High-rise challenges to constructing a city’s identity

The Quality of Life 2011 survey, conducted biannually by the Gauteng City-Region Observatory (GCRO), was presented at University of the Witwatersrand on 23 July. The survey found overall quality of life increased slightly despite global economic recession, with government delivery as driver. But core challenges appeared to be of the intangible type that are less easy to resolve — “the energy, spirit or vision that holds together a varied and cosmopolitan population”. In its place was a deep hostility to politics, dissatisfaction with government and a replacement of faith in the judiciary.

Professor David Everatt, the executive director of the GCRO, said at the presentation of the results: “Mood is very, very low. Attempts like the Gauteng 2055 [an emerging long-term strategy for the city-region] to energise and unite people are … not enough anymore, which is what these data show.”

The report suggests: “The domains pulling down quality of life are work (or lack of), family, sociopolitical sense and ‘global’ — that all-round sense that the world is well, my world is well, and things will get better. That hope and optimism is what the survey has battled to find. Delivery alone may not be the answer.”

The GCRO survey is the second in a series and extends beyond GDP to include services, the economy, migration, mobility, transport, employment, education, values and attitudes, green behaviour and sustainability, as well as decent work. The GCRO is an institutional collaboration between University of Witwatersrand, University of Johannesburg and the Gauteng provincial government.

Everatt, in a September interview, says: “A year-and-a-half away from a general election is always the lowest moment of national mood. But in the past … there was a major pulling together and an energising spirit. Now, we are sitting back and saying: ‘And now what?’ If you are very badly divided along lines of race, class, gender, country of origin, then what is the ghost in the machine, the thing that energises us and makes us all want to be here together as opposed to being here apart, which is what we want at the moment? And I don’t know if governments are terribly good at [addressing] that. It’s about building communities again and that is about starting at the local level.”

Everatt says the ‘basic-needs’ approach is not necessarily the centrepiece of how to drive development in Gauteng. “You have to worry firstly about a different delivery mode. You have to worry about what is still holding us back. It does seem that the soft stuff between our ears, in other words racism, homophobia, hostility towards foreigners, gender-based violence … those are the things that are tearing us apart. And I don’t think governments are very good at saying to citizens ‘we are going to heal you’ … It is very much what civil society should be doing.”

Everatt says a million people in Gauteng may still need houses but this is nowhere near the size of the challenge in other provinces. “So you really need to begin to reformulate what you think your key challenges are and how you are going to meet them, which is what the 2055 strategy is meant to do.” Coupled to this, it does not help to connect people to water or the electricity grid if they cannot afford to switch it on. “It’s trying to get government to take a step beyond just connecting you … and how we move that to an economically sustainable basis.”

He concludes: “But I really do worry that the psychosocial stuff is getting worse and this survey was just a smack in the face. There is a sense of powerlessness that seems to lie behind it – higher alienation, higher anomie, a sense that politicians are only in it for themselves, a far greater sense that public servants are only in it for themselves, and that ‘I am left to fight for my own little corner but no-one cares about me’. And we have never had scores that high before.”

Tragic events at Marikana outside Rustenberg cast these issues into sharp focus the month following the GCRO survey results. On the same day that news about scores of protesting miners killed by police bullets registered across the country, a symposium regarding ‘challenging inequality’ was held at University of Witwatersrand. ‘Killing fields’ headlined the front page of The Times on Friday 17 August, in the hands of a symposium delegate.

A recurrent symposium thread was a call for a “new politics”, a “third way” or a “third eye” that acknowledged setbacks and failures but looked for alternatives beyond the obvious. Professor Jacklyn Cock from University of the Witwatersrand reminded delegates that violence is all around. “People tend to think of violence as an event or an action, something that is immediate in time and explosive and spectacular in space. And that is only one kind of violence. I want to talk about what I am calling ‘slow violence’ … that is often invisible, that is accretive, that is instrumental, that is often ignored. This is the violence which we refuse to acknowledge. Inequality is a form of slow violence,” she said.

This was a repeated concern in the GCRO survey. Everatt explains: “It does suggest inequality may be slowly coming down but it’s held high ironically in the cities and is lower in what you might call the peripheral areas or surrounding municipalities. We’ve been saying for a long time that the real issue is not poverty, although it remains important; the real issue is inequality. And I think Marikana has underscored that in a massive and horrible and tragic way.” Everatt cites Brazil as the only BRICS country that is both growing and managing to lower inequality – a challenge for South Africa to aspire towards: “We are trying to start learning those lessons now.”

Inequality was also highlighted by a World Bank report published the same week. Economic Update: Focus on Inequality of Opportunity showed circumstances at birth are important inequality drivers. While progress towards universal access to primary education, electricity and telcoms has been impressive in South Africa, it showed more mixed results for water, sanitation and health insurance, completing primary school in time and addressing overcrowded living conditions. Slow job creation and unequal access to opportunities exacerbated the dynamic. Policy should be concerned not only with the numbers of people excluded from basic service provision but who is being excluded and whether this systematically reflects a set of circumstances beyond an individual’s control, the World Bank said.

The GCRO survey shows how locale is a very important factor. Everatt says: “Certainly, the cities reflect what I would regard as far more progressive sorts of attitudes than some of the surrounding municipalities. So where you live matters very very much in terms of life circumstances but also what is being put into your head.”

For instance: 64 per cent of households have piped water in Westonaria, the lowest in the survey, versus 93 per cent for Johannesburg. Westonaria also suffers from a lack of municipal refuse collection at 33 per cent of respondents versus 5 per cent in Johannesburg. Values and attitudes bifurcate along similar lines with 17 per cent of those polled in Westonaria believing violence acceptable if a partner is unfaithful versus 3.6 per cent in Johannesburg and 20.5 per cent in Emfuleni. Westonaria has the lowest overall quality of life indicator (5.77) compared to Johannesburg (6.32) in the upper spectrum, with Randfontein in the lead (6.45)

Stephen Narsoo, a policy and strategy specialist in the office of the Mayor at the Central Strategy Unit of the City of Johannesburg, agrees with the GCRO findings of increasing incidence of psychosocial issues but feels government is responsible for addressing them, supported by civil society as well as research institutions and universities. Narsoo says there is clearly a role for the City of Johannesburg in terms of community and social development but social work is not regarded as important and social workers are few and far between.

The second related issue is how City government works. Narsoo says: “It’s by and large in a way that doesn’t look at new roles and responsibilities for City officials and new ways of working with communities. It’s an organisational culture that is removed from the kind of ongoing intensive community work that is required to deal with issues around providence, community building, community justice and reconciliation … [That] involves a different model of engagement, which is not a part of the way the City currently works — it’s not a grounded practice of working in communities.”

City employees are not capacitated to do the kind of work necessary for social development. “And I would make the link between an increase in xenophobia and a whole range of other things like violence against women as a direct result of a lack of intervention in that space by the City government and the government in general … It’s one thing to identify a range of issues. It’s another to figure out how to go in and work with communities. And the current model simply is not adequate to deal with the kind of infighting in politics to work to a way of reconciling all of that,” he says.

Regarding the lack of optimistic vision for the future, Narsoo says: “We have a lot of documents that tell us the ‘what’ but they can’t be implemented because municipalities and cities don’t know how. Visions matter and strategies matter and current projects … [that] incorporate multiple visions that perhaps represent divergent people and ways of being in the city is fundamental. But what you ultimately end up with is a huge chasm in the ability of government to actually implement it.”

That is largely related to the way government works, lack of technical ability and know-how of working in conjunction with communities, he says. “It’s one thing to get communities to buy into a vision; it’s another to get ongoing ownership of a particular project or programme … You have to go in there and sit down and figure out how to turn these things around. Because quite frankly it’s not going to go away by developing a plan. To actually get a city going is hard-sweat administrative work where you get the basics right but you [also] get into some innovative thinking around how to work with communities, the property market, to get things working for people and the city. That is currently just not there.”

Based on total revenue of R28.9 billion, Johannesburg is South Africa’s largest city of about four million inhabitants. It is the business capital of the country and hosts most corporate headquarters and largest listed companies. Gauteng contributes about a third of national GDP and per capita contribution is 60 per cent higher than the national average, according to Moody’s Investors Service.

In March, the ratings agency assigned the City of Johannesburg with a revised short-term issuer rating of Prime-1.za (national scale rating): Moody’s said improvements in the City’s liquidity profile and cash position warranted the high short-term rating. The City however has a long-term national scale issuer and debt rating of Aa3.za with a negative outlook that Moody’s says mirrors the outlook on South Africa’s government bond rating.

The City is currently undergoing a significant restructure but Narsoo is skeptical. “The real structural change we needed to sort out was how the utilities, agencies, corporatised entities relate to the actual City of Johannesburg, and make a determination about whether the way it is currently constituted in terms of the board and so on has been efficient, and the answer is frankly no … The heart of the City, its core service delivery around water, sanitation, building, will probably remain unresolved through the institutional restructure. It’s actually detracted from what really needed to be done, and that was very clear management decisions.”

Narsoo has a sobering final analysis: “The bottom line is this: to change cities, to change Joburg, takes a hell of a lot of guts and a lot of decisive [action]. Currently, the paralysis that we are facing is that we are caught up in technical jargon and bureaucracy [so] that we can’t see what the basic things are … the core of the administration, which is actually not fun – it’s actually quite boring, quite dull … We got caught up in a complicated institutional restructure and what is important to the core business has fallen fundamentally to the wayside.” He adds: “My prediction is that things are going to get a lot worse before they get better. Currently, it is not pretty.”

‘World city’ discourse has been increasingly dominant over the past two decades, with cities regarded as nodes within a global economy. Lara Preston, in her Masters thesis on ‘Johannesburg as World City’, suggests this discourse is a byproduct of a capitalist worldview with an intrinsic assumption of economic competition between cities (2006: 15). Certain cities are perceived as sitting at the top of this hierarchy according to a circular logic of power where “so-called world cities have historically been part of the power base that created the system in the first place” (2006: 18). Johannesburg claims in its tagline to be a ‘world class African city’; in a burgeoning world city pageant, it is a title that also has to be earned.

Kim Gurney is a freelance journalist with over a decade’s experience including News Editor of a weekly at Financial Times Business and stringer for Newsweek International’s Africa bureau. She is also a visual artist and independent curator, most recently facilitating an exhibition that spanned art, media and law. Kim is affiliated as Research Associate to African Centre for Cities at University of Cape Town, engaged primarily in research on public space/ public art, and Research Associate to Research Centre, Visual Identities in Art and Design at University of Johannesburg. She lives and works in Johannesburg. 



This article is part of UrbanAfrica’s reporting project


image credit: Tristan Hall


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