Mashaba’s promises and plans may clash with Johannesburg’s realities

UNTIL August elections local government was run in a largely technocratic way focusing on ensuring service delivery and sustainability within legislated structures and systems. Political priorities and focus areas were articulated through integrated development plans and budgets but institutional models were fairly standard.

The exception was Johannesburg which after facing bankruptcy almost 20 years ago was remodelled into a series of corporatised utility agencies.

With avowed free-marketeer Herman Mashaba now the city’s mayor it will be interesting to see whether this model can or will be used to design a new way for metros to operate. Mashaba articulated several objectives for his term including functioning traffic lights; cleaner government; the provision of title deeds to city-owned houses; job creation; and outsourcing refuse removal with Pikitup to be broken up into seven parts.

Some of these are more doable than others. Working traffic lights can be delivered with focused intervention by the Johannesburg Roads Agency but may take longer than Mashaba hopes given the challenges of load-shedding cable theft and budget limitations.

Tackling corruption is an issue of political will. Mashaba may launch several probes. The Johannesburg ombudsman can provide a starting place for finding areas of citizen concern but investigations should not become political witch-hunts that infuse institutional instability into Johannesburg’s administration.

Job creation will be a major challenge. Mashaba may find that promises made extrapolating from employment rates in the Western Cape may not be transferable to Gauteng given its different education base and other structural constraints. He may therefore choose to rely on his plans to outsource employment opportunities to entrepreneurs but this is likely to face significant opposition especially from the South African Municipal Workers Union (Samwu). His biggest challenge will be trying to restructure Pikitup into smaller more efficient entities. The major hurdles will be Samwu’s opposition and ensuring the council’s support.

It will be interesting to see how Mashaba and Samwu manage each other at the negotiating table. The city may face strike action as the previous administration did.

Despite supporting Mashaba’s election the EFF expressed concern about his commitment to the poor. With 30 seats in Johannesburg’s council the party’s support will be imperative for any structural changes and Mashaba will need to demonstrate that his plans will benefit the poor.

Ironically this may be easier than one may think. Mashaba’s desire to transfer ownership of housing (a free market principle to provide collateral) sits comfortably with the EFF’s desire for land restitution. The packaging and detail of any programme will need to find such meeting points for it to muster sufficient council support and this will hinge on the level of engagement by EFF councillors in particular. More than anything else a level of pragmatism will be required of Mashaba as he tries to balance what he has promised against what he can deliver. This is the somewhat depressing reality and grave responsibility faced by all who move from opposition to taking power. Pikitup for example could do with changes at the top to improve governance and increase efficiency. But would it be prudent to dismantle the entire company into smaller entities each with their own very expensive capital assets and governing structures?

The new mayor should be given the benefit of the doubt. After announcing his mayoral committee Mashaba urged: "Before I make any real commitment give me time to understand the finances of the city." It would be unfair to give him less than 100 days to find his feet.

But there is little doubt that he will need to carefully consider the feasibility of some of his ideological commitments before trying to load Local Government 2.0.