RW Johnson on the wider implications of the collapse of our cities and towns
Anyone who lived through the euphoria of 27 April 1994 has to marvel at that era today. All the way through the 1980s – indeed, ever since 1976 or even 1973 – there had been a building sense of excitement and anticipation. Liberation was coming. We all knew it: there were even endless conferences about this or that subject (education, health care etc) in “post-apartheid South Africa”.
And finally the great day came. There was an avalanche of relief, of voting, of change. There was no doubt as to its necessity. And yet it soon passed. It is impossible now to conjure up that mood again, difficult even to re-imagine it. For we now live with the opposite, a huge sense of disappointment, failure and despondency.
In this new reality it is impossible to experience the same feelings of hope, confidence and enthusiasm for the new. More and more people, especially black people, can’t be bothered to vote and even feel that democracy was a false dawn. It’s as if liberation was not a new era, merely a spasm. What would happen now if whites took back control? One suspects that many among the black majority would just shrug and even amongst that majority there would be some relief.
For a large number think life was better under apartheid. At every rally and celebration ANC speakers like to dwell upon the horrors of apartheid in order to stress how much better things are since liberation but this doesn’t really work. Did more people have jobs then ? Yes. Was there less crime ? Yes. Less corruption ? Yes. Did we have power cuts then ? No.
It’s easy to tot up the ANC’s failures. Couldn’t run an airline. Or the railways. Or the ports. Or produce reliable electricity. Or clean water. Couldn’t run a civil service, or a police force or mend the roads. But why go on? In sum what the ANC have shown is that they are wholly incapable of running or governing a modern industrialised society so if we want to keep them in power we must do without that sort of society.
The problem is that it’s the other way round. The majority of all races definitely want a modern industrialised society but that means doing without the ANC, which has convinced itself and at least a few others that that would mean reversing liberation.
The real problem is that the ANC doesn’t yet understand this incompatibility. And doesn’t want to understand it. It continues to promise more industrialisation, more investment, new cities, bullet trains, even to promise that it will, somehow, continue to run an airline.
But it can’t do any of those things, it’s all pie in the sky. It’s been brought up on the Freedom Charter which suggested that to govern all you had to do was pass resolutions. “There Shall be Work and Security! The Doors of Learning and Culture Shall be Opened!” etc.
There is a tendency among disillusioned whites to say that these failures are true everywhere in Africa, that Africans are just incapable of creating or maintaining a modern society.
But this isn’t really true. Kenya, for example, has had impressive rates of economic growth ever since independence and Nairobi is a budding tech hub. And African airlines don’t have to fail: Ethiopian Airways are an impressive success.
Similarly, the port of Maputo is handling more and more traffic, including a growing amount of South African goods that our own ports can’t deal with. Literacy rates are declining in South Africa but the opposite has been happening for decades in next door Botswana. Most African countries are even running their mining industries far better than South Africa does.
That is, the fact has to be faced that African governments elsewhere on the continent are often doing a great deal better than our government is. Or, to put it the other way round, our particular lot of African nationalists seem to be particularly hopeless.
Few of them are at all well educated, they are corrupt and incompetent and they have the added handicap of an antique ideology which prevents them from adopting pragmatic solutions. They have no sense of history and no vision of where they are supposedly going. It is a toxic mix.
The result is a crisis of leadership. The ANC leadership has reduced South Africa to a shambles and amidst that they can talk only about the vague dream of an NDR – an old Soviet dream, long ago abandoned by the Russians. So they come up not with solutions but mad, utopian projects like a state bank, a state pharmaceutical company, NHI, bullet trains, new cities and “localisation”. They are completely and utterly lost.
To which we should probably add the fact that the whole period since 1994 has been a huge feeding frenzy. Excited by the potential wealth of South Africa our black elite has thrown itself into get-rich-quick behaviour of every kind. There is no sense of public spirit, of patriotism or even of community responsibility. The contrast with Afrikaner nationalists – who had a burning, albeit sectarian, sense of patriotism and a Calvinist morality about pursuing it - is very sharp.
The ANC’s most dramatic failure, however, has been with the towns and cities, many of which are now at the point of collapse. This is critical because, in contrast to almost all other African countries, South Africa is already heavily urbanised and becoming more so at a rate of knots. The country already consists mainly of its six huge metropoles: that is where the majority live and work, that is where almost all our GNP is generated and almost all our trade goes through our great ports – Durban, Richards Bay and Cape Town.
The news from PE – Nelson Mandela Bay – is that the city has all but run out of water and that much of the water that is available is poisoned. This situation is the result of decades of municipal misgovernance. It is unlikely that these problems will be solved. Indeed, even now the NMB council mis-spends the money it is given to relieve the situation, some of it going on municipal festivities.
No city can live without an adequate supply of clean water and without adequate sanitation so one has to expect NMB to collapse. Many of its people and businesses will move away and what is left behind will be a disaster zone. It will cease to be a functioning metropole. So if nothing changes its failure will be a hammer blow to the already stricken Eastern Cape. Helen Zille once got into a lot of trouble for referring to “refugees from the Eastern Cape” so perhaps we should refer to the large numbers who will flee this disaster as refugees from municipal misgovernance.
Durban is in a hardly better state. It has been corruptly and grotesquely misgoverned by the ANC for decades. When the city was handed over to majority rule in the 1990s it was one of the few large cities in the world with zero debt – despite the building of the hugely expensive (and very successful) International Convention Centre.
Now it is virtually bankrupt and it is over-run by gangsterism. The city’s failure to maintain its sewage and drainage system has greatly increased the damage from flooding and the scars from last year’s looting spree have not healed. The city depends on tourism but it has failed to maintain its beaches as safe and clean. It also depends on its port, which is barely functioning.
Moreover, the same corrupt and incompetent ANC administration is still in charge of the city and the Zuma faction remains a potent and destructive force. It is a recipe for chaos. Meanwhile a mere R1 billion has been promised in relief funding – pathetically too little.
If the Ramaphosa government were at all serious it would launch a huge national effort to save the port on which the country’s economy largely depends but there is no sign of that. This is an abdication of responsibility on an epic scale. A state which went AWOL when faced with mass riots and looting is now refusing to respond even to natural disasters. There can be no better example of state failure.
Meanwhile the public service trade unions are demanding a colossal 10% raise, costing over R70 billion a year. This would take all and more of the money needed for relief funding. That is, so to speak, Cosatu’s way of writing off the cities of Durban and Port Elizabeth.
It is hard to imagine that Durban can function as before. More likely, a rump city will emerge consisting mainly of the still functional bits north of the Umgeni and the suburbs to the west. Another looting spree and much of the old city will resemble a post-apocalypse film set.
The state of the Gauteng cities – Joburg, Pretoria and Ekurhuleni – is not much better. The new mayor of Joburg repeatedly tells us that her city is “in ruins” and it would be folly not to believe her.
All three cities have had decades of ANC rule, which is to say misgovernance, corruption, little or no maintenance and over-spending on salaries. They are all in a parlous state, barely solvent and with huge maintenance backlogs.
The state of the next-tier cities – Bloemfontein, Pietermaritzburg, Buffalo City and so on – is no better. Many are close to failure, indeed, Pietermaritzburg has twice been put into administration. In all cases the local ANC elites have settled on these towns like locusts – perhaps vampires is a better word – and sucked the life out of them. It is difficult to believe that many of them will recover.
The result is historically unprecedented. One searches in vain to think of another essentially urban civilisation in which most of the towns and cities were so precipitately brought to the point of collapse – for all this has been “achieved” - again, the wrong word, perhaps “wrought” is better - in a single generation.
This prospect of the wasteland created by the ANC conjures up memories of the Morgenthau Plan – the proposal of Roosevelt’s Treasury Secretary, Henry Morgenthau Jr in 1944, for the de-industrialisation of Germany. Morgenthau, of German Jewish stock himself, was so horrified by Hitler’s atrocities that he argued that the whole of the Ruhr “should not only be stripped of all presently existing industries, but so weakened and controlled that it can not in the foreseeable future become an industrial area”. The clock would thus be turned back a century or two and the whole of Germany would be transformed into a purely agricultural area – and thus incapable of waging a modern war.
Stalin rather liked the Morgenthau Plan and it fleetingly gained favour before Western leaders realised it was mad and that they needed a strong and prosperous Germany. In fact the Plan was a fantasy, born of horror at the Holocaust. But the de-urbanisation wrought by the ANC is quite real.
If this de-urbanisation is allowed to run its course it will destroy much of South Africa. The destruction of social capital will indeed be on a scale otherwise experienced only by countries subjected to industrialised war – Germany, Japan, Russia and Vietnam.
And, again, this is not normal in Africa. Nairobi is not a pretty city but the Kenyans have not destroyed it. Accra is in good shape – I drove around it a few years ago looking for potholes, without finding any. The highway up to Kumasi (near which the late Bob Marley’s family lives in some style) was also in excellent shape. Even Harare was in good shape until 2000 – there used to be a lively correspondence in the Zimbabwe Herald about the state of the floral roundabouts, but that seemed to be all there was to argue about.
Embittered whites want to tell you that Africans have never created or maintained cities and so it’s logical that they destroy them. This is not really so: most African cities have survived OK and many have grown. Few have been destroyed or collapsed. Once again, our South African nationalist elite just seems to be a whole lot more destructive than its peers.
This process of destruction has already had powerful effects. Because the towns and cities of the Western Cape are still reasonably functional they have become magnets for the people and businesses fleeing from dying cities elsewhere. This has been happening for a while but it will accelerate as more cities reach the tipping point. As recently as 1965 Cape Town still had less than a million inhabitants: today it is sprinting towards the 5 million mark.
Cape Town counts as a success but it is fragile and has been sacrificed to the requirements of DA politics: Helen Zille was a good mayor but was in the position for only three years (2006-2009). For thirteen years after that the city had mayors chosen on an identity politics basis simply in order to suit the DA’s national requirements.
This reached an apotheosis when Mmusi Maimane was the DA leader with Maimane ordering Cape Town’s city councillors to leave the problem of Patricia de Lille entirely to him. Yet it is hard to imagine that anything could have been more truly the councillors’ business than a mayor who had lost the city’s confidence. John Steenhuisen continued in this vein, trying to order the city’s councillors to scrap some of its golf courses. The DA leadership, in other words, sometimes seems to regard Cape Town as its plaything, as if local government did not exist.
This has had damaging consequences – the city’s management was either lethargic or dictatorial and much was done wrong or not at all. Often, property developers seemed to be in charge. Only in November 2021 did Cape Town get a mayor arguably chosen on merit and he now faces a considerable backlog due to previous bad decisions and non-decisions. It’s a rescue job.
The DA often boasts about Cape Town but it shouldn’t. This was no way to treat a fast-growing city which was the jewel in the party’s crown. Any big city needs energetic and top class leadership all the time. This was especially true in Cape Town for the decline of all the country’s other major cities meant that South Africa was beginning to re-orient itself around its one remaining functional metropole.
This re-orientation of the country around Cape Town is sometimes referred to as a reversal of the Great Trek but it is, of course, enormously more complex than that. Industries which consume large amounts of raw materials have to stay close to where such materials are found, so heavy industry will probably not move to the Cape. Instead Cape Town houses service industries – tourism, finance, the big law firms, a growing tech hub, a film industry and so on. This focus on clean, modern education-based industries seems likely to continue.
The most important service industry is the port of Cape Town. With Durban and Richards Bay both operating at sub-optimal levels, Cape Town really needs to step up. It may even need to go back to being South Africa’s biggest port, something it has not been since the 1950s. As it is it is hardly meeting the needs of Cape agriculture and it has no spare capacity at all. This has to change, radically. But the sort of wholesale change needed will only come with private sector management and extra investment.
Even without that the process of national re-orientation looks set to continue, producing explosive growth in Cape Town, in Stellenbosch-Somerset West and to a lesser extent in George and the smaller Western Cape towns. This will have dramatic effects which many of the locals have not yet grasped.
There is, for example, a group in Cape Town, Reclaim the City, which demands the building of low cost housing in the city centre. But as more and more citizens and businesses relocate to Cape Town they will drive prices and they will demand and get city centre properties. Land in the centre is already too valuable – and will get a whole lot more valuable – for low-cost housing to be viable. The whole city will move further upmarket and there will be no more rationale for low cost housing in the city’s centre than there is in Manhattan or Paris.
The upward re-pricing of Cape Town (and Western Cape) property is necessary and anyway unavoidable. It is the market’s way of trying to contain this explosive growth, for one cannot simply decant all of Joburg, Durban, Pretoria and so on into Cape Town and its environs. But the pressure is there.
It is something the ANC never dreamed of. It has frequently suggested moving Parliament away from Cape Town, a move bound to diminish the city. For Cape Town’s rejection of the ANC has annoyed the party and little love is lost.
Yet in fact the ANC has guaranteed that the opposite will happen: far from being diminished Cape Town will become more and more central. As the full costs of the ANC control of other cities becomes clear to everyone the flight to get away from ANC control just gets stronger and stronger.