Easter musings.

Intriguing reports in the media this past week regarding the Kaserne Parking Garage in Harrison Street. The building had evidently been turned into an informal settlement housing hundreds of squatters and their families as well as a number of informal businesses. The latter included brothels and shebeens, food and cigarette sellers and a photocopying business servicing the adjacent Home Affairs building whose ‘customers’ are required to have copies made of a variety of documents. Some of the residents were clearly quite opportunistic even though the conditions they were living in were appalling - a JMPD officer is reported as saying that there were no ablution facilities inside the building ‘hence the stench’.  


The story raises a number of issues. Clearly the illegal occupation had been going on for some time – I heard one comment of at least two years – why had it taken so long for action to have been taken? Then, the building is supposed to be used as a rank for taxis, where had they been ranking if not there and why hadn’t they raised the problem with the authorities? How does the city learn more timeously about such issues before they become problems?


Quite co-incidentally, as part of the run-up to the Inner City Summit and Charter, a workshop was held with a variety of stakeholders during this week to debate exactly these sorts of questions and to seek solutions.


Sitting listening to the talk around the table, I couldn’t help but think on just how much our so called civil society has disintegrated over the past number of decades and how this situation seems to be centered in our cities. We all know and acknowledge the root causes of the disintegration, but we are now in our thirteenth or fourteenth year of a democratic state and we seem to be getting worse not better. I wondered if in fact this ongoing deterioration isn’t due in a large way to the erratic permissiveness of local government. I use the term ‘erratic permissiveness’ because we seem to have developed a mentality of ignoring problems when they occur and then, only when they have developed beyond a certain level, we go in to sort them out. I call that a ‘blitz mentality’ – let things get so bad that you can no longer ignore them and then go in with all guns blazing. Subsequently fill the media with stories about how good we are – we cleared out X tons of waste from the area – we arrested Y number of known criminals/druglords etc., we sent Z number of illegal immigrants back to where they came from. No one seems to be asking why X tons of waste were allowed to accumulate in the area in the first place. Why authorities were not dealing with the criminals and illegal immigrants as a matter of course and not under a programme called “Operation Recover our Streets” soon to be forgotten and the situation allowed again to repeat.


What has consistently come out of a variety of workshops over the past few months is a plea to Council to do their job every day and not once in a while when things are out of hand. They have clearly taken the point as they are closely examining a new approach to the urban management of the city that should foster a day by day style. I say ‘should’ because there are, I believe, some structural difficulties inherent in the system. One of these is the divided accountability that comes from having intensified silo management by having created a whole range of ‘independent’ municipal entities. If departments didn’t talk to each other previously when they were all ‘in’ the same organization, the situation is so much worse now that the structure is fragmented. It leads me to wonder at how much time is actually spent by decision makers debating the possible negative consequences of their decisions. The political jerry-mandering of the metro area into four metro sub-structures in the mid ‘90s led to the ‘sharing out’ of council resources across the four areas, a situation from which, I believe, we have never recovered even though it was dropped five years later. The consequences included demoralised staff and lost systems and processes.   


So here I am at a workshop where a suggestion is made that a system be implemented whereby every council official, irrespective of department or municipal entity, should report all incidents they come across, irrespective of their own discipline. Incidents such as accumulated piles of rubbish, electric street lights not working, pavements dug up and not fixed. Surely that is the responsibility of every council official anyway – the fact that one has to now design a process whereby a Pikitup truck driver reports a broken stop sign and a Joburg Water meter reader reports accumulated waste piles is to me a terrible indictment of the system. How many Council officials were aware of the festering Kazerne Parking Garage situation and said nothing? How many said something only to be ignored?


The discussion made me think back to when I had got my driver’s license (now some fifty years ago!) and how it was a time of courtesy and consideration for other users of the road. How traffic rules and regulations were to be obeyed and were! Crossing an unbroken line, going through stop streets or red traffic lights were virtually mortal sins whilst letting another car into vehicle queues was a normal courtesy. Today, every day, vehicles (and it’s not just taxis!) use the emergency lanes to ‘beat the traffic’, white lines are invisible, red traffic lights are green and if the queue to turn right is too long, start a new one in parallel and don’t worry about the line of drivers you are blocking behind you. Taxis deliberately block intersections, causing frustration and chaos – I’ve had occasion to drive over the Nelson Mandela Bridge a number of times this past week to repeatedly see taxis using the left lane, which gives access to the Queen Elizabeth Bridge from where they turn right to force themselves ahead of the queue at the traffic lights. At the junction of the M2 off-ramp and Jan Smuts Avenue there is a triangular designated no-go area at the intersection of the two roads that is now used as a ‘taxi lane’ to jump the queues! Get stuck behind a slow moving truck and those cars behind you are simply not prepared to hold back long enough to let you pull out to overtake the bottleneck!


Fifty years ago you didn’t even think of doing those things – you were taught good road manners and if you broke the law you were quickly penalized. After years of inaction we now fairly regularly see JMPD officers parked in the emergency lane of the freeway and, miracle of miracle, emergency lane users are few! Pity we don’t see JMPD officers at traffic intersections such as de Villiers and Rissik Streets, or at the Nelson Mandela Bridge or…………..! And when we see them around the corner of an off ramp ticketing cell phone users we note that on the other side of the street are dozens of squeegee operators intimidating drivers but ignored by the officers.


Articles that preceded the New York implementation of a “zero tolerance” approach argued that what might appear to be trivial irritations gives the impression that things are falling apart and leads one to feeling vulnerable about greater possible harms. A typical comment of that time; “If the city doesn’t care about one aspect of its citizens’ lives it probably doesn’t care about others.” In fact, as was later proved, ignoring aggressive begging, lackadaisical refuse collection, public drinking, excessive noise and de facto decriminalized drug selling led directly to soaring crime. “The devil-may-care atmosphere emboldened wrongdoers and a pervasive demoralization made ordinary New Yorkers anxious, pessimistic, alienated from civic life, slow to go into the city for pleasure, and quick to leave town for good.” Disorder gives the citizens of a city a sense that things are falling apart, that society is doomed, that there is no order in the universe nor in local government!


William Bratton, erstwhile police commissioner of both Boston and New York and one of those credited with the New York turnaround says; “They (the police)were openly giving freedom of the streets to the drug dealers, the gangs, the prostitutes, the drinkers and the radio blasters. A sense of fear and anarchy pervaded many neighbourhoods. The traditional order-keeping forces, the responsible adults in these communities, played less of a role as their own fear and uncertainty grew. They – along with the wrongdoers – had  gotten the message that even the cops didn’t care, and they were understandably hesitant to put themselves on the line.” 


Somehow we need to get back to a society that understands right from wrong and that breaking even minor laws will result in punishment. A society that collectively doesn’t allow parking garages to be turned into squatter settlements and brothels and a society that cares and provides for its disadvantaged citizens as much as for the advantaged. Till then, we will go ahead and continue to make great strides with repairing the fabric of the city but allowing its soul to slowly disintegrate.

 Have a restful and blessed long- weekend, neil


.Walking/Bus Tours by the Parktown & Westcliff Heritage Trust:- costs below are members/non-members. Bookings at Computicket 011-340 8000 or www.computicket.com  any queries phone 011-482 3349  mornings only.


14th April- “Highveld Habitats” - Bus Tour – trends in housing and lifestyles – R100/R115 – approximately 3 hours. 


22nd April– “Hills of Worship” – Walking Tour – a visit to significant graves in Westpark en route to the prayer circles in the hills – R50/R70-approx 3 hours.

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