The progressive Mayor of Tshwane Kgosientso Ramokgopa gave this interview to United World, where he talks about the province and tackling social challenges, and driving economic developmentTshwane is an important R&D hub for South Africa. Why do you place so much importance on R&D?
R&D will help us to find ways of building technologies so that we can house people cheaply and faster. That is why it is in our interest to make sure that we harness the presence of R&D centers here to help us to resolve any existing social problems. Generally, universities and similar institutions are historically detached from the real and lived experiences of our people. They are often disconnected from people’s experiences. This way we are able to bring them closer so that there is a bigger appreciation of their role because they are resolving an existing problem. That is why we are working very closely with these institutions – to help us to resolve our problems. You have said “The Smart economy is a sustainable future for Tshwane” What do you mean by this and what is the role of Vision 2055 in bringing this about?
Yes. For our ‘Vision 2055’ to be carried out, we must institutionalize long-term planning so that the kind of city we want to build, far outlives personalities. If I were to leave tomorrow, this vision must endure because we want to deliver across the racial and economic spectrum. There is considerable challenge involved in this. People feel as though this document represents our shared future. The ‘Vision 2055’ is anchored around three things. First is sustainability. Second is resilience. This means an adaption and mitigation of measures that need to be put in place, and considering future generations by reducing harmful effects on the environment. We also have an equal if not better opportunity to resolve their problems of the future. We do not want to undermine our ability to resolve their problems because we are selfish and taking care of our interest at their expense. Third is livability. My own rudimentary explanation of this would be the amount of time people are willing to spend outdoors. We are able to do that because it is safe for you to work at night for example. We have now developed lighted walkways, cycle paths which overcome vehicular and pedestrian conflict. We also have functioning streetlights so people can safely walk their dog or child. You are able to do that because it is a public facility that is open most of the day similarly to a library, park or any other public space of common interest. There is also security so almost every second block will have security watching over people. It might be CCTV or a metropolitan police officer. That is the kind of city we want to create. In the more affluent areas tend to have higher security and fortification. A rudimentary measure of affluence in South Africa is: ‘the higher your walls, the more affluent you are’. These people have created their own island where they are safe from the world. I don’t think that people are able to enjoy their wealth in this manner. Therefore, we are trying to open up these spaces. Public roads have been privatized by the rich for their exclusive use. We must produce an identity document. In the context of the social conflict in South Africa, this is necessary. We want to create an environment where people feel relatively free and safe. This is what I mean by livability. These are the three pillars of our ‘Vision 2055’. These are crucial for a transition from a central to a locally run economy. We started the process for the BRT (Bus Rapid Transit System) many generations ago. We have only introduced this system now. We want to penalize private car usage and put people on mass public transport. For it to be attractive it must be efficient, reliable, affordable and safe. This is what we are trying to create. Once we get the system running, and it will have these elements, people will be attracted to public transport. You must first create a viable alternative opportunity before you penalize people. One of the big debates in the province of Gauteng is the E-Toll. It works under the user-payment principle. There will be a rate to pay for every kilometer travelled. Unfortunately, people are opposed to this. Part of the problem with people’s opposition to the E-Toll is that there still is no viable public transport. It is understandable when people are upset when we as government are still working to provide alternative public transport. Therefore, once we create that, people will have no reason to complain. By implementing this scheme, there will be fewer cars on the road and thus reducing emissions. My primary training is as a Civil Engineer. My key subjects were transportation and traffic engineering and structures. One of the things that we learnt at university is that there is no public transport that is self-funded. The only exception is in major cities where user numbers are extremely high (threshold over 10 million a day) in cities such as New York, Seoul, Moscow, and many cities in China. In most parts of the world public transport is subsidized by the government. The best way to reduce these subsidies is to make sure that roads are grouped and connected when they are created in order to create economic corridors and connected living spaces for people. People in urban areas in South Africa tend to sprawl because they feel more comfortable in their own spaces. Even the headquarters that we are in process of building will be six stories high because in the city there is a lack of space. Space comes at a premium. Therefore we want to build vertically in order to create density. Once we create more density we are reducing travel distances and emissions. We are also benefitting because the cost of delivering services is cheaper. For example, providing a sewer line for one thousand houses in a more densely inhabited area is significantly cheaper. Therefore there is a cost-benefit to living within more densely populated space. Not only does this make it cheaper, but it also creates opportunities for racial integration. South Africa’s racial segregation has been perpetuated and we want to create more spaces for South Africans to integrate. We have the vision that one day Black, White, Indian and Colored will all share the same space. We see public spaces being shared by all ethnicities together by breaking the artificial walls that divide our society. This can bring about racial harmony. That sounds like a very worthy objective. How far away is the BRT from being rolled out?
The first phase should be up and running by the end of November. We have completed our roads. Our stations should be completed by mid-October. What will still be outstanding is the automotive systems. Public transport in South Africa works on cash basis. We would like to have a cashless platform. Hopefully this platform could also be used across the ‘twenty busiest cities’ and would serve multiple purposes. The pass will be able to be used for bus fares, but also for municipal accounts and even making transactions in retail stores. The last step in order to achieve this is to gain the approval of the regulating body. The second phase will be completed by October 2015. This will continue until any place within a 25km radius of the center will be connected to the BRT. One thing that you have focused on has been the idea of township revival. Could you please tell us a bit about operation ‘I Can’ and the importance of the image of Tshwane?
One of the biggest advantages of townships is the density of population. Black economic empowerment and affirmative action are policies introduced by the democratic government in order to accelerate the participation of a previously excluded people into the mainstream economy. It has succeeded in creating a new black middle class. The backbone of the performance of our economy lies in the growth of that middle class. In South Africa there is an 80% black African population and 20% white. Therefore you need that 80% to be affluent in order to drive the economy. People are now more affluent in relative terms and hence consumption increases. Black people gradually move out of the townships and move into more affluent areas. We need to invest into township economies so that can grow and service the needs of the local people. We need people to invest in these townships, even from other parts of the country. We also need people with capital to invest in these businesses. You are able to create indigenous entrepreneurs from those localities. We know that their loyalty will be with those townships and therefore they are more likely to invest back into them. Potentially you can uplift the conditions of the people living there. There exists a phenomenon called ‘Stockfel’. Every month say three people each contribute one thousand. For that month one person of the three has her salary plus two thousand. Each month those people will alternate. This money is banked and can be used in case of a berievement such as funerals which in Africa are expensive. This business is worth R130 billion which is quite significant. The problem is that we do not appreciate the buying power that we have. There is money still in the bank. We could be investing it in other ventures but we are not doing that. Stockfel is a very big business but its main purpose is to help people. I used to be the CEO of the biggest fresh produce market in the world in terms of volume. Our turnover when I left was around R4.5 billion. Around 40% of that was from the informal sector. The informal sector does not reap the benefits of their buying power. They need to be pooling together. By buying in volume the end consumer can benefit from a reduction in price. Therefore you will be able to attract loyal consumers because you appear to be cheaper. Over time you will make more money from volume and not necessarily the margins. People in the townships do not see it that way. By pooling together the informal sector sellers can save money on transport and volume. People in the township do not work in that way. This is one of our objectives. One of the most important sectors of the townships economy is car washing. The township I grew up in is considered more affluent than rural townships. Therefore we would see people in cars from even more affluent areas which would get a car wash in the township. We need to pool together the different car wash companies on these streets in order for them to benefit from economies of scale. We will provide land, access to water pressure points and equipment. The key to that model is to guarantee a certain amount of business so that they can have a steady income and plan their future better. This is how we will drive the township economy forward. We are not revolutionizing the economy as they already have the assets. We are simply professionalizing their businesses and creating a culture of cooperatives. Your plan is for township revival which involved simple economics. There is also the idea of a high-tech ‘smart economy’ by rolling out Wi-Fi within the metropolitan area. Could you please elaborate on that idea and how effective that has been for you?
I read a publication from the World Bank. It suggests that internet connectivity can increase GDP growth by 3 to 4%. Another publication by an American economist suggests that the maturity of the internet eco-system has the capacity of raising people’s living standards. For example, the roll-out of free Wi-Fi could benefit a people from a poor household. Let us suppose that this person is finishing school, is intelligent and is accepted to one of South Africa’s most prestigious universities to study medicine. However, he/she is unable to afford student accommodation due to a lack of income and therefore is forced to live at home. This means that this he/she must catch the first bus to leave for university and the last bus home. Access to Wi-Fi in a study center or library is hence much more restricted for him/her. Therefore completing assignments becomes a lot more difficult as she has no electricity at home. This puts him/her at a major disadvantage compared to the more affluent students who have easy access to these facilities. With free access to Wi-Fi this disadvantage can be improved significantly. You are increasing the opportunity for young people to participate. All that is needed is a mobile phone. It also has the capability of transforming our businesses way of operating. Businesses can connect freely to the internet and operate from their house with a cap at 250MB per day. This translates to 7.5GB per month which is quite significant. People are able to transact and communicate from home. The idea behind free Wi-Fi is to create a developing country that is ahead of its time. I believe that we should treat internet access in the same way that we treat basic services such as water, electricity and sanitation. This will become the case with the passage of time. We have already rolled out around two hundred and fifty sites already. By the end of the calendar year we will have rolled out another two hundred sites. And at the same time next year we will have rolled out another two hundred sites. This would mean that at this time next year we would have around seven hundred free Wi-Fi sites. The priority is in schools and those have been covered in our biggest townships. Our current phase aims to complete all schools and public spaces such as hospitals and soccer stadiums. Anyone within an 800m radius from that site will be able to connect. About 90% of our community is within 800m of a clinic, hospital, school of park. We are confident that by the end of 2016 we will have wall to wall coverage. This will also revolutionize how they transact and interact in the city. For example, we are introducing a new application to enable people to use a porthole to take a photo, get coordinates and send them to us in real-time. We know that this is happening in many parts of the world. However, in South Africa this is relatively new. Could you please tell us a bit about the challenge of corporate governance and battling corruption within the municipality so as to ensure taxpayers get value for money?
One of our major constraints in the South African environment is that local government is highly legislated. This minimizes innovation because the law prohibits a lot of things. Moreover, there is an issue of capacity. By this I mean skills and financial resources. We are attracting many people to the city of Tshwane. However, most of these migrants arriving in Tshwane are poor. Once they arrive here they demand basic services which the constitution allows them. In relative terms the newest parts of the city diminish and the backlogs grow. That is an unfavorable situation because they will run into financial difficulty. Finally, we are facing the challenge of corruption in public representatives and civil servants. These people want to maximize the opportunities they have at the expense of the general public. Essentially, these people are pillaging state resources and using them for their own self-enrichment. In some cases it takes sophisticated forms making it almost subliminal. For example, if it costs us R3 million to build a kilometer of road, it costs us R4.5 million instead. The road is of a high quality, delivered on time and employed local people but it costs us R1.5 million more. In other words, this is 50% more than the real cost of the road. Those are subliminal forms of corruption even though the process was clean. Over a period of time, this creates public discontent. These are the perfect ingredients for a revolution. A government that appears corrupt, with a significant portion of the population living in abject poverty not having access to decent employment. This unemployment and other lack of opportunities come together and mount an assault against the establishment due to unmet promises and grievances that are not attended to. The issue is the legitimacy of the state. This is something that requires our attention. The biggest challenge that governments in developing countries face is corruption. And it must surface more quickly because of people’s conditions. We cannot turn a blind eye to it because there is such a disparity in our society. People are either extremely rich or extremely poor. This is the gap that exists and we wish to close it. The corrupt want to increase it as fast as possible. Therefore there are all the ingredients necessary to create an upheaval against the state. This is our major problem. The controls must be effective to minimize chances of corruption. I don’t think we will get to a stage where we will be able to completely eliminate it. The problem here is the degree of the problem. Here it is accentuated due to the high levels of poverty which makes people more criminal. To combat this we need to build capacity. We need skilled people to discharge, execute and prosecute. These are the responsibilities that are expected of us. And it needs to be done in an efficient manner in order to restore public confidence and our ability to lead. This is something that is in short supply. It is a question of leadership. I am talking about the totality of society. We need to build NGOs and social movements over a passage of time. Thirdly we must be able to galvanize people to a point where there they are aware of their rights so that they can group together and mount a campaign to ensure that they realize their rights. This might be going against me as mayor. However, it is crucial that people know what their rights are so that those rights do not get trampled. People can have a united voice of resonance. That way we are able to hold ourselves and public representatives more accountable. Public representative will be more careful in their actions because they will know that people will hold them accountable. If people do not engage, it becomes a free-for-all where people are disinterested. These are the things that require attention. I am confident however, that if we do not do something about this, that there will be a major problem. It will cease to be a social problem and it will become a political problem. I guess the issues surrounding the Arab Spring are that there are net promises made to young people and these are not being carried out. Equally, the grievances of young people are not being responded to. And there is the presence of despots who are trying to squash the voices of an organized society. We thought the despots were in charge. But in fact they were not. People came together and this demonstrated the power of unity. The other side of the Arab Spring was that they used public platforms and public media to organize themselves. These people never had a face. In these revolutions, everyone was a leader. This is why despots are back in charge. There is no personality or figure that you associate with this revolt like Mandela here in South Africa. There are lessons to be learnt from this. It is important that we appreciate that we have major advantage over the global North in that our population is very young. However, this youth does not have the skills, is unemployed or unemployable, and live in conditions of poverty. They only need to come together and they could cause a revolution. It is therefore important to take care of that because it could cease to be a social problem and become a political problem. We must not be in denial and accept that this problem exists. Tshwane has a lot to offer from a tourism point of view. How do you see Tshwane developing as a tourist destination? And what does Tshwane offer to the private sector in terms of exciting projects and sectors?
Our major selling point in our history is that we have a very rich political heritage. Nelson Mandela was imprisoned on Robben Island for several years. However, he was arrested here and incarcerated here before he went to Robben Island. The first armed combatant of the liberation movement they convicted and hung was Solomon Mahlangu. He served a sentence in the same prison as Mandela. Then the Rivonia trial took place in the Palace of Justice. The longest serving political prisoner was not Nelson Mandela, it was Robert Sobukwe. The latest one is the Last Mile which was the last trip that Nelson Mandela made in the capital city going from the Military Hospital to the Union Buildings. The point I am making is that there is a very rich political history in the city of Tshwane. That is something that we want to elevate. The Union Buildings are the seat of power but the lawns are public space. People must reclaim this space which is a very nice interface. We want to put the city on the social calendar. The only thing that is emphasized in this city is its political history at the expense of the other things that we can offer.
With regards to business, we have introduced a law at a city level (a bylaw). We created eight tax havens. Companies that invest in a particular sector and geographical location of the city will be exempt from paying normal tax for ‘x’ number of years. We determine ‘x’ as a function of the size of investment the company has made in that area. Our primary objective is not necessarily money in the bank, but rather to create employment and stimulate economic growth. Hence, people are able to pay for their services. We receive more money and build more roads and houses. This is very important. Innovations such as the provision of free Wi-Fi separate us from our peers. No-one else is offering it at the scale that we do. By the end of 2016 we hope to have wall-to-wall coverage of free Wi-Fi. We are also investing in economic infrastructure. The issue surrounding the BRT is to facilitate the ease of movement for people so that they can access more extensive economic opportunities. When people come to invest they are expected, according to the law, to make a contribution to the amenity costs. However, we propose to pay for these expenses and exempt the company from this cost as long as the company can convince us of the economic spinoffs. We are saving the company money so that it invests that money into the business. We will get our money back because more people will pay for their taxes. That money will be invested in connecting the company to the main line called the grid. We might not get it in three years, but rather in ten years. However, after ten years money will come into our coffers. That is how we want to build the economy of the city. We have also improved on our decision-making process. We are now faster and more efficient in our decision-making process. Businesses need to know that if we make them an offer to do X, Y and Z, they cannot take eighteen months to decide. If this is the case, there is an opportunity-cost due to inflation. It is therefore critical that decisions are made quickly. We are trying to do this now. For example, even for major projects, it is taking us fourteen days to make those decisions. This is how much we are trying to improve the quality of decision-making. Tshwane will be hosting an Infrastructure Investment Forum in October. What is its importance for attracting investment?
Unfortunately, the forum which was organized by the TITIIC is being moved to next year. It was supposed to take place this year; however, the standard of planning was not at the level we were hoping for. Consequently, we have postponed it to next year. Essentially, it is an opportunity for us to showcase projects that are ready to attract investment. This works in a way that enables us to answer questions posed by investors including: ROI, ensuring state legislative hurdles are overcome, and assuring environmental impact assessments are in place. We try to put forward projects to potential investors and hope that we can marry them and make a project take off. You are a civil engineer by profession. However, what attracted you to politics and what keeps you motivated in such a difficult job?
I was born into poverty and I am seventh out of eight siblings. I grew up on the boundaries of an area that used to be called Beirut. Our area has produced the highest number of MK soldiers per square meter than any place in the country.MK was the armed wing of the ANC. Two of my brothers were in exile due to this. It was a national meeting point. Therefore, when I was young there used to be meetings behind my house. I was a young boy and could not comprehend what they were doing. The township would be up in flames and I was socialized into that. However, my mother insisted that I stay away from politics as my brother was in exile and she feared he would never come back. But my involvement in politics was almost inevitable. From high school I was involved in the Congress of South African Students (COSAS) which is a student wing of the Liberation Movement. It did not have direct ties to the ANC but it had close ties to it. When I left for university I was a leader of the South African Student Congress which is a student body organizing students at university. And that had been my life. When I finished I wanted to make a contribution to the country through my professional skills. At that time I resided in Johannesburg. In the year 2000 my sister insisted that I come home to represent my area. That is when I became a part-time counselor whilst retaining my work as an engineer. Then I went on to lead the ANC in the region. From that point my sister suggested that I should aim to be Mayor and that is how I got where I am today. However, I see myself more as an activist. I would like to see myself contributing, even outside my professional skills; I will try to help build communities. I have even forgotten how to design a bridge (such has been my commitment to politics). Instead of me looking for politics, it found me. This is what I have learnt over the years.Who inspires you?
My mother is my greatest inspiration. I would never have thought that a conservative person of a rural background, growing up in poverty and having never been to school could have the vision and stubbornness to ensure that their children go to school. This is the type of person my mother is. She possesses the humility of Gandhi; the love, patience and empathy of Mother Theresa, and the boldness of Nelson Mandela.