A Visionary Statement

The tagline “world-class African city” was first invoked more than a decade ago to describe Johannesburg and its future aspirations. But what does this phrase actually mean? And why has it proven so durable in the city’s official planning discourse?

By Kim Gurney 

Everything has changed.” Jan Erasmus ratchets up the tempo as he strides back into his second-floor office of the City of Johannesburg’s Metropolitan Centre, the brown monolith that dominates the Braamfontein skyline. The nested issues that characterise South Africa’s largest metropolis, which brands itself a world-class African city, are managed from within its intimidating corridors. At the heart of this administrative hothouse is a think-tank, the Central Strategy Unit (CSU). And Erasmus, its deputy director of policy and strategy, is key.

He has just returned flush from an urgent summons by the city manager, Trevor Fowler. It seems Moody’s Investors Service has Johannesburg under its annual spotlight for a ratings review. Erasmus holds in his hand a long list of questions about organisation, strategy and local economic development in the city. This morning’s congenial agenda to review African economic policy for the city is thus promptly skewered. He turns to his two colleagues to divvy up the new workload. The banter among the trio flows around a circular table between cluster plans, King reports and linear markets. Stephen Narsoo, a CSU policy and strategy specialist, declares the shared office mantra on his shirt pocket: Urban. “How much time do we have?” he asks. “One hour,” comes the reply.

The Moody’s tasklist is demanding—from facts and figures to nuanced definitions to making a call on the potential impact of the global debt crisis on Johannesburg’s economic base. The pressure flips a switch in Erasmus whose polished style is immediately animated and pointed experience clear. “Bullet points, get me bullet points,” he instructs down the phone, chasing an answer on managerial capacity. “Give me five major challenges … Gee vir my die goed met political spin.” He rings off to sift voluminous reports, a large South African flag hanging next to his desk.

Narsoo and his counterpart, Zayd Ebrahim, are bunkered down in their nearby office. The double doors are masked with white paper. A blank flipsheet perched at the ready. Behind Ebrahim’s head is a thought-chart with keywords like “we-think” adjacent a neatly stacked row of highlighters pressed to the wall and a series of handwritten notes. “Part of our job entails that ad hoc component,” says Ebrahim, unruffled by the turn of events. “It’s our responsibility to be on top of things, evaluate and respond … It’s accepted as the way the City functions and one of the most interesting parts of the job. The city manager and mayor [Parks Tau] rely on us for that information.” It seems colleagues do too; they regularly pop into CSU offices for various reports.

We don’t want to be a European world-class city. We do have our own unique identity

The CSU comprises policy and strategy, performance management and integrated development planning units, but this format is expanding under a current restructure; it will fall under group strategy and relations, with Dr Udesh Pillay the new head. Most recently, the CSU in October published Joburg 2040, a growth and development strategy (GDS) that recasts the 2006 city vision to four key outcomes and includes the following vision statement: “Johannesburg—a World Class African City of the Future—a vibrant, equitable African city, strengthened through its diversity; a city that provides real quality of life; a city that provides sustainability for all its citizens; a resilient and adaptive society.”

A world-class African city—what does it mean? “World-class is a very deceptive word,” says Ebrahim, after meeting his Moody’s deadline. “It [infers] you are benchmarking against a European or western city, and you assume—well, they’ve got transport and world-class there means world-class here. It’s not the same. But then you end up debating and you can’t really get consensus. World-class African and African world class are very different things and you can debate African cities at length. I suppose we’ve accepted it as the brand of Joburg.”

Indeed, the Joburg Theatre, opposite the road from the Metro Centre, proudly brandishes this tagline on its giant billboard. Apparently, it amounts to Abba followed by a rock musical, American Anthems. I meet Erasmus in the theatre precinct coffee shop. He says world-class African city means different things to different people, but the general agreement is it’s a very positive thing.

“If you say world-class you are comparing yourself to the best, the question then becomes who is the best, and in what context, and who is world class? In India, world-class would mean one thing; in Europe, it would mean something else. It doesn’t mean we strive to be just one thing in one particular city in one particular context. We don’t want to be a European world-class city. We do have our own unique identity … So there are certain things we strive for, or are already there. In terms of human rights, for instance, we are regarded as world-class in some aspects compared to other countries or cities.”

Furthermore, the concept is layered because of the city’s differential roles, thinks Erasmus. “The city is a player at many different levels—citizens or customers, interest-based groups, city-wide groups, city-to-city and internationally. The world-class African city, for each level it will mean different things. It is a visionary statement. At the same time, it guides your everyday activities as well. And obviously at a national level, it is how you benchmark yourself against other cities.”

That task falls to Tinashe Mushayanyama, a specialist in research and information, down the passage from the policy and research team. His fashionably patterned shirt and high-energy manner contradict his job description crunching citywide data—he is the go-to person for financial nitty-gritty and research studies including quality of life surveys. During our discussions, Erasmus pops in to double-check a technical point for Moody’s on Gross Domestic Product.

Regarding consensus on what ‘world-class African city’ means, Mushayanyama is philosophical: “It’s like branding, it’s difficult to measure. It’s something people know [but] understanding is something different.” For the nuts and bolts of benchmarking, however, Johannesburg uses the Global City Indicators Facility, a globalised standard methodology to allow comparability of city performance and knowledge sharing. This World Bank-endorsed approach is structured around 20 themes and 115 indicators that measure both city services, like electricity and education, as well as quality of life, through factors like civic engagement, culture and environment.

Mushayanyama describes world-class aspirations as a pick-and-mix affair. “When it comes to benchmarks,” he argues, “it is specific depending on what you are looking at. For instance, with electricity, you wouldn’t benchmark against Germany because it’s first world but rather cities within SADC and BRICs. It depends on the individual matters raised at a specific time, and expectations. Any benchmarking we do has a basis.”
It also depends on national trends.

“What is the president’s thinking?” offers Mushayanyama. “Are we looking towards the east? China? Shanghai? Beijing? Things are happening at ministerial level—what does it mean at local level? You should be able to be an analyst in your own right.”

I finally manage to doorstep Msizi Myeza, deputy director of integrated planning, back from a string of meetings. He rues that his desk day is just beginning and both his quick-fire speech and body language seem primed for the next task. Myeza calls Johannesburg a global player but premised on its realities.

“We are located in an African context, 17 years post democracy, so what London might be grappling with are the same issues that Joburg is grappling with but ours is complicated by our historical past and imbalances,” says Myeza. “Yes, there is an ideal but there are realities like people who still don’t have access to water. It influences the way we do budgeting as well. It’s not a political issue—it’s principle. The investment you make in Westdene based on the challenges people face there is dependent on how you want to ensure that at least everyone progresses.”

The African tagline is more about being an African power player. He also points to other complexities, like the fact that Johannesburg was effectively built by migrants. He describes the xenophobic violence of 2008 as “very unfortunate, because Joburg has always attracted different people”. However, it hasn’t changed the city’s vision of itself as an African city. “It’s about how to ensure that everyone sees himself as an African irrespective of what colour you are—that is really the essence, from my understanding.”

Myeza points out that Braamfontein, right outside his window, has changed: “When you drive along De Korte Street, you know there are a lot of Cameroonians there. When you go and engage in Hillbrow, you need to understand French. Are we capacitated in the City to engage with those groups of people? And how to engage with religious groups? So those are things that we try and address. It’s also about giving people rights, responsibilities and a sense of belonging.”

Braamfontein is a City priority area for urban regeneration. At its heart is a cultural hub where I meet Narsoo to speak more. He is open and articulate, his late breakfast goes cold as he expands on his latest preoccupation symbolised by the bright orange pen he clasps with the GDS insignia. “We are all players,” it reads. “For the first time, we engaged on an extensive public outreach process over eight weeks where we discussed different themes. We got an overwhelming response—over 2000 participants. We really got Joburg talking about what the future needs to look like … It really builds on one key theme: that getting the city right is about understanding what the responsibilities of everyone is in the city.”

It’s like branding, it’s difficult to measure. It’s something people know [but] understanding is something different

He concedes “world-class” and “African” have not been explicitly defined and this can create a disconnect between an aspirational tagline and what actually happens in a day-to-day city. “Your ability to translate that into some kind of working ethos, practice or tangibles, even at a technical level, into programmes and projects, isn’t there,” he says.

Furthermore, the City’s move towards a corporate strategy has arguably created an unresolved ideological tension. And the world-class concept is in turn linked to corporatisation. “To be world-class you have to be efficient, smart,” says Narsoo. Following neatly on is the issue of benchmarking: “Often to be world-class means you benchmark around cities considered to be classy and it’s usually European cities. The idea of other kinds of ‘city-ness’ is really something that is not even a word that people use in the City of Johannesburg.”

In short, lack of ideological clarity affects policies and the way people work towards achieving them. “There are different African cultures within Johannesburg,” explains Narsoo. “Really what we are wanting to move towards is a place where there are multiple cultures that find expression and are given space to do so.” Narsoo says the tagline could be resolved by acknowledgement that Johannesburg has changed and its innercity now comprises almost 40% migrants. “One of the challenges around that is how to deal with difference in the city and support it.” He adds: “The GDS process has been really amazing: you’ve got a top-down vision. What you need to do is aggregate a vision from the bottom up.”

I take to the Braamfontein streets to find examples of the City’s vision—or anti-vision, so to speak. I don’t have to go far for the first echo. But it has nothing to do with Johannesburg’s aspirations. Bertha Street, leading to the iconic Nelson Mandela Bridge that connects to the innercity, boasts a strip of hair salons. Charma Unisex promises “first-class” service. Before I can step inside, the police arrive and bundle someone into a waiting car. They are apparently on an illegal immigrant blitz and later repeat the exercise at an internet café up the road. Around the corner is another similarly marketed salon called Ebenezar’s First Class Unisex. It is in fact a dual enterprise of internet stations with a hair salon out back. Mba Alain, behind the till, tells me the city’s adopted tagline is an apt descriptor, for one simple reason: “I’m dealing every day with people from all over so it makes sense”. He does think the City could do more to “make it really exist”, so people can express themselves and “feel free to do what they want”.

Not to be confused with the Cameroonian salon, Ebenezar Alang Butt is a musician (artistic name Benza B) walking down the street in striking red and green national football strip. He has left what he describes “a gentle country” for Johannesburg because of its opportunities. He cites the buildings, trees, flyovers and educational institutions as examples of world-class status, as well as the high-speed Gautrain and Oliver Tambo International airport—“even if you come from London, it compares”. But the City could do more about innercity decay, he says, particularly rejuvenating the buildings.

An employee from the Central Improvement District says he cannot be distracted from his job to answer. His conscientiousness is not reflected in the view of Dorcas Matsobane, who runs a tattoo parlour. Although favourable about Johannesburg as a world-class city—“it’s like the capital city of Africa”—she battles with the smell of fish wafting into her premises from a retailer down the road and stinking rubbish dumped in the refuse bin outside. Often she has to wash the pavement herself. “We have different ideas about cleanliness. Some days I am crying inside,” she says, and puts it down to different expectations in a mixed community. Nonetheless, Matsobane says greater Johannesburg is on a par with cities like New York, which also battle the dualism of poverty and affluence. “Many people come here for jobs. It compares to some cities around the world, [all] with many different types of people. It’s really tops … It’s about standards—and Johannesburg can be compared.”

Matsobane is unwittingly very close to the intent of City officials when they originally conceived of the world class African city tagline. It helps to rewind. The term first came into being, says Erasmus, in 2001, at an early meeting between then mayor, Amos Masondo, politicians and executive staff. It reportedly made its first written appearance in an unpublished long-term strategy document, iGoli 2010, following discussion between city officials, academics and consultants. Mostly, iGoli talks about world-class services and standards, and includes a statement about “the desire for the city to be a world-class home where all its people can enjoy a superior quality of life”. Its executive summary states: “The strategic agenda to deliver on this vision is an expression of ambition to do so through being better than just average [italics added] … to build Johannesburg as a centre of excellence on the world stage—a place which in its uniqueness is world-class in what it offers, and world-class in what it demands of itself.” The phrase was formally adopted in Joburg 2030, a strategy document published in 2002. Following critique, “for all” was inserted at the end of the tagline in 2005 —some suggest this was to signal “world-class” and concern for the poor were not necessarily antithetical.

It compares to some cities around the world, [all] with many different types of people. It’s really tops … It’s about standards—and Johannesburg can be compared.

Such issues do not seemingly concern Braamfontein’s workers. Parked in his taxi at the kerb next to a Caltex petrol station, Thabane Mugwambana agrees with the city’s descriptor—for purely geographic reasons. “It’s part of Africa,” he says, “and it compares to countries like the USA.” Ernest Molefe, a security guard stationed outside the Pikitup offices, thinks the phrase apt because of Johannesburg’s educational institutions and employment opportunities. “Many people from other countries are looking for work here,” he says, “especially countries closer to South Africa”. And Nhanha Khumalo, an entrepreneur selling flowers, refers to stadiums and the Gautrain as world-class but thinks the City could do more to create employment for everybody.

Khumalo is one of few informal traders in this highly managed precinct. This in contrast to the innercity’s Jeppe Street, where informal traders are abundant, some selling illegal goods—in January, a joint police and military raid netted a reported R7-million in counterfeit goods. Ignatius Ndebele, a crystal rosary around his neck, is seated outside the rollerdoor to a Jeppe Street stall on a February walkthrough. He doesn’t think much of the city. “Nobody knows you or cares about you here,” states Ndebele. He believes Cape Town is a better world-class city, on a par with London—“where you are free”.

Service delivery is a major source of disgruntlement around the country, from metro centres to formal neighbourhoods and informal settlements. The former tend to voice their concern in the media: recent typical postings on mobilitate, a Johannesburg metro website, include a road ditch, a billing issue, a manhole complaint and Pikitup refusing to empty a refuse bin. Residents in formal and informal settlements last year took to the streets: Zandspruit, north-west of Johannesburg, in May protested against inadequate housing and political representation issues while residents of Thembalihle, south of Johannesburg, in September vented frustration at water metres. This was met with City Power claims that public infrastructure was being impaired by illegal connections.

City Power casts itself as a world-class electricity distributor. As such, its strategic priorities for 2011 and 2012 include improving public lighting, according to a City Power presentation at a public hearing in June last year. Street lighting to formal and informal areas during 2011-12 increased by just 1% (186,000 public lights) with a claimed maintenance figure of 97%.

Such strategies speak tellingly of city priorities—down to details like wattage and colour (which differ according to road grading) to lamp height (that affects both light quality and spatial dynamics). These kinds of observations intrigue artist Vaughn Sadie. His latest work-in-progress plots Johannesburg city streetlamps with GPS co-ordinates and tags them with identifiers via Google mapping. This growing online database forms the basis of nested incipient projects, including narrative texts and performance art that broadly relate to how people inhabit space and the role lighting plays in that.

I take a walk with Sadie, in the grid of innercity Johannesburg where his next project will unfold, to marry the top-down vision of the city with a bottom-up narrative of street infrastructure. He is strikingly tall and drives what he describes as a blue postal van, which funnily enough gets him confused on a regular basis with an Eskom electrician. We meet at Uncle Merv’s, a new sidewalk coffee shop in the self-proclaimed Maboneng eastern innercity, anchored on one end by Arts on Main galleries and retailers and the other by Main Street Life, a mixed-use development. Its lighting strategy is telling also, says Sadie: “It’s about creating an internal space rather than speaking to the larger area that the building exists within—that is one reading.”

Our walk effectively maps a compelling streetlight transition from the top-notch illumination of Main Street Life towards the adjacent MaiMai market, where a distinct lack of public lighting forms a strong counterpoint. Through this is a buffer zone that Sadie astutely observes—from defunct ceramic fittings to the contemporary sculptural forms of the new. “In strange ways the infrastructure just shows where things shifted,” he says. “I don’t know how the City sets out these tenders … but the light fittings themselves become an interesting way of seeing where and when the City is spending money, or how they are delivering or shifting an area.” He adds: “The objects themselves are often as interesting as the quality of light [at night]. They speak of a very particular period of history of change and shifting—not necessarily technologies, but how the city develops.”

The streetlights on our walk offer a literal palimpsest of the City’s strategy and impact. This ranges from the brutal remnants of a lamppost, spilling defunct electrical cords, to a new post right beside an old one, offering a comic doubling effect. “These strange anomalies start to happen as well when the City decides to change infrastructure,” offers Sadie. “These strategies are supposed to be uniform and consistent and yet once you look closely you realise they are really idiosyncratic.” There is an interesting historical aspect when you begin to look at how these things overlay, he states. “The streets themselves tell a story—of period and time.”

As Sadie points out, there is a deeper narrative also in a country where infrastructure has historically been used as a means of discrimination. Its contemporary manifestation is most obvious in the way pedestrians are catered for, or not. Sadie indicates new lampposts leading to a 6.5-metre public sculpture by Shepherd Ndudzo along Commissioner Street, which serve both pedestrians and cars. But as the road turns up towards MaiMai and under the flyover, which is regularly traversed on foot, paradoxically all thought of pedestrians seems to evaporate.

If you’d told me five years ago I’d be drawing cash from an ATM in the heart of Johannesburg’s innercity—at night—I’d never have believed it!

Sadie speaks of the City earmarking areas as ‘gateways’ often accompanied by concomitant paving and lighting strategies and indicated by public sculptures—such as Clive van den Berg’s Eland in Braamfontein. But maintenance is the crux for any regeneration programme to avoid the charge of cosmetic change. “With these gateways, they are valuable for a time and then that area itself [often] goes into disrepair and is not a high priority for the City anymore,” remarks Sadie. He adds a provocation: “Why only develop key pedestrianised walk areas? Why not start to develop into the areas where people are actually living, where they really need the illumination.”

The double armature of a street lamp catches his eye. He points out other examples of lighting, from security lamps to billboards as we circle back to more well-lit environs. “Lighting is vital to the way things operate,” suggests Sadie. “We take it for granted and only once it’s not there or no longer works do we really start to question our relationship to it and how it starts to define our experience – both our private and public spaces.”

The City of Johannesburg has an extremely impressive chandelier hanging in its council chamber. A couple of weeks prior to my meeting with Sadie, I answered a newspaper advertisement from the speaker exhorting members of the public to attend the monthly sittings in this chamber. The room set aside had zero takers and a non-working video feed but the media and public gallery had better company. The range of discussion was impressively broad, although there was no mention that morning of the day’s newspaper headlines: the City received a qualified audit from the Auditor General for the 2010/2011 financial year. The bulk of qualifications concerned the revenue management system and consistency of records used for billing of customers, according to Sapa. The following month, Johannesburg was rated the worst-performing municipality in the country by Ratings Afrika’s Municipal Financial Sustainability Index. It based this on financial position, operational performance (surplus or deficit), borrowing or liability management and liquidity.

Such instability will definitely make Moody’s review agenda. When Johannesburg next falls under the agency’s rating spotlight, the CSU will look a bit different. But it is less structure and more the form of engagement with this world-class African city that is most likely to affect its 30-year trajectory

Good academics, urban thinkers and raconteurs are being produced who think and theorise about the city, suggests Narsoo, but more grounded urban practitioners are needed. “We aren’t producing the kinds of urban professionals that really know how to go into an informal settlement and do new and different work, or how to develop something that is going to change that place in five to 10 years,” says Narsoo. “The question we haven’t asked is what is the identity of the [urban] planner for 2040? What is the consciousness of the planner? How do we build a new cadre of these kinds of managers?” Until we answer that question, ventures Narsoo, “we will not fulfil the outcomes we developed as part of the 2040 strategy”.

And by then, who knows, the City tagline could be: ‘Everything has changed’.

One Response to A Visionary Statement

  1. clara da cruz almeida July 4, 2013 at 3:10 pm #

    I liked your article, both the writing and the content; well told story. I don’t know when it was written… because I am amazed that Narsoo make that statement in the last paragraph.
    Has he never heard of the work of 26’10 South Architects? Thorsten Dekler; and Alexander Opper; and their innovative teaching at UJ where a course on informal settlements re-configuration is being taught for the past 2 years.
    Thorsten Dekler was quoted in “Diepsloot” by Anton Harber, mapping the future of the informal settlement, which I prefer to call the “flexible” settlement as informal deems it a quality of illegality.
    The real problem is that the City is not flexible enough, to cope with the high mobility required of the future city-life.
    Clara da Cruz Almeida, Pr.Arch

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