Ferial Haffajee: Joburg’s economy deserves a great mayor. It’s never had one.

Ferial Haffajee (Gallo Images / City Press / Herman Verwey)
Ferial Haffajee (Gallo Images / City Press / Herman Verwey)

Whoever is going to be elected mayor of Johannesburg next week is going to be a bit of a no-name brand mayor – the election was postponed on Thursday (November 28 2019) as party bosses engaged further horse-trading. 

That’s the outcome of a party-based electoral list system over which the citizens have little say. We get what’s given to us. And often, it’s not great. This city needs someone who will modernise Johannesburg, deal with crime and clean it up. 

Johannesburg is the heartbeat of the economy but it has been run appallingly for a heartbeat city. City infrastructure drives the economy; so do its varied CBDs, but on the whole, these have been mismanaged.

The inner-city of Johannesburg is a growth hub. If you look carefully at the tourism statistics, among the biggest spenders are the traders from the rest of Africa who flock to the city to buy and then go home again. This could be developed into a great twenty-first century trading hub. 

But I wonder if you have been there recently? The place is filthy. It is as if Pikitup, the waste removal entity, has given up cleaning the city. The other day, I drove over the Rissik Street bridge and looked down. There were steaming piles of rubbish which looked as if it had not been cleaned for weeks. In the prime shopping district around Smal Street Mall, you will soon have to wear a mask as sewage runs in the streets. It is as if city government, under the Democratic Alliance, simply gave up on what could be a vibrant part of the Pan-African economy.

The second CBD around Rosebank has a lot more business support through a central improvement district, but I recently saw a report that even that businesses in that community had warned the city government of then mayor Herman Mashaba that it should get some service for rate payments, the local government form of tax. The traffic lights are often out, the roads are rutted and services are run down, literally slowing down growth.

Numerous sets of research show that national GDP is driven by cities.  

Across the city, by-law enforcement is a forgotten art. Other than televised and occasional raids (often at the behest of intellectual property lawyers who work for the big brands) there is no regular by-law enforcement.  In Johannesburg’s third CBD of Sandton, for example, taxis create their own ranks and cause long and mangled queues slowing not only traffic but also productivity. 

Sandton and its financial sector are increasingly responsible for a larger and larger slice of GDP – the city administration should know this and service it well. Instead, the city cut off water to the Sandton Gautrain station recently as part of a fight with the train company’s landlord who got a tenderpreneur deal on the property. Political parties, on the whole, treat city treasuries like extractive markets for rents where the divvying up of the purse is what increasingly drives politicians. 

It’s an established pattern now, where the mayorship of cities is a thing of lobbying where big men (and they usually are men) fight for the spoils.  In Johannesburg, the pattern is particularly destructive because the malfunctioning of the city has an almost immediate impact on growth.  

Who will bell the cat?  

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