Joburg’s inner city: what the hell happened?


Joburg’s inner city: what the hell happened?

Lael Bethlehem knows Jozi from the inside out. Not only did she once head the metro's economics portfolio, but she is also a former CEO of the Johannesburg Development Agency. She has a deep love for the inner city. ANNELIESE BURGESS asks her what the hell is going on in Jozi. And can it come back from the brink?


IN the five years that Lael Bethlehem was the CEO of the Johannesburg Development Agency, the Nelson Mandela Bridge went up. Mary Fitzgerald Square was refurbished. The Newtown precinct came into being. The Rea Vaya rapid bus system was built. It was a time of enormous energy, and Joburg was infused with a sense of possibility and progress. The old city was finding a new groove. It was a great time to live there.

Eighteen years later, Jozi is a dump. Neglected. Broken. Wounded. 

The devastating fire three weeks ago that saw 77 people die in a city-owned building that had been abandoned to slumlords was maybe the starkest and most horrifying symbol of the city's profoundly broken administration.

But nothing could be more symbolic of the city's crisis than the faulty transformers that started a fire in the Joburg Metro Centre this week, leading to the building being shut down and alternative accommodation being sought for 48,000 staff. When the heart of the city's emergency, planning and administration services is deemed too dangerous for human habitation, a governance crisis has come full circle.

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Inner city

Bethlehem stops short of using the word collapse when I ask her about the state of the city.

“I think there is an extraordinary amount of neglect going on. And there is a tremendous backlog regarding the maintenance of old infrastructure and investment in new infrastructure. The whole city is struggling, but the inner city, in particular, is struggling.

“There are two reasons for this. The inner city's infrastructure is the oldest, and a lot of the infrastructure was built 60, 70 and 80 years ago. And it has not been renewed. Secondly, it's the densest part of Johannesburg by a long way. It's probably more densely populated than it was designed for and should be getting additional investment and maintenance but is getting less."

Bethlehem pauses for a moment then says there is an additional reason. “I think many city entities are afraid to work in the inner city or prefer working in easier areas."

(Let that sink in. Parts of the city are so ungovernable that the local government has given up on governing there.)

Disasters waiting to happen

When Bethlehem conducts services at Temple Israel in Hillbrow, she often ponders the densely populated high-rises surrounding the beautiful old Art Deco synagogue.

“I look up at these big, big buildings," Bethlehem says. “With hundreds, sometimes thousands of people living in them. And they are not maintained. There are no body corporates. They are completely unmanaged. You can't have thousands of people living in a completely unmaintained building. Things are going to happen. One day, one of these buildings is going to collapse. The gas explosion in Bree Stree and the fire in Albert Street are two disasters. Many other disasters are waiting to happen."

Then and now

“The city centre enjoyed a revival from the early 2000s to about 2015 when the city’s leadership showed real commitment to the regeneration," says Bethlehem.

“Mayor Amos Masondo had six priorities for the city, one of which was the inner city's regeneration. And there was a lot of affection for the inner city. It was seen, also by the political heads, as something important and symbolic, not just as a problem.

“When I was there, there was an upgrade of Hillbrow and Berea. We built the Rea Vaya system. We upgraded many parks, libraries, community halls and other public environments. We had a wonderful public art programme which brought a lot of interest and vibrancy to the inner city. There was so much goodwill.

“But when Masondo left, the city’s leadership seemed to lose interest in the CBD. In the minds of many public leaders, the inner city became associated with foreign nationals, which is xenophobic but also untrue."

Cities are complex

A long and low smoulder of deteriorating governance has brought the city to this new crisis point.

“The instability and political chaos of the past few years have been very destructive," says Bethlehem. “The city’s elected leaders seem to care more about the short-term success of their coalitions than they do about the city's fate. Like any organisation, poor governance leads to a downward spiral."

She says even the best-resourced and most efficiently run cities are difficult to govern.

“Cities are complex. And running one as large and complex as Johannesburg is one of the most demanding jobs in the country, inside or outside the public sector. It requires expertise and attention to detail that exceeds the demands of many cabinet positions.

“If you are a cabinet minister, you deal with one area. But if you're dealing with a city like Johannesburg, you're dealing with myriad issues. There are lots of areas of specialisation. You must know about electricity, how it is generated and how it is transmitted. You have to know about water. You have to know about sewerage. You have to be able to direct people in terms of an extensive billing system with a vast metering system behind it. And you are providing all manner of services. It's a hell of a complex environment.

“Even if we had fantastic city government in Johannesburg, it would still be a tough job. Solving something like hijacked buildings would still be a tough thing to solve. And we don't have the best, most dedicated, most skilled, most committed city government. Quite the opposite." 

Migration & housing

Johannesburg is a magnet for thousands of people from rural South Africa and outside our borders.

“I think the challenging thing about this kind of migration is that it puts tremendous pressure on housing, particularly very cheap accommodation. Not all migrants are penniless, and not all migrants are survivalists," says Bethlehem. 

“One of the things that has gone right in the inner city over the past 20 years is the growth of a very substantial affordable housing industry. Private entrepreneurs bought up old buildings, generally old office buildings, and converted them to residential buildings. You've got lots of people investing in affordable housing, small players, black players, more prominent players, people who've been doing this for 20 years, newer players, corporate, listed, you name it. Billions of rands have gone into inner-city affordable housing. And it works remarkably well. It's one of those things where the market has provided a partial solution. 

“Many of the clients of affordable housing buildings are foreign nationals. I don't want to exaggerate that because more than half are South Africans, but the point is that not every foreign national or migrant from the Eastern Cape can't pay. The problem is that existing affordable housing units tend to start at around R3,500, and the options for people who can afford to pay maybe R800 or R1,000 are not there. Some companies do buildings with rooms, but it is a very difficult kind of building to run, so there are very few of them.

“And so what happens is these people end up paying money to slumlords because no one else provides accommodation at that price. And once you have that problem, it is a complicated problem to solve," says Bethlehem of the hundreds of hijacked buildings in the Johannesburg inner city.

It is one of the first issues that must be addressed if Joburg is to have any chance of arresting its slide into further chaos.

“The best way to address this is for the city to take over the building, offer temporary alternative accommodation to the occupants as the courts have directed, then offer the buildings to private companies to renovate. The city used to do exactly this, and it worked. It was called the Better Buildings Programme but was discontinued under mayor Parks Tau. This way of dealing with hijacked buildings is not an easy process and it requires skilled management, but it can be done and it must be done." 


Bethlehem says the bottom line is “running Joburg better".

In a recent article in Business Day, she outlined several key initiatives that need to be implemented urgently if Joburg is to arrest its decline.

Apart from dealing with hijacked buildings and providing for the needs of the large indigent and homeless population (she suggests a good start would be to create public shower and toilet facilities in the CBD and the informal settlements), and Joburg Water repairing blocked and collapsed sewerage lines and water mains, she highlights the absolute necessity of fixing electricity infrastructure.

“We need a seven to 10-year programme to rebuild our electrical substations, starting with the oldest and most vulnerable. We also need an ongoing programme to protect cables and other key transmission infrastructure. Priority should be given to the inner-city substations, which are the oldest, most densely used and most vulnerable."

And transport infrastructure:

“The taxi industry is the city's lifeblood, yet successive democratically elected administrations of Johannesburg have paid little attention to its needs. We need larger taxi ranks that are safe and secure for women, and we need to fix and manage key taxi routes such as Bree Street. We must look at how taxis operate, especially in the inner city, and invest in expanding the ranks and managing the routes. The city needs to work with the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa to fix the train service between Soweto and the CBD. In addition to this, the Rea Vaya system should be completed. It works well between Johannesburg and Soweto. The CBD-Alexandra route needs to be completed and made operational."

The future

She says Joburg is ripe for a proper partnership between the city and the private sector.

“At the national level, the chief executives of more than 115 companies have agreed to use their resources and expertise to help the government address South Africa’s most urgent problems. It may be possible to do the same in Johannesburg. There are already some initiatives under way in this regard. Still, we need the city to embrace them and work with business; you have to subject yourself to accountability and take on corruption.

“But there’s still a great love for Johannesburg, and there are many people with extraordinary skills and commitment who, with the right will and organisation, can take our city back from the brink. It's such an important city for South Africa and for the continent. We've got to try to do something."

♦ VWB ♦

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