The City of Johannesburg, the largest metro in the country, is becoming increasingly dysfunctional.
Potholes remain unrepaired for months; for example, it took many months for multiple large potholes on a major arterial route (William Nicol Drive) to be repaired. Chronic power outages following this past weekend’s storms have, in some instances, taken days to resolve. The provision of some basic services – such as electricity, water and roads – has become more erratic and unpredictable over time, not less.
Understandably, the Covid-19 lockdown had a significant impact on the city earlier this year.
From the outside, however, it could appear as if some departments have simply not recovered. (Others were broken before lockdown and remain so.)
Central to this breakdown in delivery, felt most acutely in City Power and the Johannesburg Roads Agency (JRA), is an often-messy relationship with contractors and suppliers. In some instances, these contracts have lapsed (or allowed to lapse). Management of stocks is another major contributor.
City Power has the single largest revenue and expenditure lines of any city entity or department (outside of group finance, which collects the rates that pay for many, many other services in the city). In the current year, City Power is budgeted to have revenue of R17.7 billion (of a total of R63.4 billion), and expenses of R16.9 billion. Bulk purchases (from Eskom and the private Kelvin power station) comprise R12.8 billion, with employee costs and repairs/maintenance each exceeding R1 billion for the year. The (separate) capex budget for the year is R738 million.
The Joburg Roads Agency, which is responsible for a road network spanning more than 10 000km in the city, has a far smaller budget of R1.4 billion for the year. More than half of this (R787 million) will be spent on staff, with R282 million on contractors and R276 million on “other expenditure” (likely mostly materials). The JRA’s capex budget is R1.1 billion this year.
A letter from Ward 102 councillor David Potter, which aims to contextualise the service delivery issues in the city as well as why councillors are hamstrung (in their oversight role), contains some telling revelations:
- The JRA “has not made asphalt (tar) for many, many months. First it was aggregate that they did not have, now we hear it is natural gas. By their own admission their asphalt plant suffers from ‘management instability, insufficient skilled personnel and no contracts for aggregates, gas and maintenance’.
- “In August 2020 the Joburg Roads Agency appointed contractors to repair potholes, reinstatements [of tar, paving or curbing] and other related work across the seven regions of the city. Launched with much fanfare in each region of the city, these contractors have hardly made a dent in the number of reinstatements and potholes in Region B [the region in which Ward 102 falls]. Across all regions in the city you need to drive on what is left of the road, not on the left side of the road.
- “As at mid-October 2020 the contractors have seemingly stopped in Region B (and maybe other regions), as they have not been paid for the first batch of work orders and so seemingly refuse to continue with the second batch. We believe that a senior Joburg Roads Agency official responsible for the signing off of these invoices is on temporary suspension. Potholes and reinstatements are mushrooming across the city and the rains have hardly even started.”
- Additionally, “the Joburg Roads Agency currently has no arm co-barrier rails, batteries for UPS backup power supply of traffic signals and other standard stock items”.
One would not guess any of this, based on the media statements on the city’s website.
Not a word has been mentioned about potholes since an update in mid-September where it undertook to tackle the problem as part of a “service delivery blitz”.
The MMC for Transport, Nonhlanhla Makhuba, hosted a webinar in mid-October , the purpose of which was “to raise awareness on the various aspects required to decongest the traffic especially during the traffic peak period”.
“The engagement further provided insight on future engineering and 4IR solutions to the traffic problems,” according to the city.
Suddenly, on Tuesday night, the metro publicly committed to a six-week programme to deal with the approximately 48 000 potholes across the city. It claims this backlog exists due to the “Level 5 to Level 3 lockdown period”.
Since this article was first published, Africa Check found that in fact, the City of Johannesburg puts the number at 100 000. “The (Johannesburg Roads Agency) reported that it planned to fix nearly 141,000 potholes from 1 July 2019 to 30 June 2020. They missed this target, but by how much is unclear due to calculation errors in their reports,” according to the fact-checking organisation.
At City Power, things are not much better.
According to Potter’s letter:
- “The appointment of maintenance contractors is now before the courts. These contractors who were appointed to do work on the City Power network are often substandard, do not have the required tools or fail to meet basic safety requirements, are often required to return to do work again and again, or other contractors are appointed to do what others did not finish or that failed.
- “Warehousing and stock management is not a strength of City Power. One just needs to visit their store in Reuven to wonder how this entity operates. It is now known that City Power does not have stock of 170 to 400 amp circuit breakers. In a recent instance in Ward 102, theft of two circuit breakers took place one late afternoon. Suspiciously so, this incident was not reported to their internal risk control department. When a contractor eventually arrived to replace the stolen circuit breakers, they only arrived with one, not two. These streets were without power for over 28 hours.”
Here, MMC (for Environment & Infrastructure Services) Mpho Moerane seems to be a lot more hands-on. On Monday, the DA alleged that as from November: “City Power has no contractors at its disposal [and] may no longer use any contractors to address power outages in the city.” It contested that there were many hundreds of outages following the weekend’s storms. On Tuesday, the number was 400 across the city.
Moerane calls the statement about the city’s failure to appoint contractors “false”. He says: “City Power has not failed to appoint contractors. To this effect, some of the contractors have already been appointed and are working on some of the existing power interruptions side-by-side with our teams.”
Certain city entities remain well-run and without issue
Waste management service provider Pikitup, frustrated with issues at the city’s call centre, established an in-house call centre last month. Weekly collections are mostly on-schedule (and any backlogs are quickly cleared).
Johannesburg Water, too, continues to perform well with teams dispatched to leaks swiftly and efficiently. But as Potter notes, “with the repair of pipes from bursts comes the headache of the digging and the failed reinstatement of pavements and road surfaces”. In this councillor’s ward alone, there are more than 100 reinstatements of tar, paving or curbing outstanding.
Much needs to be done to properly fix an ailing metro, which multiple administrations (including the DA/EFF coalition) have failed to do.
Until then, residents will bear the brunt of these issues.