SHIRLEY DE VILLIERS: Joburg’s budget a ‘white spiritual boy trust’ moment for deluded officials
The financial plan for SA’s economic capital sums up everything that’s wrong with the government: pie-in-the-sky ambitions, while entirely ignoring the very basics of administration
I have a pile of bricks on the pavement outside my house. It’s been there for two weeks now, an urban cairn marking the inefficiency of the City of Joburg. Here lies service delivery, RIP.
Contemplating the hole in my driveway is, admittedly, a welcome reprieve from watching an endless stream of water run straight into the gutter. It took 15 days, almost as many phone calls (great thanks to the awfully polite but fundamentally hog-tied call centre) and multiple escalations before Joburg Water fixed my leaking meter.
Of course, the unit that puts pavements back together apparently only works on Fridays and Saturdays – which means that if they don’t come this weekend, the entire water meter issue will have become a six-week exercise in hair-tearing frustration. Assuming they come next weekend.
I have nightmares about the billing issue that will ensue.
So you’ll excuse my scepticism at Joburg’s 2021/2022 budget, tabled by finance MMC Jolidee Matongo on Tuesday.
It is, unsurprisingly in an election year, a “service delivery budget”. And, you’ll be pleased to know, we ratepayers will be almost entirely responsible for footing the bill for this much-vaunted service.
While property taxes will increase just 2% (against 4% last year), water and sanitation are up 6.8% each (previously 6.6%) and refuse collection is up 4.3% (against 5.2%). Electricity will bleed us an additional 14.59% (6.2% in the previous financial year) – but we should count ourselves lucky: the city could be billing us the full 15.09% allowed by the energy regulator.
Just by-the-by: the Bureau for Economic Research expects inflation to average 3.9% for 2021, and 4.2% for 2022.
One can’t help but feel a little fleeced. After all, the city’s 2019/2020 audited financial statements show that Joburg residents paid R12.5bn (21% of the city’s annual income) in property rates, and R29.9bn (51%) for services such as electricity, water and refuse removal.
At R15.6bn, electricity alone accounted for almost a third of the metro’s income.
Then you look at what the city paid for its bulk purchases of services: R17.7bn, of which R11.6bn was for electricity. That’s R15.6bn income off a cost of R11.6bn. Nice work if you can get it. Of course, you need to factor in upkeep, maintenance and the like. But the difference remains quite astounding.
So when Matongo says things like: “The current operational and capital budget’s funding model is based on the continued and sustained generation of surpluses through trading services that are primarily water and electricity”, you really do feel like you’re the drone in the tale – with very little upside.
If money were no object ...
There are the delightful extras in the budget too: R45m, for example, to re-establish the Joburg Tourism Company. It’s a nice thought – if money were no object. But, really, what’s the tagline? Come for the potholes, stay for the water-outages?
It’s a hospital pass if ever there were one. And it’s particularly galling given where else that money could go. The sole nod to gender-based violence in the entire budget, for example, seems to be R1.5m (to set up a shelter in Orange Farm).
Then there’s the fact that the city is going to give permanent employment to 10 people in each of the city’s 135 wards to “identify service delivery failures in the wards”. So 1,350 people – on permanent employment – will tell the city what its hapless call centre agents could? Or Twitter? And what of the 135 ward councillors?
It’s heartening to see that the city is setting aside funds for fire-engine procurement (the city has anywhere between four and 11 fire engines in service for 30 fire stations). But we’ve only just unravelled the procurement irregularities from the last effort to bulk out the fleet (it’s worth reading Daily Maverick’s Greg Nicholson on that here). So I, for one, am not hopeful.
Taking a leaf from the president’s book, Joburg is also banging the “smart city” drum (R50m). And there’s a plan for an “online electronic bill presentation portal” – “to ensure billing queries and the nondelivery of statements is dealt with efficiently”.
There’s aspiration, and then there’s White Spiritual Boy Trust-level pie in the sky. The city seems to be aiming for the latter.
It’s not all bad news
Don’t get me wrong – there’s a lot about the budget that I think is worthwhile. The fact that R110m will be used to set up 100 Wi-Fi hotspots in the city is, for example, a big step forward for inclusion.
There’s also a strong emphasis on housing: R1.4bn over three years to formalise some of the city’s informal settlements; R295m to upgrade hostels; R90m to provide serviced stands; R102m to upgrade the abysmal living conditions of the elderly.
It’s also great that the city has set up additional rebates for the elderly, and a debt-relief programme, given the ravages of Covid. But that’s for those who are three months in arrears. Those who dutifully pay their bills every month get nothing. Yet they’re holding the ship together – and then some.
On that count, Matongo was pretty glib: “We take note of this concern and we have already asked the revenue team to bring forth proposals in this regard.”
I wouldn’t hold my breath.
It’s the R650m project to electrify informal settlements, I think, that best sums up my response to the budget: fatigue. I used to think that putting shacks on the grid was a governance cop-out – an admission of abject failure in resolving SA’s housing crisis. And it is. But now it seems like the only realistic course of action.
We’ve become so inured to the failings of governance that we find workarounds. And then a budget like this comes along – short on detail, but big on ideas – and we’re reminded what a working city should look like. But also, of how little we’re getting for what we put in.
De Villiers is the features editor of the FM
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