LAEL BETHLEHEM: Joburg needs a mayor who can tackle these 12 pressing tasks
Johannesburg urgently needs a new leader — not just a mayor in title but a person who is deeply committed to the city and its residents. We have not had that for a long time.
The incoming mayor will probably have fractured political support, which might constrain their agenda. Let us hope whoever it is has the vision, wisdom and stamina required to govern in difficult times.
Running a city as large and complex as Johannesburg is difficult. It is one of the most demanding jobs in the country, inside or outside the public sector. The demands on the mayor’s attention, and on the city’s budget, are almost infinite.
The range of responsibilities is very wide. This job requires a level of expertise and attention to detail that exceeds the demands of many cabinet positions.
Some recent mayors have been distracted by personal interests. Others were more interested in superficial statements than in the long slog of actually governing Johannesburg.
The new mayor needs focus. The following ideas need urgent action:
- Procure independent, renewable power. City Power buys almost all of its energy from Eskom and pays high prices for unreliable, carbon-intensive electricity. Cities now have the option of procuring directly from independent suppliers. What are we waiting for?
- Put all residential electricity users on prepaid meters. There is no reason to sell electricity to any residential user on credit. Smart meters have been installed in almost every home and these facilitate prepaid systems, which are easily available. Putting all residential users on prepaid systems would save the city a fortune in billing, allow the users to control their costs and remove the risk of incorrect billing.
- Invest heavily in water pipes, substations and transmission lines. Every department and entity is looking for capital budget all of the time, and the pot is small. The priority for the next five years should be replacing ageing water pipes, rebuilding the oldest electricity substations and replacing transmission lines. And this must be done efficiently and without corruption.
- Plan for a loss of electricity revenue. As people move off the grid, the city’s electricity revenue will reduce. Fixed charges will have to increase, as will rates. This should be done carefully and with a clear plan.
- Fix the billing system. The problems of the billing system are legendary but not that difficult to fix. A proper solution involves reducing the number of electricity tariffs (there is a dizzying array, causing endless difficulty), linking all properties to a bill (still not done) and integrating properly with Joburg Water and City Power. It requires a clear plan and ongoing attention to detail. No portal or quick announcement will solve this.
- Build flats and townhouses in townships but concentrate on areas closer to town. In the long term we need to change the shape of Johannesburg. We cannot afford to keep spreading out, with so many people living on the physical periphery. We need to build medium-density housing in townships that are closer to the centre than others, and build the social amenities required to support them.
- Claim the inner city. The CBD is the best and worst of the city. There is much to celebrate, especially the affordable rental accommodation that offers decent housing to hundreds of thousands of people. It is ripe for a proper partnership between the city and the private sector. With the right attention, this is a major opportunity to build an inclusive city. Investment is needed in taxi ranks, city offices, parks and recreation centres.
- Expand the Rea Vaya and the Gautrain, and pressure Prasa to offer decent train services. Given the shape of the city, the future of Johannesburg is so much about transport. We need a decent passenger train service, we need to expand Rea Vaya and we need Gautrain to go to Soweto. If Gautrain could add just one more stop, moving south from Park Station to Nasrec, thousands of Soweto and Lenasia residents could catch the train at Nasrec and commute north with ease.
- A city without emergency services is not a city. The basis of civility is that we help each other in the hour of need. If we cannot run a vaguely competent ambulance and fire service we cannot call ourselves a city. Right now we don’t have either.
- Fix the Rissik Street post office. This is one of Joburg’s great landmarks, but it was partially destroyed in a fire in 2009, largely due to Joburg Property Company negligence. Over a decade has passed and nothing has been done. This beautiful building should be a source of pride and renewal instead of decay and neglect. If we can rebuild the post office we might have a reason to believe in our city again.
- Appoint a competent top team and drive their progress. Members of the mayoral committee and heads of department are crucial, but none is more important than the city manager and the CFO. With the mayor, they need to drive progress relentlessly, solve myriad problems, absorb political pressure and keep the city solvent. The mayor needs to focus on these appointments like a hawk.
- Root out corruption consistently, daily. Corruption is a serious problem in many parts of the city’s administration. Rooting it out requires determination, courage, engagement with detail and a willingness to fire corrupt staff and politicians even if they are from your own political party or your alliance partner. Failure on this means failure on everything else too.
Johannesburg is an important city on a global scale. Now we need an excellent mayor to take the reins.
• Bethlehem is an investment executive at Hosken Consolidated Investments, where she focuses on renewable energy, inner-city housing and commercial property. A former director of economic development at the City of Johannesburg, chair of City Power, CEO of the Johannesburg Development Agency and chief director of forestry in the department of water affairs & forestry, she is now a member of the boards of the Industrial Development Corporation and Sedibelo Platinum. She writes in her personal capacity.
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