What a week. We moved. Talk about stress. 

The upheaval took me off social media (mainly because South African providers are so hampered by bureaucracy it takes them several days to flip a switch and put in new codes or whatever it is they do), and it took my attention away from the depressing national litany of idiocy.

My former colleague Peter Bruce, who sometimes appears to be smoking something powerful in his peaceful haven in the Western Cape, has waxed newly optimistic over the ability of our one-time boss Cyril Ramaphosa to lift the nation out of the doldrums and the clutches of the RET bunch.  I’m putting my faith in local change.

This week we marked the end of Year One of our lockdown and our entry into Year Two, with no sign of government having acquired competence in governing us through this pandemic and out the other side, or leading our municipalities out of the mire. 

At the start of the Mad Hare month of March, I suggested that the government needed, to put it bluntly, to pull finger on this Sisonke vaccination trial if it is to reach its own declared target of 500,000 people inoculated by the end of the month. I declared that I would settle in on my couch with Netflix for what was (and is) looking like a very long wait for my jab.

What I failed to mention is that I was drastically changing the location of that couch.

This week we upped sticks after 25 years in our home, took transfer of a new house and moved. Not to the Western Cape (my birthplace) or overseas (despite occasional dreams of a Portuguese pied-à-terre) or even well-managed Midvaal. We simply moved to a next-door suburb in the crumbling city of Johannesburg.

 Madness, I know.

The reasoning is this: This ‘project’ will give us something to do (those formulaic, looping Home Channel renovation shows have not gone unheeded) as well as totally new surroundings to offset the tedium of being housebound during the third wave of infection, and who knows how many other waves, as this government fumbles around. (From knowledge gained in my surfer groupie days, waves usually come in sets of three or seven).   It also helps that the new place has more space for working from home and came at a discount.

We also did it because we believe the city is salvageable if the current ruling city fathers and mothers are ousted.  (I use these descriptors knowing full well they could invoke anger from radical transgender activists, and are now verboten in some quarters.) 

The business of moving thrust me out into the world, while interacting with more people than I have in the entire year, as well as signing more pieces of paper and paying more tax than a citizen should. I also had to pay several months of rates and utilities upfront in one agonising tranche. 

No surprise then that I became hyper-conscious of the state of our suburbs and services and feel more  entitled than ever to demand a city that works for me and everyone else –  and which works better than it does currently. There’s a whole lot of under-spending, under-delivering, overcharging and looting going on. Time for some practical Thuma Mina at the ballot box. 

Our house purchasers were in search of a home that, among other things such as space and at least two bathrooms, was less likely to have its electricity rerouted by land invaders than their current one. We couldn’t guarantee that, of course, but the chances were certainly slimmer in our slice of suburb north of the city.  

Naturally, as South Africans, they also asked about crime in the area.  Thanks to the competitiveness of the burgeoning private security sector (estimated worth: around R45 billion) the constantly circling security patrols are eager and incentivised to impress and sign up new customers.

With three security guards for every policeman in the suburbs, it’s highly possible a child growing up here will never see an actual policeman paid from the public purse. 

My estate-agent spiel did not need to fudge when it came to the helpfulness of the street WhatsApp group. It is alive and alert and only occasionally spirals into hysteria or passes on a myth or meme. So far no one on it has been cancelled.

With several mosques, churches of every denomination, even a rare shul within easy reach and residents of every hue, a range of incomes and ages, our old suburban street ticks all demographic diversity boxes. It’s close to parks and schools, which is good, although there is a risk of mugging and you could lose a small dog or child in the waving grasses and weeds of all our public spaces. The walks there would be good for your health, but the unkempt pavements and a randomly dumped mattress could trip you up.

Luckily the people who became our buyers didn’t do their viewings on waste-picker sorting days when mounds of rubbish decorate every corner of this and most other suburbs within easy reach of an official recycling depot. This specific provincial and municipal “green” socialist project, supposedly drawing the informal waste-picker sector into the formal recycling strategy, hasn’t quite worked out as pristinely as planned. 

Here in our new suburb, things are still much the same as in the old. Shrieking hadedas, yapping dogs, shrill alarms. Pickers have already laid siege to our pavement skip, there are morning walkers, unmarked speed bumps, barely legible street names. Only my voting station has changed. Which means I have to be an active citizen and make the small effort it will take to re-register to vote

On our first night in our new home the lights went out without warning. But it wasn’t ‘just us’. It was the whole suburb and many others.

I can still expect bursting mains pipes to pump water down a street for days before being fixed. Streetlights at intersections on the route here will frequently blink or go out for hours on end. Driving along main thoroughfares and side roads, we will still need our unique champion-rally-driver skills to skirt potholes the size of jacuzzis and careening waste picker chariots.

Logged calls will get mysteriously cancelled, and account queries go unanswered and remain uncorrected for years. “Maintenance” will continue to be the standard excuse given for every downtime in services. Pitiful asphalt patch-ups will be the norm. And the city will look more and more like Harare. Probably much less clean.

No doubt it will all be blamed on ‘the Covid’, the previous regime and/or whites or that other hardy standby, the ‘disobedient’.  But really it is none of those. It is because the ruling party and its monomaniacal offshoots simply have not got a clue how to build, maintain or develop a modern capable city, let alone a capable state. 

How do you tell when something has crumbled too much and too far to be put back together again? 

How do you know that the latest evidence of service failure isn’t a harbinger of the imminent collapse of everything? I still don’t know the answer to that. But I do know if we don’t vote the local ruling incumbents out we haven’t much hope of making headway on the national scale.  

Johannesburg has never been perfect – it’s always been rough and tough. But in my 40-plus years in this city it has never looked this bad, been this neglected or seemed this lethargic.  

The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR

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Paddi Clay spent 40 years in journalism, as a reporter and consultant, manager, editor and trainer in radio, print and online. She was a correspondent for foreign networks during the 80s and 90s and, more recently, a judge on the Alan Paton Book Awards. She has an MA in Digital Journalism Leadership and received the Vodacom National Columnist award in 2007. Now retired she feels she has earned the right to indulge in her hobbies of politics, history, the arts, popular culture and good food. She values curiosity, humour, and freedom of speech, opinion and choice.