The Struggle to Govern Johannesburg

The transition to nonracial rule is proceeding more slowly--and more viciously--than expected

It's a Wednesday morning in the garish assembly hall of Johannesburg's city council, and the bimonthly meeting of the Transitional Metropolitan Council has been going on for hours. The chairman wearily pages through the agenda, droning on about various motions. Hardly anyone is listening. Several council members huddle in an intense private debate; most of the newspaper reporters have stepped outside to smoke; one participant, head thrown back, seems transfixed by the hideous chandelier hanging above him.

The soporific scene is suddenly interrupted by a squeaky-voiced councilwoman, who takes the microphone to complain that too few of the urban-improvement proposals are addressing the needs of black residents. "This body is doing virtually nothing for the people of the townships," she declares shrilly, wagging a finger at her colleagues. "We're spending all this time considering the suburbs when we should be attending to the thousands of people who have no homes and no basic services. We're supposed to be delivering to them."

One year after the moving spectacle that was South Africa's first democratic election, the country is still battling to undo apartheid. The task is not an easy one, especially here in Johannesburg, South Africa's largest city. To legislate away white-minority rule at the national level--as happened, in essence, in the 1994 elections-was one thing; to abolish apartheid locally, where it has assumed some of its most odious forms, is quite another. What is to be done with Johannesburg's thirteen racially designated local authorities, which employ some 30,000 people? How is a single tax base to be created? Where should the boundary lines for a unified city be drawn? And what about the decades of gross neglect of black communities--an estimated 200,000 people without running water, an equal number without adequate housing?

Nevertheless, among the country's hundreds of racially divided municipalities, Johannesburg was thought to have one of the best shots at consolidating. That's because for four long years--starting well before the transition to black-majority rule--an eclectic array of bureaucrats, consultants, and anti-government activists had been thrashing out the fine points of trash collection and toilet installation in a post-apartheid South Africa. (The process was described by one participant as "part group-therapy session, part crash course in municipal administration.") By the time the new government ordered the cities to merge their various councils, Johannesburg seemed set to become one of the nation's first racially unified urban areas.

It didn't happen. Instead the city became the arena for a vicious power struggle within the now ruling African National Congress party-a struggle fueled in large part, critics contend, by the inexperienced, third-rate politicians representing the ANC at the local level. The problem is one that plagues the entire country, because most of the ANC's seasoned leaders have gone to work in the upper echelons of government. But the ANC's deficiencies at the local level are perhaps nowhere better illustrated than in the tortuous gestation of the Greater Johannesburg Transitional Metropolitan Council, or TMC. Starry-eyed plans, detailed diagrams, consultants' recommendations to remake Johannesburg-virtually all have fallen victim to political skirmishes. Indeed, things got so bad not long ago that arbiters had to intervene.

None of this, obviously, bodes well for the country's future. Government affects people's daily lives most at the local level: that is where the promises to redress apartheid's injustices must be kept, where the real changes in South Africa will be felt, where democracy will either succeed or stumble. "If this city can't be made to work as one," Mark Swilling, a political scientist at Johannesburg's University of the Witwatersrand, told me recently, "then what happens at the top, what happens nationally, will be mostly irrelevant."

To be sure, even the harshest critics concede that Johannesburg, as the country's biggest and most complicated metropolis, was bound to have the biggest and most complicated issues to resolve. Several of South Africa's other major cities are also having difficulty doing away with apartheid, although not all for the same reasons. Smaller municipalities, beset by simpler problems, have been able to move ahead faster with unification.

Nothing is simple about the mess that is greater Johannesburg, the product of numerous statutes over the past century to prevent people of color from living in, or even near, white communities. Among these statutes, the Group Areas Act of 1950, which guaranteed total residential segregation by race, is perhaps the most responsible for having defined Johannesburg's demographic contours. Group Areas provided the legal justification for evicting whole neighborhoods of blacks from the whites-only city. (One such section, known as Sophiatown, was renamed Triomf-"Triumph"-by its white tenants.) And Group Areas was the rationale for dumping the dispossessed in makeshift townships twenty or thirty miles away, desolate places that had little infrastructure or industry and received little financial help from the government. Unlike U.S. cities, which have decayed from the center outward, Johannesburg is ringed by its destitute areas-a condition the South African economist Richard Tomlinson likens to a "too-tight belt around a very fat stomach." (The demographics changed somewhat in 1988, when Group Areas was amended to allow blacks to live in certain parts of the city; the law was abolished altogether in 1991.)

To understand the implications of the patterns of settlement, it is helpful to view Johannesburg the way Tshepiso Mashinini often does while he reconnoiters the city. Mashinini, an adviser to the TMC, is typical of South African urban activists: young, bright, intense, utterly dedicated. On this day he begins his reconnaissance at the top of Munro Drive, a long, steep road that winds through Upper Houghton, one of Johannesburg's poshest sections. At a lookout point Mashinini gazes down on the affluent northern suburbs, a verdant crazy quilt of sweeping lawns, stately homes, swimming pools, tennis courts, office parks, and shopping malls. But he doesn't see a lush emerald vista; he sees a waste of space and resources. According to his research, the residential density in these suburbs-fifteen homes to every 2.5 acres, three people to a household-is about half that of Soweto, the sprawling black township to the south. In fact, the facilities are so plentiful in this part of town that Mashinini figures that 500,000 people could move in tomorrow and not even begin to strain the main sewerage line. "This isn't the free market at work," he says, gesturing at the scene below. "This is apartheid legislation."

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