Potholed golden city faces a crisis of accountability

Livid Johannesburg residents, including the editor of this newspaper, have vented frustration with Johannesburg’s road network, which is particularly badly affected by roadworks and upgrading, as well as potholes (many made worse by increased pressure from diverted traffic as well as January’s many downpours).





What is apparent, and possibly not adequately appreciated by the City of Johannesburg, is that relatively minor maintenance issues such as potholes or failing traffic lights are far more than just an annoyance. When there are enough of them in concert, they erode confidence in municipal management, not only because residents are inconvenienced, but also because they undermine a sense of financial sustainability and forward planning.





With conflicting indications of a recent Moody’s credit rating downgrade against a clean audit from the auditor-general, is the increasing prevalence of potholes an indicator of Johannesburg’s management capacity? Few stuck in traffic in Johannesburg (which applies to just about all peak-hour commuters) would agree that the Johannesburg Roads Agency (JRA) has met its stated objectives for the year in ensuring “sound transit infrastructure (and) … a sound traffic regulatory system”.



In fact, what many motorists suspected was confirmed last week, when JRA chairman Khehla Shubane was quoted as saying that the municipal-owned entity did not have an adequate budget to repair potholes and resurface Johannesburg’s roads — a claim subsequently denied by executive mayor Amos Masondo.





To be sure, some of the inconvenience is a necessary evil where ag ing infrastructure is being replaced, fibreoptic cables laid and the bus rapid transit (BRT) network being installed, but the popular frustration lies in an apparent failure to co-ordinate this work or mend the damage within a reasonable time. This is, in part, a fiscal issue.



A JRA spokesman estimated last year that the annual cost of road maintenance would be in the region of R284m. Its total capital expenditure for 2009-10 allocation is R162,2m (intended not only for road upgrades, but also stormwater channel conversions, bridge maintenance and traffic signal installations), and its total operating expenditure equals R506,5m (earmarked for road resurfacing as well as signage and road markings). But is this enough, also considering that the JRA is responsible for tarring roads in formerly unserviced areas (which included 23km of gravel road in Ivory Park, Orange Farm, Bram Fischersville and Diepsloot in the past financial year).





In the National Treasury’s medium-term revenue and expenditure framework (MTREF) last year, it was noted that the city’s spending on repairs and maintenance was sorely lacking. While Tshwane and eThekwini both managed to allocate more than 9% of the total adopted budget for repairs and maintenance over the medium-term revenue period, the average for metros was just under 5%, and Johannesburg’s paltry 1,8% was noted with “particular concern”.





Savings on repairs and maintenance are popular with municipalities as they are usually not that apparent (until potholes appear), but myopic given the contingent liability that this poses over the long term to both infrastructure costs as well as the productivity of a municipality.





But how, then, is Johannesburg still the top-performing metro on Municipal IQ’s municipal productivity index (MPI)? Well, no matter what the perception, Johannesburg remains the country’s economic powerhouse, scoring top on the economic intelligence factor of the index. But the data on the index are retrospective, and the issue of repairs and maintenance underspending and its consequences will feed through in data in years to come, and may well ultimately pull down productivity over time, despite thriving private-sector involvement in the metro.



Another is that Johannesburg is, despite public perceptions, a top spender — with about R4283 spent per resident (between 2003 and 2009), 20% higher than the nine- city metro average of R3549, an amount made all the more remarkable given the city’s near-bankruptcy about 13 years ago.





But many critics (most vocally the Democratic Alliance opposition party in the council) argue that this expenditure has been leveraged through imprudent lending, with the city’s debt ratio one of the reasons given for its downgrading by Fitch late last year (long-term debt represents about 53% of its operating revenue). The issue then is whether the substantial items of 2010 World Cup infrastructure and stadiums, BRT systems and the like were appropriate investments, or has the city been overambitious? In fact, Moody’s December downgrade of Johannesburg’s long-term rating to Aa3.za (from Aa2.za) “reflect(s) the impact of the deteriorating liquidity position of Johannesburg and its already high level of gearing”, due to stretched liquidity and rising gearing as a result of higher infrastructure investment.





This black mark was made worse late last year by the controversial hosting of the Miss World pageant. While the city defended somewhat the importance of highlighting Johannesburg as an attractive tourism destination through the pageant, it is unclear how the R45m-R90m cost (depending on whom one believes) could trump the far more tangible service delivery needs of Johannesburg’s residents. Another policy issue, raised not only by the JRA’s poor public image, but also by the Johannesburg Tourism Company (which co-ordinated the Miss World pageant) is whether municipal-owned entities, pioneered by Johannesburg, are ideal vehicles for delivery. Certainly, the Johannesburg case has been unable to offer definitive proof that they are superior in terms of either efficiency or delivery, and this might be especially evident during recessionary times, when budgetary constraints become more contested.





While gripes about potholes and roadworks can have a decidedly middle-class twang about them (although working class taxi commuters are as badly affected), discontent with Johannesburg and its executive mayor — who is perceived to be inadequately visible on key issues — is also becoming common in poorer communities.



In fact, Johannesburg is afflicted by more service-delivery protests than any other metro, accounting for almost 12% of service- delivery protests recorded on Municipal IQ’s Hotspots Monitor between 2004 and last year.



Certainly there is a problem of inadequate communication by the City of Johannesburg with the metro often coming across as arrogant and detached. An explanation in the popular media on the need for roadworks, timelines to completion and clarity on a vision of what will be in place when work is completed, would go a long way to building commuters’ patience and support.



But there is also the far more serious issue of accountability. Does Johannesburg adequately listen to or understand residents’ needs? This is especially pertinent after the city’s ill-timed and costly financial support of the Miss World pageant coincided with a substantial bad debt write-off last year.



One thing is for sure, until more potholes are mended and traffic lights fixed, perceptions will deteriorate further.