Spotlight on ‘shabby and unkept Jozi’ as discontent grows at dysfunctional councils

Mar 03, 2020
3 March 2020 - Shortly before his resignation, former Johannesburg mayor Herman Mashaba spoke very dismissively of a resident complaining about grass verges not being cut. Mr Mashaba’s implication was that a whiny, narrow-minded, white busybody was complaining about a trifle when much more serious matters had to be dealt with. It was racial, populist politicking.

Sara Gon

Shortly before his resignation, former Johannesburg mayor Herman Mashaba spoke very dismissively of a resident complaining about grass verges not being cut. Mr Mashaba’s implication was that a whiny, narrow-minded, white busybody was complaining about a trifle when much more serious matters had to be dealt with. It was racial, populist politicking.

On a narrow level, Mr Mashaba was right; the matter is small, given the huge demands being made on the City council. And, certainly, civic-minded citizens can and do cut the verges outside their properties even though it’s city property.

But Mr Mashaba did miss a larger point: Johannesburg looks shabby and unkempt. Aside from overgrown verges, the city is littered with broken pavements, trenches containing new pipes and so on left unfilled for months or even years, warped and potholed streets and refuse everywhere.

Many appalling pavements may be in relatively wealthy areas, but they are used extensively by people who use what public transport there is and then still have to walk considerable distances because the routes of public transport are limited.

The effect of this messiness is to demoralise residents and give a poor impression to visitors to the city. Ratepayers do understand the need to provide services and infrastructure to poor and under-served areas. A balance has to be struck, however, for the benefit of what is the richest city in Africa.

Residents’ experience of the municipality’s service is often poor. The contact most people often have is with a dismissive staff member, or there is no response at all.

Ratepayers resort to the assistance of duly elected councillors, some of whom work very hard to meet the demands of their constituents. However, they are often unsuccessful and we lose faith in them even if it’s not their fault that the City is defaulting on its obligations.

How does the city work?
The following is a brief summary obtained from a former councillor as to how the City actually operates.

The City’s Services are:

Building Plans;
Vehicle Licensing and Testing;
Joburg Cares;
Public Transport (Metro bus);
Traffic Fines;
Water and Sanitation;
Waste Management (solid waste);
Emergency Services (Fire Department and Ambulances);
Metro Police (and traffic control);
Museums, Art Galleries and Heritage
City Parks; and
The Johannesburg Development Agency
Joburg Water, City Power, Pikitup, Joshco, (Johannesburg Social Housing Company), Johannesburg Roads Agency, City Parks, the Zoo and the Joburg Theatre are structured like companies with boards and modern management systems. Although they are structured like companies, they are completely government-funded.

Accounts, Building Plans, Vehicle Testing, e-services and Traffic Fines are departments and are not structured like companies.

The Zoo, Civic Centre, Buses and Produce Market are given R500 million over 5 years to carry out their mandate and are then left to do so.

A number of portfolios are represented on the City Council. Each portfolio is represented by a Member of the Municipal Council (MMC).

The portfolios are:

Infrastructure and Environment representing Pikitup (solid waste), Electricity and Water;
Corporate Shared Services – signs contracts and manages city-owned property;
Economic development – business regulation;
Transport – which is run by the ANC and the IFP. They are the Johannesburg Roads Agency (JRA), Metro Bus and licensing;
Development Planning – parks and zoos;
Health and Social Development – city clinics, social workers etc.
Community Development;
Public Safety – Metro police, fire department and ambulance. There are also private companies to provide for the last two functions; and
Housing – under the auspices of Joshco
The city is then divided into regions served by regional depots, though they don’t exactly correspond to the regions.

The mayor is a working functionary as executive mayor and so is paid by the City. The City Manager is the most senior administrator. The MMCs are the departmental political heads and the Directors below them are the administrative heads. The City Councillors are elected by the residents to represent them on the City Council.

Then the group of officials at the lowest end of this hierarchy are the Urban Inspectors in Citizen Relations and Urban Management (CRUMs); a sort of stakeholder liaison officer and spokesperson. They are appointed to serve township areas and their formal function is to advise the councillors, but in fact they mostly replicate what the councillors do. If they were efficient they could work well, but they function under extreme political control. They operate in an uncoordinated manner and many have questionable links. Adverts for these positions are often manipulated so that they only go to “friends”.

The structure generally is problematic because the quality of responsible management is poor. Every portfolio is overstaffed with CRUMs.

The websites of the various departments display little conformity and need standardising. Before 1994, the functions were decentralised. Centralisation has proved to be less efficient, and to achieve efficiencies a corrupt network would need to be broken up.

There is no ring-fencing of income, so, for example, entrance fees collected for entrance to a park will go into the coffers of the central fiscus.

Bureaucratic stumbling blocks
The bureaucracy of the City has been described as “out of control”. Senior officials and councillors are often kept in the dark about matters, and trying to ascertain facts on any issue is almost impossible.

Councillors can complain to the relevant officials, but they have no leverage; they can only approach the relevant MMC. At the end of the day, councillors can be completely ignored.

Functions between departments often overlap – such as verge cutting being under the JRA and City Parks. City Parks will not infrequently fail to carry out such a function on the basis that the verge is not a park, they don’t have a truck to remove rubble, and they have no budget.

Although billing has improved, the top-down style of management is unsuccessful. Meter readers often “skive off”. The installation of smart readers is susceptible to extortion rackets. Bills are messed up on purpose so the disconnector is paid to disconnect and reconnect, or they bribe the home owner. There is inadequate competence in handling the billing software, which itself is of poor quality. The tender processes are strict but cumbersome and are ultimately ineffective in preventing corruption.

There is a range of corrupt groups each of which tries to take the other groups out. The Licensing Department has a reputation for this type of malfeasance.

The failure to improve performance in the City has always been hampered by the fact that people are never dismissed for misconduct or incompetence – they are just moved. Cadre deployment and redeployment at its best.

This short exposition emphasises the aspects of maladministration and corruption outside of national government which don’t get nearly the attention they deserve. Ratepayers’ most direct exposure is to local government; redeployment is a cancer on the body that is corruption. If the council never dismisses bad staff, nothing improves.

Citizens only know what they see and what they see is soul-destroying. Can the system ever be improved?

Sara Gon is head of strategic engagement at the IRR.

This article first appeared on the IRR’s online publication, Daily Friend.

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