🔒 Premium – RW Johnson: Sans gold, Joburg a world-class city NOT, facing inevitable decline

The video below showing the moment of this week’s road-ripping explosion in the Joburg CBD, is the perfect segue into RW Johnson’s brilliant contribution that follows.


The City of Gold is an awful mess. The biggest local government Budget in South Africa has been pillaged for decades by innumerate parasites. Easiest pickings were via maintenance contracts awarded to politically connected insiders – paid for at top dollar, but with zero value delivered. As Herman Mashaba told us ages back.  

Consider, too, the ANC-run Metro’s vainglorious boast of being “a world class African city”. Something its delusional councillors actually believe: they successfully defending the self-awarded title last year after a ratepayer’s complained to the Advertising Standards Authority. The arrogance of ignorance.

RW Johnson offers an intriguing thought. In short: Joburg was built on gold. But that ran out long ago. With its lifeblood gone, the city’s distance from water (a global rarity) suggests decline is inevitable. Overlay a governing class of rent-seeking parasites and….well, no need to be a rocket science to work out where it all ends.

– Alec Hogg

Sans gold, Joburg a world-class city NOT, facing inevitable decline

By RW Johnson

The water cut-off for 58 hours in Jo’burg was a warning shot. The water expert, Anthony Turton, says that this should never have happened if Joburg Water hadn’t failed to do its maintenance properly or if it had used its data on water consumption properly so as to be able to predict and plan for future demand. But that is the world we live in. It is safer to assume that in any institution controlled by the ANC there will be a failure to do such things properly and, quite probably, the money allocated for maintenance will already have been stolen. 

If water can be cut off for several days to South Africa’s biggest city, the same thing can happen anywhere. And quite possibly for longer. 

Back in the 1970s water experts used to stress that South Africa was a dry country and only had enough water for a maximum population of 70 million. But in that period Water Affairs were under expert and competent management. That is no longer true: when Nomvula Mokonyane was Minister for Water Affairs she virtually destroyed and bankrupted the whole department. 

Moreover, the regional water boards are usually stacked with incompetent and often corrupt ANC deployees. And we know that in the ANC-controlled cities a prodigious amount of water is being wasted because of leaking pipes. The money to repair them is quite normally stolen or, at the least, diverted to pay the salaries of the city’s overpaid officers and officials. In ANC-controlled Durban over 50% of the city’s water is lost through leaking pipes. 

What that means is that the realistic maximum population which can be sustained by our water resources is now well under 70 million. And in fact South Africa’s population has already passed 60 million. (This is, incidentally, one of the strongest arguments for stringent immigration control.) As it is, water trouble is pretty certainly coming your way.

Sometimes, however, one gets a fresh angle on matters from an unlikely source. This happened to me in 1995 when, in Jo’burg, I ran into one of my former Oxford students, a very clever young man who had just been sent out to South Africa by his employer, the World Bank. (Quite a few of my students ended up at the WB through its Young Professionals programme.) The young man in question had never visited South Africa before and I asked him what his first impressions were – expecting, I suppose, to hear something about politics or race.

“Your cities are in the wrong place”, he said in amazement. “It’s literally gravity-defying. You’ve got this great big conurbation around Johannesburg and another one in Pretoria and then the whole East Rand. And there’s nothing like enough water for them to be there, so water has to be pumped uphill to them – that’s why I said literally gravity-defying. This is absurdly difficult and expensive and if those cities had to bear the real cost of delivering that water very many fewer people would live there. It’s completely crazy. The only rational thing to do is for every business or institution that absolutely doesn’t have to be there – maybe just a few mines – to relocate to the coast where there’s adequate water.”

He had a point. Almost all big cities are founded on large rivers because the need for fresh water is elemental. And of course the trekkers who had opened up South Africa’s interior had gone there in search of farmland which, by its very nature, would be sparsely settled. It was purely the accident of the discovery of gold which provoked the world’s biggest gold rush and ended up by creating the vast conurbation of which he spoke. President Kruger’s Pretoria was the only (small) town before then.

Moreover, he was right that now that the gold mines are mostly worked out, there aren’t that many enterprises that have to be in Gauteng. They’re there because all those people are there, together with the established infrastructure. The professional services – the retail chains, banks, airports, hospitals, doctors, lawyers, schools and universities – could as well be anywhere and so could all the ancillary businesses that attend them, the builders, plumbers, electricians, garages etc.

This gives one a new way of thinking about the large semigration which is now taking place towards the Western Cape. Primarily this is a movement from Gauteng and there are, of course, other migratory streams too – most notably from the Eastern Cape to the Western Cape. 

But these movements are not happening because of water. Helen Zille once got into hot water by referring to the influx from the Eastern Cape as being one of “refugees”. However, I am not a politician and can write what I like so I would say that mainly the influx to the Western Cape is indeed composed of people fleeing ANC rule and its effects. Should the ANC somehow miraculously recover and win the Western Cape and Cape Town, I have no doubt that semigration would come to a thunderous full stop.

It’s a pity that these migratory currents are not more about water. If they were, the Eastern Cape, if it was properly governed, could attract a lot more migrants from the interior. The recent water shortage in Nelson Mandela Bay was more to do with the appalling mis-management of water resources than with inadequate rainfall. In fact the Eastern Cape is one of the better watered parts of the country. 

But the real winner would be KwaZulu-Natal, which receives more than half the country’s rainfall. Moreover, the province can grow just about anything, has the two biggest ports and potentially the country’s biggest tourist industry with its game reserves, all-year-round sunshine and wonderful beaches. In the 1950s and 1960s, when ANC misgovernance was not a factor, Natal (as it was then) was the fastest growing part of South Africa. Ironically, the abysmal mess that the ANC has made there over water and sewage is actually pushing people away. 

The migratory flow into the Western Cape is already producing water shortages in some areas and the province is going to have to hustle to ensure that its provision of water (and other services) keeps up with burgeoning demand. 

It’s an odd situation. Internal migratory movements are most often to do with climatic and economic development factors, though governance can play a role – for instance, the flight from high-tax Democrat-controlled states in the USA. Usually though, governance factors play a subsidiary role. Yet in South Africa they clearly play the dominant role. It prompts a question. If so many people want to run away from the party which provides the national government, how long can it remain the national government ?

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