Downtown Johannesburg is fast becoming a new type of hell where criminal gangs run buildings and disasters strike.

Within two months this year, one of the major thoroughfares, Bree Street, was torn apart by an underground explosion, and a massive fire took 76 lives in a condemned building hijacked by thugs. 

Bree Street remains an open sore two months later. In most major world cities, the street would have been repaired weeks ago. But our city does not have the skills to carry out a decent and quick repair. In the meantime, many tenants in buildings on Bree Street have had to leave their homes.

What is so extraordinary about the fire is the sheer scale of the tragedy, and that the building is owned by the City of Johannesburg. The building was condemned but fell into the hands of criminals who then rented it out. And then officials from the city failed to reclaim it and evict the tenants on account of unsafe conditions. If there is an official open inquiry into the tragedy, as there should be, we would certainly want to hear the story of how the criminals were able to take over a municipal building and rent it out, and were not stopped from doing so.

A local government with its considerable powers of inspection and enforcement had its own property stolen. It is pretty pathetic that the city has come to this, and no one is in place to take ownership and responsibility.

There might be more tragedies in the offing due to the wretched, overcrowded, and unsafe conditions in hijacked downtown buildings. The Johannesburg Property Owners’ Association, a body which represents the owners and developers of downtown blocks of flats, says that there are 57 hijacked buildings in the city. Of those hijacked buildings, 29, or more than half, belong to the City.

Big money

Angela Rivers, the General Manager of JPOA, says the hijackers of buildings can make big money by renting out the properties they control. Her association estimates that there were about 300 families in the Usindiso building at 80 Albert Street that burned down last week. The hijackers were renting out space at around R1 000 a month per family, which means they made around R3.6 million a year. The criminals had minimal costs, as they did not pay for water and electricity and are unlikely to have paid taxes. That provides a good incentive for criminals to take over buildings.

Rivers points out that well-managed buildings with good security do not get hijacked. It is when owners are negligent and do not maintain their properties that the criminal syndicates move into the property. The criminals also sometimes manage to secure a property transfer through fraud in the deeds office, by paying bribes.

The ANC bosses who rushed to 80 Albert Street were quick to blame NGO lawyers for protecting the rights of the tenants who were illegally in the building, and the apartheid housing legacy. At least President Cyril Ramaphosa said it was a wake-up call to enforce building codes. It is municipalities who are responsible for that, but the local municipality was not even mentioned.

The city’s own by-laws and the building regulations can be used to ensure evictions from unsafe premises. There is a shortage of social housing, but with the new political impetus to deal with the fire, housing has suddenly been found for those who have been displaced. The Johannesburg agency that is meant to work with the private sector, the Social Housing Regulatory Authority, has not spent its budget.

Some, but hardly all, of the blame for Johannesburg’s decline can be placed at the door of the Council. Since Herman Mashaba, the then DA Mayor, resigned four years ago, there have been eight people in the post. With no party holding an outright majority, shifting alliances and the kingmaker role of small parties, there is continuing instability in the Council. The turnover in mayors has reduced pressure on municipal employees to do their jobs, but this cannot largely be blamed for Johannesburg’s accelerating decline.

Really routine tasks

In an effective local government, council members would not have to provide “leadership” to get what are really routine tasks done. If the senior civil servants just did their jobs and maintained law and order, they could prevent buildings from being hijacked.

It is the municipality with its civil service that is the largest problem. Jobs for cadres, empowerment rules in procurement, large amounts of “irregular” spending, the power of the ANC-aligned South African Municipal Workers’ Union, and a poor public sector work ethos have all helped form a vortex of decline.

The Auditor-General has found that fraud, financial irregularities and non-compliance are rife in the municipality, and steps to deal with these are inadequate. Key agencies meant to be in charge of roads, garbage collection, water, property management, and social housing are unwilling to resolve long-standing issues and regularly fail to answer emails and calls.

What holds out hope for a turnaround is a strong Mayor and a revamp of the municipal civil service. Confronting the bureaucracy promises terrible disruption, but it might well be worth paying the price to save the city. The only way that can happen is through a strong coalition winning and then engineering a turnaround.

The path to decline began years ago and the response to that is increasing self-reliance from residents. For years, the middle classes have hired private security firms to look after their safety. There are now private fire-fighting services in Johannesburg. Some security firms combine the fire-fighting offering with security and medical emergency services.

In Sandton the large property owners finance and run a security and clean-up service, while an insurance company provides pointsmen at rush hour when the traffic robots are not working.

Far greater independence

And throughout the city households are increasingly investing in solar power or generators and inverters. Those who can afford to do so are drilling boreholes to ensure a reliable and clean water supply. That means that far greater independence comes from poor service delivery.

The next step might be widespread rates boycotts. Ratepayers are absolutely gatvol of paying for services they do not receive from their municipalities and having to exhaustively use every avenue to try and obtain official attention.

Last month twenty organisations set up the eThekwini Rate Protest Movement and have launched a campaign to withhold municipal taxes. In Johannesburg, there are talks about possible rate boycotts at residents’ association meetings across town. A rate boycott is the ultimate weapon of residents, but it is illegal and your property could be subject to a service cut-off and your assets seized. But there are a number of test cases pending that could offer legal clarity on the circumstances under which rates can be withheld.

Given the gathering popular furore over municipal failure, we could see mass disobedience sooner rather than later. In all this mess it is the poorest who will continue to suffer from failed government.

[Image: Ingo Stiller on Unsplash]

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

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Jonathan Katzenellenbogen is a Johannesburg-based freelance financial journalist. His articles have appeared on DefenceWeb, Politicsweb, as well as in a number of overseas publications. Jonathan has also worked on Business Day and as a TV and radio reporter and newsreader.