Joburg is dying

Gareth van Onselen writes that the city's condition is terminal

The further decline and fall of Johannesburg

By any formal reckoning Johannesburg is in deep trouble. All the city’s utilities tell us that on a weekly basis. But informally, the transition from city to urban slum is far more advanced.

There is planned load-shedding and there are unplanned outages. They match each other in frequency. There are planned water restrictions and there are unplanned  cuts. From a consumer perspective, they are indistinguishable. And all of them are now a permanent part of life in Johannesburg.

You could map Johannesburg’s decay, using official numbers and statistics - debt, maintenance backlogs, inner city investment. They paint a depressing  picture. Off the record and between the lines, there are no numbers. They are too big. But they are the city’s real condition.

You can no longer properly quantify the degradation. It has spiralled past the point of control. Managing the city is no longer an exercise in damage control, so much as it is an exercise in uncontrolled damage. Age and disrepair means the city’s infrastructure has turned in on itself - the more it is fixed, the more it breaks.

Take load-shedding. Cut the electricity and fuses blow, sub-stations explode and cell phone reception dies. The skeleton that underpins the city is so malnourished, so weak and fragile, suspend the blood supply for moment and any number of bones break and supporting tissue tears. 

It’s all linked. Turn off the electricity, the generators that power reservoirs break. Water stops flowing, long after then lights are back on. It is a vicious spiral. The city is now trapped in it. And it’s not spiralling up.

All the while, residents are asked to “play their part”. To watch consumption or, as Rand water put it this week, the system might “collapse”. It’s a kind of polite blackmail. But with a blackmailer who never keeps up their end of the bargain. The more citizens play their part, the worse things seems to get.

There are so many potholes now - a great number on the main suburban arteries - so deep and dangerous, that you cannot drive over them. On occasion they are “repaired”. Someone dumps a load of tar in them and smooths it over. But it’s too little, too late. You need to break up a large section of road to properly kill these monsters. Two weeks later and the pothole is back, bigger and stronger.

There is no money. For anything. Measure the city against its true debt and it is not just bankrupt but beyond redemption. There is no sum of money that could fix all of this in 50 years. The cost grows to outstrip income two to one on any given day. The city’s roads are illusions, and they are fading away.

At night Johannesburg goes dark. Street lights don’t work, or are kept off to save electricity. If it rains, the city turns into a series of tributaries, as blocked or broken drains overflow and the roads become rivers. The torrents sweep away more infrastructure with them. Those pothole monsters use the opportunity to attack. Welled up with water they look like an innocent puddle.

There are many things you take for granted in a city. Greenery for example. Johannesburg once touted itself as one of the most treed cities in the world. Today the trees are dying. Drive past and tree after tree is marked with white cross. They are infected with the polyphagous shot hole borer beetle. They too are illusions, not long for this world. 

It’s the perfect metaphor perhaps, for Johannesburg. The whole city is sick. Many of the sicknesses - incompetence, greed, corruption - you can see everywhere. It’s rotten to the core, and there is no sign of new life, on any front. When was the last time you saw the city plant a new tree? 

Pavements now have been effectively relinquished as public property. Should someone not care enough to maintain their own pavement, they are over grown with weeds and rubbish. It is unlikely the city even has a staff component dedicated to mowing or maintaining pavements. They have been abandoned wholesale.

These things all come together. Any given road is itself falling apart but simultaneously framed by some wild, unconstrained jungle. Above, holding out as best they can, a thousand trees, all in the ICU. And on the roads are the wretched and the broken. Beggars, pleading for something, anything. They seem worse off than the stray cats and dogs, who increasingly populate the urban bushveld.

Roads in Johannesburg are gateways to the future. You can only travel towards it, and it is not a terminus you ever want to reach.

There are a myriad other metaphors for decline - the filth, broken windows and robots, the faint street markings, random yellow traffic beacons, sealing off some massive hole, where something was once half dug up - a pipe or a cable - and is now just forgotten. These monuments to half-arsed maintenance are omni-present. They are the new trees.

Johannesburg is terminal.

Even those places where death is actually formalised - public cemeteries - ideally a safe haven of beauty, the disintegration is all around. The dead are laid to rest in some sordid, ruinous field, surrounded not by the best this world has to offer, but the worst: a callous disregard for even the sacred.

Joburgers can sense it. And they are piling in. Anything metal is stolen. Manhole covers, house numbers, cables, road signs, railings. It’s every person for themselves, and the city last. There is no pride in Johannesburg because there is nothing to be proud of. Best to secure the family crockery, before the family breaks that too. Besides, who is going to stop you?

Rubbish is collected. Sometimes it is not. Rarely is there ever a meaningful stretch of time when it is collected on time. When it isn’t, it is by then scattered far and wide, as even it is looted.

This past week the Athol Fugard theatre closed down in Cape Town, another victim of the Covid-19 pandemic. There are a few loyalists who will miss it. Most people won’t even notice. In Johannesburg there is precious little left to close on that front. Theatres, like libraries or museums, are a luxury Johannesburg cannot afford, literally and figuratively. People don’t come to Johannesburg for the culture. Hard to remember when they did.

Those places people meet and pass each other by – train stations, bus stops, bridges, public swimming pools and parks – are falling apart. You do not meet there, as you might in a functioning, healthy city, but you get away from them, as fast as you can. If only because the place itself is so unpleasant, so neglected and dirty. Stay and you can almost see things fall apart. You can watch the paint peel, or a wall crumble. It happens in real time.

Everything is inverted. Police stations feel unsafe. The department of public works breaks. You are billed for non-delivery. The city centre is on the outskirts. Public hospitals are more likely to harm than heal you.

Sickness is not just a metaphor, but a real problem. Covid-19 and the response to it, has exacerbated Johannesburg’s decline. It has killed not just people but business. With business, employment. If Johannesburg was desperate before, it is now feral. That raging, unconstrained distress has yet to take its final form. There is no prospect of a better tomorrow and so things will get far uglier before they get better.

Already people are turning on the police, when they aren’t turning on schools and clinics, hospitals or trains. The police are the last line between chaos and order, you see? Break through that, and it is a free for all.

What is Johannesburg today? Technically you could argue it is a city. But only technically. In truth, it is just an idea. On the ground, in its homes and businesses, its parks and shops, it is a battle ground, where you fight to keep up the pretence of order, in the face of an ever-encroaching entropy that has taken on a life of its own. Ultimately there will only be one winner.