Bumps and grime: Herman Mashaba’s aim to ‘clean up’ the inner city could have negative consequences. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES
Bumps and grime: Herman Mashaba’s aim to ‘clean up’ the inner city could have negative consequences. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES

For the first time last week, Johannesburg residents were addressed by a DA mayor on the state of their city when Herman Mashaba gave his inaugural speech.

Johannesburg is governed by a heavily contested coalition and Mashaba’s administration is in untested waters. It is vital to watch how this will play out in the lives of the city’s residents, especially the poor.

Two discernible themes emerged from the address. Mashaba speaks to pro-poor and pro-private investment measures as parallel, delinked strategies. And despite disavowing "silver bullets", he sets out quick fixes to Johannesburg’s problems.

There are some welcome suggestions among his pro-poor interventions — the long-awaited electrification of informal settlements and the financial boost to create more affordable housing in the inner city.

It is crucial, however, that this plan focuses on affordable rental accommodation for the 50% of the inner-city population who earn less than R3,200 a month.

But, largely, Mashaba’s concern about Johannesburg’s poorer residents is muddled by a bias towards the formal sector and attracting private investment to the city.

Job creation is central to his pro-poor vision. The informal sector was not mentioned at all in his address, which is puzzling, considering the considerable contribution informal employment makes to poverty-reduction in SA.

The growth-led formal-sector job creation Mashaba is after is heavily contingent on economic and political forces beyond the reach of his administration. And Johannesburg’s job focus cannot rely on formal-sector growth alone. The acknowledgement and inclusion of the livelihoods people have fashioned for themselves in the absence of meaningful formal-sector growth is at least as important.

The city’s approach has mostly been one of the bylaw-driven exclusion of informal livelihoods, and of street traders in particular. If Mashaba wants to create jobs and develop small businesses he has to take the informal sector seriously and his challenge will be to change the city’s exclusionary approach.

The city must pursue effective and inclusive urban governance and enabling regulation rather than beefing up the metro police and bylaw enforcement. The "crime and grime" Mashaba hopes to eradicate has become a standard trope in the neoliberalisation of local government and poor people are often equated with waste when it is operationalised.

In 2013, during Operation Clean Sweep, eradicating "crime and grime" through police crackdowns and bylaw enforcement had chilling consequences, with the illegal and often brutal removal of almost 8,000 street traders from their places of work.

In many cases, poor residents have been treated with contempt and disrespect by the city. If Mashaba’s administration is to live up to its "unapologetically pro-poor" standard, this has to change.

When the mayor tables his first budget later in May, residents will have a clearer understanding of the city’s vision and whether or not this change might be possible.

Early signs are not promising. The city plans to spend 35% more on beefing up the Johannesburg Metro Police Department than on the urgent task of upgrading informal settlements, for instance.

Mashaba runs the risk of repeating past mistakes and further criminalising and repressing poor residents in the pursuit of an investor-friendly Johannesburg.

The series of quick fixes he suggests will solve some of the city’s most intractable problems starts with the housing list. Mashaba says the city has completed its first reliable housing list (with only 152,000 names of the backlog of 300,000 he referred to). He suggests this list will be central to solving Johannesburg’s housing crisis. But this is a ruse.

The concept of a coherent "housing queue" has been debunked. Mashaba follows an established tradition of politicians seeking to create an impression that housing allocation is a rational process that prioritises those in the greatest need and those who have been waiting the longest.

In practice, however, the list he refers to is most often used to indefinitely appease poor people waiting for homes.

The mayor has promised to make the list public, a new approach that should be closely monitored.

Indigent registers, another tool championed by Mashaba to allocate free basic services and to allocate work in the city, are equally contentious instruments. Free basic services are aimed at households below a certain income threshold measured on completion of an application as an indigent.

Yet the poorest and most informal households are often least able to engage with onerous and opaque municipal administration systems, let alone produce evidence such as Unemployment Insurance Fund cards, bank statements, proof of income or refugee status. Indigent registers are known to underrepresent the people who can least afford to pay for municipal services.

Another quick-fix repeatedly foregrounded during Mashaba’s address is the resolution of billing problems, primarily in response to "customer needs" and as a driver for revenue-collection.

It is important to get revenue-collection right. Overcharging is rampant and cross-subsidies are necessary.

But resolving service provision challenges and constraints for all consumers should be a greater priority and a more logical entry point if Mashaba’s aim is improved relationships with residents and better revenue-collection.

His hard line on corruption has been well-received, but reducing it has less to do with forensic identification of past corruption and more to do with efficient and transparent systems to prevent it.

The systematic and routine prevention of corrupt interactions will also improve service delivery efficiency. But these systems are different from those employed to conduct forensic audits in order to identify corrupt officials.

Mashaba’s emphasis on openness, honesty and improved data management should make information such as disaggregated budgets and expenditure and performance criteria in the city’s contracts with basic services providers more readily accessible so accountability can become an evidence-based reality.

Many of the city’s bylaws are not yet aligned with social justice considerations.

If Mashaba’s administration pursues enforcement over regulatory reform and effective urban management, and ad hoc cures instead of proactive measures, it runs the risk of forgetting the "forgotten people" to whom he dedicated his inaugural address.

It will also perpetuate the exclusion of poor communities from the economic and social benefits of living in Johannesburg.

• Webster is a researcher at the Socio-Economic Rights Institute and Potter is its director of research and advocacy.

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