Posted on April 4, 2024

Once Africa’s World-Class City, Johannesburg Is Decaying Before Residents’ Eyes

Peta Thornycroft, The Telegraph, March 30, 2024

From the outside, Johannesburg does not look like it is doing well.

Roads littered with potholes. Broken traffic lights not repaired for months. Rotting rubbish in the streets.

But from the inside, the scale of the problems facing the biggest city in South Africa and the richest and most industrialised in the continent is even worse.

From taps regularly running dry to daily four-hour power cuts – known locally as load shedding – life for many people in Jo’burg has declined dramatically.

The decline of southern suburb Forest Hills is a case in point.

Previously dominated by poorer white people, in recent decades it has become more mixed as black people sought to move out of the city’s apartheid-era townships.

“Although never wealthy, things used to at least work [around here],” Stuart Marais, a longtime resident and local city councillor, told The Telegraph.

“Traffic signals are regularly vandalised and are not repaired in under six to eight months. Grass is growing into our roads which haven’t been fixed for decades,” said the 63-year-old.

“Broken cars lie around and many residents put their rubbish out onto the streets and it lies there rotting.”

It was “far too dangerous” to walk around at night, he said. “The decay in this part of Johannesburg is massive.”

Mr Marais says the blame lies squarely with the municipality, where the African National Congress hold the most seats.

He said support for his party, the Democratic Alliance – the ANC’s main opposition – has “definitely been growing in Johannesburg” since the last national elections in 2019, something he attributed at least in part to the dire state of the city.

Coupled with anger over long-standing corruption, poverty and unemployment, such grievances with the ANC are set to have a seismic effect on the country’s political landscape when the country goes to the polls again on May 29.

Surveys indicate the party will lose its majority for the first time since the late Nelson Mandela brought it to power in 1994 following the collapse of apartheid.

If that happens, it will be a huge moment for South Africa.

Although the ANC would easily still be the biggest in parliament, it would be a hugely symbolic shift that speaks to the level of frustration with a party that was supposed to have lifted South Africa’s black majority out of poverty.

The woes facing most of Johannesburg’s nearly six million residents show just how badly the party is failing.

The city is the engine for South Africa’s economy, with luxury shops, world-class sports arenas, an international airport and first-class hospitals. In 2000, it was described as “a world-class African city”.

Yet the legacy of apartheid is still there.

Legacy of apartheid

There has been lots of work to improve Soweto, the biggest black township in South Africa, but mainly black areas in the east of Johannesburg are still all but neglected.

Outside the townships, there has been an explosion of informal shelters in the centre of  “old” Johannesburg where illegal immigrants live in crowded, filthy conditions with no running water or official electricity supplies.

Parts of the city have become no-go areas and deadly accidents are common. Last year, a fire broke out inside a building being squatted in, killing at least 77 people.

Even in ordinary middle-class neighbourhoods, public areas are shabby, pavements are falling apart and some storm drains have trees growing out of them.

“We are concerned the anger and frustration of residents will give way to violent protests unless something is done now,” said Neeshan Balton, who chairs the Johannesburg Crisis Alliance.

The alliance was formed last year to try to fix some of the issues facing the city.

It is made up of local residents, including infrastructure experts and business owners, who say the situation is so desperate that they will offer their services for free.

“We wrote to President Cyril Ramaphosa last year and told him that residents, workers and businesses were confronted with potholed streets, leaking water pipes, overflowing sewers, malfunctioning traffic lights and lawlessness,” he said.

“We also told him that daily electricity cuts were leaving businesses idle for hours, disrupting daily life and forcing residents to rely on ingenuity to navigate the chaos. This is still going on now, nothing has changed.”

But Mr Balton said Africa’s richest city was plagued by “massive” disinvestment which aggravated unemployment and rendered the streets unsafe.

The “dysfunction in the city is rooted in unstable political coalitions within the municipalities and neglected maintenance.“

Mr Ramaphosa has not yet replied to the organisation’s letter, he said, “but we are going ahead and we are making some difference, at least in some areas of the city”.

The magnitude of the problems facing Johannesburg has been highlighted recently by water shortages affecting both rich and poor parts of the city.

Every day at least a quarter of Johannesburg’s supply is lost through leaks, according to reports.

The sprawling city has more than 7,000 miles of underground water pipes, some more than 70 years old, and the majority need replacing. Only a third of the annual pipe replacement target is met.

Including water theft and a free monthly allowance of 6,000 litres for every household, only about half of the city’s supply is actually paid for.

Ferrial Adam, a prominent environmental activist, said this meant there was a massive shortage of funds available for maintenance of infrastructure.

“More than half of the budget goes to contractors, and another third to staff, and only a little to actual maintenance, and some of that has been mismanaged.

“We didn’t do sufficient maintenance for the last 10 years and now so much is falling apart.”