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Foreign Affairs -- September 1995

The Struggle to Govern Johannesburg



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

by Lynda Schuster

zasmall picture 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."

From Munro Drive, Mashinini heads south on the M-1 freeway to Soweto, at the far end of the too-tight belt. Along the way he mutters to himself as he notices nicely manicured soccer fields and parks and public swimming pools-all empty, all "underutilized," in TMC parlance. Mashinini transfers to the M-2 freeway and heads west for several miles on Main Reef Road, the major artery into Soweto. He passes the huge mounds of mining waste that act as a buffer between the township and white areas, and billboards advertising maize meal (the main staple for black South Africans) and a Japanese electronics firm, and suddenly comes upon Soweto. It is as if he has crossed a frontier into another country.

Seen from a distance, Soweto is utterly lacking in green; the tiny "matchbox" houses that march in rigid rows all the way to the horizon are a monochromatic brown. The roads are narrow and rutted; most of the side streets are unpaved. Many are adorned with mountains of decomposing garbage. Squatter camps-pathetic places filled with corrugated-iron shacks and rivers of raw sewage-litter the hillsides. This township of more than two million people (no one really knows the number), a city a little larger than Houston, has one cinema, one sports stadium, one shopping mall, some fast-food joints, and a handful of grocery and liquor stores. People spend hours every day commuting to Johannesburg, where the jobs are. "There is nothing here because apartheid zoning was a vise-grip this tight," Mashinini says, making a fist. "It deliberately squashed most opportunities for commercial or industrial development."

But the three city councils for the area that made up greater Soweto, like all local authorities in the country, were supposed to be self-sufficient-something of an impossibility, given their tax base of impoverished residents. Consider these statistics: Johannesburg's old city council had 22,000 workers and an annual budget of close to $1 billion to serve about 900,000 people; the councils of greater Soweto, with a population more than twice as large, employed only about 3,000 people and had a budget of less than $100 million. This helps explain why, for instance, Johannesburg hauled away almost 700,000 tons of refuse in 1993, while greater Soweto disposed of only 400,000 tons.

"Soweto is a dump," Mashinini declares as he stops in front of the house where he spent his childhood, 934 Pitso Street. It is a typical matchbox house: four small rooms inside, pit latrine and cold-water tap outside. Mashinini and his twelve siblings had to sleep squeezed together on the floor in the living room, the kitchen, or wherever they could find space. To bathe, they boiled water on a coal-burning stove. Now Mashinini lives in a proper house in Yeoville, an artsy section of Johannesburg that used to be a Jewish neighborhood. "Growing up in Soweto, you always knew it was a dump," he continues. "But I never realized how bad it really was until I moved out. Now I walk down the street to my local bar, a restaurant, the cinema. When the electricity goes out, I call the city council, and they come to fix it immediately. Workmen are always repairing potholes. Here in Soweto they never did anything."


The plans to redesign Johannesburg were born precisely of that frustration. Fed up with the township's miserable conditions and the largely discredited city councils, Soweto's civic activists in 1986 launched a widespread rent-and-utilities boycott. At first the national government ignored their demands; the mid-1980s were a time of great political upheaval, and the Soweto rent strike was just one of dozens throughout the country. But the boycott dragged on, pulling Soweto's councils deeper and deeper into debt and forcing the provincial administration to hand over more than $100 million-money meant for white areas-to keep them afloat. The government clearly had to find a way to end the strike.

The solution materialized in the form of the Soweto People's Delegation, a group that included Cyril Ramaphosa, then the head of the mine workers' union. (Ramaphosa is currently the ANC's secretary-general.) In 1989 the SPD published a paper showing that Soweto's blacks were, in essence, subsidizing white Johannesburg. The argument went something like this: since Johannesburg got 70 percent of its income from industry and commerce, and since blacks did most of the work, and since Johannesburg didn't put a penny into the township where its workers lived, wealth, in effect, was moving from Soweto to Johannesburg, which gave its homeowners rebates of up to 55 percent on their property taxes. The paper caused a huge stir; its call for "one city, one tax base" became the rallying cry of township activists throughout South Africa-and the basis upon which the SPD negotiated an end to the rent boycott.

Ramaphosa began talking to officials from the provincial government and Soweto's councils in October of 1989. After months of fourteen-hour-a-day discussions, Ramaphosa-a shrewd and articulate bargainer who would ultimately help to negotiate the transition to majority rule-proposed a settlement: the boycott would be called off if the government agreed to forgive the millions of dollars owed in arrears to the township councils, to charge a flat fee for utilities, and to work toward the creation of a unified city with a single tax base. The issue of inferior services in the townships, Ramaphosa contended, couldn't be resolved without addressing the larger problem from which it stemmed: Johannesburg's artificial division along racial lines.

Thus, while Ramaphosa continued negotiating to end the Soweto boycott (a final accord wouldn't be ratified for another three years), the multiracial Central Witwatersrand Metropolitan Chamber was formed. ("Central Witwatersrand" refers to the greater Johannesburg area.) Completely voluntary, and initially without any statutory powers, it nonetheless had a breathtakingly broad mandate. At least that's how its members-representatives from civic groups, the provincial government, and the area's city councils-interpreted matters. They divided themselves into several wide-ranging committees to which they attached ponderous names: the Constitutional Development Working Group, the Physical Development Working Group, the Social Development Working Group, and so on. Each working group had numerous subcommittees, or task teams, all bearing equally ponderous names. Adrian Enthoven, who was the chamber's operations manager, estimates that about a thousand people-consultants, task-team members, technicians, economists, engineers-had a hand in the negotiations.

The exercise was excruciating, given the enmity and distrust that existed between the opposing sides. White bureaucrats typically saw the civic activists as communist-inspired anarchists, hell-bent on overthrowing the government and installing a Stalinist regime. For their part, the activists considered the bureaucrats to be extensions of the apartheid apparatus: many had been intimately involved in the government's last-gasp attempt, in the 1980s, to preserve white rule by putting these same activists behind bars, improving the townships a bit, and using the improvement to lure blacks into accepting a limited political dispensation.

But those endless hours of discussion in the chamber seemed to work a kind of transmutation in all the parties. "It was a fascinating thing to observe," says Frederik van Zyl Slabbert, who was the chamber's chairman and is now in charge of planning local-government elections. "The civic associations came into the chamber with foam in the mouth, and the provincial government came in accustomed to saying 'Take it or leave it.' After a while the civics began to appreciate the complexities of administration, and the province began to understand that there was a real crisis of legitimacy in township government."

Patrick Fitzgerald, who chaired one of the chamber committees, likens the experience to the scene in Annie Hall in which Woody Allen visits Diane Keaton's gentile family and imagines that every time they look at him, they see a rabbi complete with beard, side curls, and a long black coat. In the case of Fitzgerald, who spent several years in exile as a member of the then-outlawed ANC, the representatives of the provincial government and the white city councils saw Che Guevara. "When they peered over at me, I was sure they saw a beard, red beret, army fatigues, AK-47," recalls Fitzgerald, who sports the smallest of moustaches, has cropped hair, and wears Oxford-cloth shirts. Eventually, he says, they stopped peering.

The working groups concluded that making Johannesburg one city and achieving racial integration would best be done through economic redress. Although many of the black residents with financial means would probably move to white suburbs once apartheid laws were lifted, they represented a minuscule percentage of township dwellers, most of whom were too poor to move. Thus the chamber set as its goal a "compact integrated city"-one that would merge Johannesburg with the townships by building low-income housing on thousands of acres of vacant land close to town and putting to use the excess among existing installations and facilities. By all means improve the townships, the thinking went, but also concentrate on righting the huge imbalances caused by apartheid's draconian zoning laws; "densification" was the key word here-and one that terrified many white residents. For them, it conjured up visions of black squatters crowding into their back yards; an irate suburbanite who attended a presentation put on by the chamber shouted out that it was "Marxist-style engineering."

As for creating a single tax base, the working groups suggested the establishment of the Transitional Metropolitan Council. They envisioned the TMC as a kind of supra-municipal Big Brother: modeled after Toronto's governing body, it would have power over seven newly delineated local authorities, collecting taxes from them and from the downtown business district and redirecting the money where necessary-thus, in essence, creating a single tax base. If funds were required, say, to build a road in Soweto, the TMC could draw on revenues from the rich northern suburbs. The principle applied to redistributing other resources as well: the TMC would have the power to order suburban sanitation workers and their garbage trucks into Soweto to help clean up the township-thereby integrating the racially segregated municipal work forces.

Some chamber participants wax rhapsodic about the negotiating exercise. "Decolonization on the African continent has been a deal among elites," Mark Swilling, the political-science professor, who also served as a member of the Metropolitan Chamber, contends. "That didn't happen here. This was a complex process of dialogue, a collective learning experience, a massive change in the management process. How else could you begin to break down our racially structured imagination?" (Swilling's former chamber colleague Lawrence Boya asks, more bluntly, "How do you get people who thought of us in the past as monkeys, as baboons, to deliver services to us?") But many saw the Metropolitan Chamber as a group of naive dreamers, dazed by unrealistic expectations and the piles of papers they had produced, and lacking political constituencies that would hold them accountable. Steven Friedman, of the Centre for Policy Studies, an independent research group, speaks of messianic elements in the chamber. "All those grand millenarian visions, that rhetoric about people's empowerment, was nonsense and rubbish," he says. "If you looked at what the new local government was inheriting, there clearly wasn't going to be any magical transformation."


Indeed, when the time came actually to implement the chamber's plans, the consequences of having carried out negotiations in a virtual political vacuum became clear. The ANC finally joined the chamber at the end of 1993, and expectations that Johannesburg would become one of the first consolidated cities quickly evaporated. The ANC delegates demanded that all work be stopped and an audit be conducted; they were intensely suspicious of anything they themselves hadn't developed. They insisted on being allocated two thirds of the seats in a newly constituted TMC, because, they explained, the ANC had polled that percentage in the national election. The fifty-two other organizations in the chamber decried this as demagoguery.

The ANC representatives also rejected the working groups' idea that a single tax base could be created simply by establishing a strong TMC. The minute the TMC tried to tap into revenues, they warned, the white local authorities would challenge its powers in court. Instead the ANC proposed carving up greater Johannesburg into three gigantic local authorities, each one incorporating parts of the poor townships and the rich suburbs. In this way all impoverished areas would be guaranteed a viable tax base without having to rely on the TMC. That assumed, of course, that the local authorities themselves would be viable-something disputed by just about everyone who had participated in the chamber. Critics claimed that the idea was absurd, unwieldy, unworkable; one municipality alone would measure more than forty miles from end to end. But the ANC refused to budge, and the battles dragged on for months before all sides agreed to submit to arbitration.

In the meantime, deadline after deadline passed for getting the new municipalities going. Chamber members who themselves were card-carrying supporters of the ANC found the delays particularly dismaying. After all, they were the ones who had continued the ANC's struggle within the country after the party was banned, in the 1960s, and its leaders forced into exile. As civic activists they had lived dangerous, clandestine lives. Many assumed that when the ANC was made legal and allowed to operate openly in South Africa, as it was in 1990, the party would grant them leadership roles at the local level. Instead the civic activists found themselves being shoved to the sidelines-and by people whom they and others considered to be grossly inept.

"The moral of the story is that the ANC at the local level finds independent grassroots politics very threatening," Steven Friedman says. "If you're a party member, you're not supposed to paddle your own canoe. But at the same time the national ANC doesn't care much about local politics either. So the party replaced those competent elites who had been talking about urban issues for four years with C-grade politicians."

Indeed, the ANC admits its insistence on strict loyalty. "Just being a member of the ANC doesn't grant you authority to do as you like," says Collin Matjila, the party's chief city councillor for Johannesburg. "You have to adhere to the ANC position." But Matjila disputes the notion that the party's perhaps-less-than-illustrious representation at the local level implies a lack of interest. "Even those at the provincial and national levels weren't necessarily skilled in governance. Where do [critics] expect our people to have gotten this experience?"

Much of this drama could be dismissed as petty politics but for the effect it is having on the country's demographic and economic heartland. Johannesburg's TMC has been working since December-but barely. The arbiters ultimately ruled in favor of a strong TMC, which was to oversee seven subordinate local authorities; the ANC's Matjila vowed to fight the decision. Indeed, the ANCand the province's Demarcation Board have now proposed dividing the area into four local authorities, only to be thwarted by opposition political parties in the TMC. At press time these parties appeared poised to take the Demarcation Board to court, a move that could delay the local elections that were scheduled to be held in November-and thus postpone the installation of a permanent local government.

At the ANC's behest many of the chamber's proposals remain shelved; TMC members seem to spend much of their time discussing the minutes of previous meetings. Meanwhile, a lot of the city's major problems are going unattended. Enticed by an ANC promise to build 150,000 houses in the province within twelve months of the national elections, tens of thousands of homeless people have invaded tracts of vacant land throughout the metropolis. TMC officials and the police are frequently called upon to evict squatters-evictions that often turn angry and violent. In recent years other similarly militant squatters, desperate for shelter, took over whole buildings that were standing empty in downtown Johannesburg.

Remedying these problems requires precisely the skills and knowledge that participants in the Metropolitan Chamber acquired; but most of them, disgusted by the political infighting and the ANC's seeming disregard for their work, haven't joined the TMC. Gone with them are the relationships they forged with the white bureaucrats in the municipal unions-vital players who, quite literally, make the city work (or not, if they are so inclined). Dominique Wooldridge, a researcher at the University of Witwatersrand's business school, contends that there is an urgent need to engage in dialogue with the unions about a whole range of labor-relations issues related to integration. Such a dialogue has begun; if it breaks down, the discontent of these unions could result in strikes that might jeopardize the establishment of new multiracial metropolitan structures-and paralyze greater Johannesburg.

But the bureaucrats don't have to engage in such dramatic gestures to wreak havoc. "If the management changes are unilaterally ordered by the politicians, then I foresee great resistance among my members," warns Theo Crouse, the general secretary of the Johannesburg Municipal Employees Association, a union of 7,000 officials. "I'm not talking about burning down buildings but about a more subtle approach to sabotage. Remember, the knowledge and information about running these cities rests with us. So if a clerk in the treasurer's department receives a remittance by mail and decides not to open the envelope, then the city isn't going to have any money deposited into its accounts. And it can't very well operate without money."

Perhaps most disturbing is the effect all this may have on the local elections. Political analysts see the months before the poll as critical. They are a window of opportunity to begin delivering the services denied township residents during the decades of apartheid-a brief moment of grace in which black South Africans might give local government a chance to prove it is something other than neglectful, abusive, and corrupt.

If a lesson can be learned from Johannesburg's experience, perhaps it is the glaringly obvious one that doing away with apartheid won't be easily accomplished. Critics of the Metropolitan Chamber argue that Johannesburg should have restricted itself to narrowly defined goals and not tried to reverse years of injustice all at once. They point to Port Elizabeth, a municipality of about a million people in the Eastern Province, which focused on writing a new constitution for the city and its townships, and on combining their budgets; as a result, a unified Port Elizabeth is up and running successfully. But the larger the metropolis, the more complex the issues-no matter what approach is taken. Indeed, both Cape Town and Durban, the country's other large cities, are having serious problems consolidating. Although the specifics differ, in both cities-as in Johannesburg-too many competing political interests need to be considered, too many egos gratified.

And so, Steven Friedman says, Johannesburg will limp along. "It's not very effective political management, but history works in years and decades, not minutes and months. Still, I see it as a lost opportunity. This country needs to develop functional and vigorous local government if it's going to work-and what happens to Johannesburg will have a major influence on what happens to South Africa as a whole."


Copyright © 1995 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
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