Joburg: Fresh air is the real revolution

John Kane-Berman says mayor Herman Mashaba's back-to-basics approach is almost revolutionary

Fresh air is the real revolution

While Durban prepares to squander billions on the 2022 Commonwealth Games, the new mayor of Johannesburg, Herman Mashaba, has denounced the "vanity projects" so beloved of the previous administration of the city. His speech at the beginning of this month marking the first 100 days of his term of office was a breath of fresh air. It also showed intellectual leadership.

No mention of race or sex, no attempt to blame the city's ills on colonialism and apartheid or on Jan van Riebeeck. No trotting out of the National Development Plan (NDP), no calling for the supposed panacea of a new "social compact", no vague promises of "structural reform" to appease credit ratings agencies. No obsession with "inequality", no promises to speed up "transformation" or enforce "empowerment".

No deference, in short, to any of the politically correct ideas and nostrums that have become so prevalent in South African political discourse, and to which others in Mr Mashaba's own party, the Democratic Alliance (DA), too often kowtow.

Out goes the claim to be a "world class African city" and in comes a commitment to "getting the basics right". These include combating nepotism, fraud, lawlessness, corruption, and "outright shameless looting". They also include introducing a transparent housing waiting-list, roping in the private sector to provide "massive" rental accommodation, creating a professional civil service, decentralising the delivery of services to the city's seven regional structures, and establishing municipal courts.

This is all pretty mundane stuff. But for Johannesburg after 22 years of rule by the African National Congress (ANC) it is almost revolutionary. This is the city which could spend R250 million on bicycle lanes, R153 million on mushroom farms and solar-powered bakeries, R340 million on a new "state-of-the-art" council chamber, R153 million on self- promoting advertising, and R193 million on travel. But it could not prevent the loss of water to the value of R850 million in leaks last year, let alone issue title deeds to all those entitled to them. Nor could it find the money for an additional 1 500 metropolitan police officers.

Also revolutionary in relation to ANC policy is Mr Mashaba's statement that "employment is the great liberator of our people out of poverty". People with jobs could improve their own lives far more effectively than the government could do it for them. Reducing unemployment in Johannesburg from its current 30% to under 20% by 2021 necessitated growth of at least 5%, with the rejuvenation of the inner city as key to "kick-starting" that growth. He said that the private sector could easily pour R20 billion a year into the inner city and turn it into a construction site "within a matter of months".  

The NDP also says growth of at least 5% is necessary to bring down unemployment. But Mr Mashaba recognises that achieving this means opening doors to investors instead of "putting obstacles in their way". This too flies in the face of the current thrust of national policy, which is to impose more and more restrictions on the private sector even as the government pays half-hearted lip service to the need to do the opposite.  

According to Mr Mashaba, there are over 180 "informal settlements "in the city, more than half of which have "no basic services at all". Also living in "appalling conditions" are most of the 115 000 people illegally occupying buildings in the city centre. Courts have ordered that these illegal occupants may be removed only if emergency housing is provided for them - which Mr Mashaba says is unfair to people who have "waited patiently on our housing lists since 1996".

Dealing with illegal occupation of property is only one of the problems of illegality Mr Mashaba will face. He also plans to reclaim the inner city from "criminals and slumlords". "Getting these basics right" is more important than claiming to be "world class". And it can be done without obsessing about race.

* John Kane-Berman is a policy fellow at the IRR, a think-tank that promotes political and economic freedom.