadership before I go for anyone else in the townships, predominantly with only one breadwinner. But this should not encourage people to continue to connect to water and electricity illegally.”
He boasts that the city has managed to recover R350 million in just three months from the “big fish” debtors who had disappeared from the system.
“More than 2 000 culprits have been identified and we going for them. If I can stop it at the root cause then it will be easier dealing with civil society.”
Mashaba said the city loses between R7 billion to R10 billion a month from corrupt activities.
“Imagine, if I can recover R5 billion of this money every month, how much it would be by 2021? This will increase the capex budget to about R20 billion a year. Then you can imagine what we can do. But we can’t do this overnight, it takes time.”