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THE BIG READ: Imagine Joburg on steroids

Ray Hartley | 2013-08-21 00:39:16.0
The Rea Vaya bus system will be the vascular system of a made-over city of high-rise flats and nine million people
Image by: LAUREN MULLIGAN

The year is 2040. The rain is incessant, with storms that last for days. And it is hot. The heat comes in waves that seem to go on for longer and longer. It turns out that the climate-change hype was real. The daily failure of the ageing electricity grid makes air-conditioning erratic.

Then there are the millions of new residents. Diepsloot seems a quaint suburb when compared with the vast unserviced semi-formal settlements that now surround the city. The population has doubled to 8.8million in the 27 years since 2013. Commuting to and from work - for those who have it - takes several painful hours on the barely passable roads. Rising instability is a real threat.

This is the doomsday scenario that the city's finance chief, Geoffrey Makhubo, summons to explain why Joburg is planning to spend no less than R100-billion on infrastructure over the next 10 years.

The doors of the lifts that take you up to Makhubo's Braamfontein office have already been branded with the city's "Corridors of Freedom" marketing hype. One set of doors depicts a racially integrated crowd on a street surrounded by high-rise developments including a clinic, a library and a grocery store. There are no cars to be seen as a mom pushes a stroller along. "Restitching our city to create a new future" reads the writing across the lift.

At the core of the infrastructure spending plan, which kicks off with the doubling of capital expenditure this year to more than R7-billion, is a grand idea: the city must be reconfigured around massive public transport corridors enclosed by multi-storey housing, businesses and healthcare and educational facilities.

They want to bring an urban model called Transit Oriented Development, which has been successfully applied in renewing US inner cities, to Johannesburg.

"We are running out of space, we have to think about different types of residential accommodation. We have to densify," Makhubo says.

Research into urban commuting shows that those who live within an 800m radius of public transport are more likely to use it because it is within quick walking distance. If it works, it is a far cheaper and faster way of getting around than driving or taking two or three connecting taxis. And it is less damaging to the environment.

For Makhubo and Joburg's planners there is another motive. They want to break the pattern of "spatial apartheid" in which the poor live in distant squatter camps while the better-off occupy suburbs close to economic activity.

The backbone of the transport system will be the Rea Vaya rapid transit system, which has already begun operating between Soweto and downtown Joburg along a route that has been given the bureaucratic tag "1a".

The next step will be to activate "1b", a corridor from Soweto through Bosmont to the inner city via Empire Road. It is no accident that the "1b" corridor will place three public hospitals as well as several private ones and two universities within one commute of residents from the city through to Soweto.

To buy into the hype, you need to allow yourself to imagine a different city. In place of the grey and disorganised residential and industrial sprawl along the route, you see high-rise accommodation with retail outlets on the ground floor on either side of the widened road. Pedestrians on their way to and from work rub shoulders with university students and grannies returning from a visit to the hospital. Red buses move thousands of passengers along the reserved lanes on the road. At night, the residents come downstairs to listen to music or to eat at pavement cafes under the stars.

A third route - "1c" - will run north up Louis Botha Avenue from town to Alexandra and then link westwards to Sandton. In the more distant future the Old Johannesburg Road could become an additional "trunk" linking to Midrand.

Along these three corridors - and a possible fourth linking Diepsloot and Randburg to the inner city - the council will use zoning to encourage the development of dense housing mixed with businesses. The theory is that private property owners will be tempted by a radical improvement in returns to convert single house stands into high-density accommodation and business premises.

To manage increased demand, the council will focus on improving the electricity grid, storm-water drainage and water infrastructure along the routes.

Doing all of this while attending to the decay of the existing infrastructure - all major arterial roads will be resurfaced, for example - will take some doing. And there are nagging questions. What if the high-rise dream turns into a Hillbrow-esque cesspool of low-rent shops and drug dealing? Where will the money come from? Is it possible to ramp up capital expenditure on this scale without problems of capacity and accountability? Is this not a potential feeding trough for unscrupulous operators?

Makhubo believes there will be enough money to make the corridors sparkle. Between the national government's infrastructure grant, improved local revenue collection and money raised on the markets, there will be sufficient funds.

To make sure the projects are properly funded and managed to eliminate waste, Makhubo has established a programme management office consisting of engineers, planners, finance specialists and supply-chain managers. Situated in the city manager's office, it will be their job to identify and eliminate inefficiencies. If finance is not available or if projects are running late, they will, the theory goes, raise the alarm before there is a log jam.

The council is betting everything on this attempt to revive the city, not least because its political leadership is fighting for survival. The DA, which now has 90 of the council's 260 seats (the ANC dominates with 153), is aggressively targeting Gauteng and Johannesburg as places where the ANC is vulnerable because of disenchantment with service delivery and the failure to maintain infrastructure.

The man leading the charge is the DA candidate for Gauteng premier in next year's general election, Mmusi Maimane. Charming, urbane and comfortable in a well-fitted grey suit, he fits in with the trendy crowd that is hanging out at a Braamfontein coffee shop, where I meet him to discuss the plan.

"Heck," he says, "if it comes off, it will be phenomenal." But, he adds: "It's a pipe dream."

He is sceptical about the city's ability to spend on this scale when it struggles to spend its existing capital budget of just over R3-billion. "How do you ramp up to R7-billion? Where is the engineering capacity?

"The administrative support you need to run R100-billion in spending requires fairly competent people. The city has received a qualified audit from the auditor-general. There aren't enough qualified people to run the existing budget," Maimane says.

Makhubo defends the city's audit record, saying the qualifications have been based on technical accounting breaches, and do not show that money was abused.

If the council's radical plan to reboot Joburg as an integrated, public transport-based 21st-century city comes off, it will be be a sustainable place for its millions of new residents in a wetter, hotter world. But if it fails, it could be the final roll of the dice for an administration that operates in a sea of scepticism.

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