Barney Mthombothi, writing in the Sunday Times, decried the decision of the Johannesburg City Council to rename William Nicol Drive in honour of Winnie Mandela.
Having tangled with the lady in many jousts inside and outside parliament, I share his view of Mandela’s Janus face: a liberator of note coupled with her role as a fermenter of violence, kidnappings and a string of killings of young men, which Mthombothi characterises as “grisly skeletons in her cupboard”.
There is, though, another aspect of this controversy which goes to the heart of the priorities, profile and profligacy of the current administration in Johannesburg, and its own “tattered legacy” to filch Mthombothi’s description of Winnie Mandela’s record.
Some months back I visited the magnificent Turkish city of Ephesus, in the eastern Mediterranean. It is one of the most important centres of Greek, Roman and early Christian civilisations, made famous for posterity in various books of the New Testament.
Extraordinarily, given the city was sacked by an Arab Caliph in about 654AD, more than 1,300 years back, the splendours of Rome and its empire, enduring and technologically extraordinary, are still on display. Thus, the tourist hordes, like me, marvel at marble pillars, advanced aqueducts which provided running and even heated water to the many villas recently excavated. Not to mention the baths, sturdy roads, temples and amphitheatre, whose remains suggest that whatever its other ills, the Roman Empire provides living evidence of its once mighty existence.
To be sure it was a brutal enterprise purchased on the breaking backs of slave labour and punishing taxation.
The fluent chronicler of Rome and its empire, Tom Holland, described the political and economic conditions for those who lived in Asia.
Minor under Roman rule: “It was a legacy of misery and chaos. The cities groaned under punitive extraction; the social fabric was nearing collapse; along the frontiers, petty princelings snarled and snapped.”
But in his recently published book, Pax — War and Peace in Rome’s Golden Age, Holland noted the flip side, still evident on my recent visit:
“It is hard, even for the most casual visitor to Ephesus or Pompeii, not to feel impressed by the sights. Temples and theatres, baths and libraries, paving stones and central heating: all constitute ready markers of the Pax Romana. To this day, whether in films, cartoons or computer games, they serve as shorthand, not just for the heyday of the Roman Empire but for civilisation itself.”
Forward thousands of years to September 26 2023 and Pax ANC — which can creditably claim to have brought peace to conflict ridden South Africa, together with rag tag minority allies and a yapping EFF (which demanded credit for the decision) — triumphantly presided at the renaming event for Winnie Mandela Drive.
Even the grand dame, and remaining cabinet member of the Jacob Zuma RET faction of the ANC, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma found time to attend, even if she did not find either time or the inclination to attend parliament — in defiance of a three-line party whip — to vote for the impeachment of her ally, former public protector, Busisiwe Mkhwebane.
To be perfectly accurate, this was not a new road or highway, there is no such thing in collapsing and bankrupt and ill-governed Johannesburg. It has run out of money, water, fireproofed buildings, and even the vestiges of competent administration and the provision of basic services. It was simply a question of slapping a new name on an old apartheid-era highway.
The contribution of Pax ANC and its Johannesburg administration as ground zero of its rule will not endure in history except as a warning sign of how maladministration, corruption and predatory rent seeking “undermined from within and below, in the way termites silently hollowed out the base of a wooden structure”. That was the epitaph of another historian Simon Sebag Montefiore in his verdict of the predatory Mughal empire in India which collapsed, under the weight of its own excesses and missteps in 1739 — a thousand years after Rome. But at least one of the last Mughal emperors, Shah Jahan, bequeathed us the marble mausoleum splendour of the Taj Mahal at Agra.
Quite what visual splendours Pax ANC will leave to the future must remain open to doubt. Most likely the poet Shelley got their measure best when he wrote of a vanquished malign ruler: “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings. Look on my works ye Mighty and despair! Nothing beside remains. Round the decay of the colossal wreck, boundless and bare the lone and level sands stretch far away.”
And on the photographic evidence of the road renaming bash, replete with amateur sign writing on collapsing kerbstones and crooked street lampposts used to adorn the new name signs, even that exercise was a half-baked effort in mediocre event management designed for, at best, a one-day R250,000 photo op. Hardly one for the ages, given the dire condition of the roads themselves, with potholes of crater size and repair and reconstruction impossible given the ballooning size of the consumption (salaries and perks for 40,000 employees and 270 city councillors) budget and the fleeing ratepayer base migrating out of the municipality.
In Ephesus you can today walk along the roadway constructed by the Romans more than a thousand years ago; how long the traffic will flow safely along William Nicol/Winnie Mandela Drive is less certain but not another millennium — but most would — in our world of diminished expectations, be grateful for another decade. Or even a year or so.
The street renaming did, though, serve one purpose, but its utility must also be open to question even as his future is shrouded in doubt. There is actually a mayor of Johannesburg who does on rare occasions appear in public. Unlikely to have heard of him or certainly to have voted for Kabelo Gwamanda of his obscure political outfit, Al Jama-ah. The Ah part of their name is important since, ahem, only 1% of residents actually cast a vote for Johannesburg’s current executive mayor, but he was installed as a result of a cooked-up deal between the ANC and EFF to divvy up the municipal spoils of office between them; and use the useless mayor as a nodding puppet to do their bidding.
But while mayor Gwamanda presided at the street renaming event, he was absent from a meeting in late September called by the national minister of water and sanitation Senzo Mchunu to address, not resolve, the water cuts now affecting two-thirds of the city. He apparently missed other meetings on the crisis which now has provided an addition to the great South African books of euphemisms: “water shifting” (in place of water stoppages) joins “load-shedding” in place of electricity blackouts.
And the Rand Water Board, stuffed with deployed cadres on its board and purged executives who awarded themselves bonanza bonuses, while the taps ran dry, is a facsimile of the graft, corruption and dysfunctionality of Eskom. Never mind Transnet whose bowler hatted departing CEO Portia Derby scored a multimillion-rand exit package for managing to ensure that fewer tonnages ran on its rails in 2023 than in 1993, the last year of apartheid rule. And for arranging the departures of skilled technicians.
Still, the mayor is not entirely absent. He had some time, apparently, to approve the board membership of the Johannesburg Property Company (the municipal entity which owns in its vast multibillion rand portfolio the “hijacked” building in Albert Street where 77 people perished in the recent fire).
The Sunday Times advises that among the property and financial experts and boardroom mavens, hand-picked to restore order to the chaos in the city administration, are “a tollgate cashier, a receptionist and a person with a grade 11 education”. But their real qualification for the board is their joint membership with the appointing mayoral committee member Nomoya Mnisi, in her ANC party branch and zone.