Remaking Johannesburg, says executive mayor Parks Tau, requires not only a future focus and commitment to a long-term vision, but patience and courage too

Words by Lesley Lokko | 20 Sep, 2015

Soweto-born Mpho Franklyn Parks Tau, or simply Parks Tau to his constituents in Johannesburg, is executive mayor of South Africa’s most prosperous city. He is only the second public official to hold this important office since the administration of Johannesburg, the country’s most populous city, was unified into a single metropolitan entity in 2000. A long-time member of the ruling African National Congress and active in its structures since his early involvement in student politics, his youth is often a point of focus. Tau was born in 1970, which would place him on a pension by 2040, a time when Joburg expects to meet its ambitious growth and development stratergy milestone.

“Johannesburg needs to change course,” states Tau in ‘Joburg 2040’, a document explaining this strategy released shortly after he took office in 2011. “We have made a commitment to the citizens of Johannesburg that, as the city, we will not treat citizens as passive recipients of government services, but rather as active agents in shaping their own future. Creating spaces for conversation is our duty as developmental local government, as we collectively seek to tackle the immense changes and opportunities that lay ahead.” Transport infrastructure is an important arrow in his quiver.

“The shape of the future city will consist of well-planned transport arteries linked to interchanges where the focus will be on mixed-use development—high-density accommodation, supported by office buildings, retail development and opportunities for leisure and recreation,” stated the executive mayor in 2014. He has dubbed these transit routes as “corridors of freedom”. The project is consistent with the city’s 2040 growth and development strategy. “Mass public transport really is one of the few ‘silver bullets’ through which to deliver resilience and sustainable development,” reads ‘Joburg 2040. “Scaling up and investing in mass public transport is one of the surest ways in which to also address and manage the legacy of Johannesburg’s apartheid spatial form, by connecting people and places, and giving those who still remain in disadvantaged township communities access to new opportunities.”

The mayor discusses his ambitious vision for Johannesburg with architect and academic Lesley Lokko. This is an edited version of an interview recorded on 4 September 2015.

Lesley Lokko: The British architect and historian Denys Lasdun once said that every city needs a creative myth. In other words, cities need to be constructed around an idea of a city, as much as its reality. If you think about the way Beirut is sometimes referred to as the “Paris of the Middle East”, or Edinburgh is the “Athens of the North”, what would you say Johannesburg’s creative myth might be?’

Parks Tau: Well, when I think of Johannesburg, I think of it as a cosmopolitan city. We always say it’s a city of migrants, the melting pot, and in real terms, it is a melting pot. It’s the one city where you have a concentration of migrants, a concentration of peoples, cultures, activities, that bring vibrancy to a city, with, of course, sometimes the challenges that come with that. More than a fifth of Johannesburg’s inhabitants were born outside the city, and around 14% of the people in the city were born outside of South Africa. Johannesburg has been a city in transition for the past decade: the number of people coming to the city in search of opportunity has significantly increased. People are drawn here by the myth that Johannesburg is a city of opportunity, but it is also a city where, in certain instances, people become mired in urban poverty and despair that is entrenched in certain parts of the city. But it is a city of opportunity, and that’s why people are attracted to Johannesburg. It’s why they keep on coming.

LL: This brings me to a question that I was intending to ask a little bit later. The American Sociologist Richard Sennett says that living with people who differ from us—ethnically, religiously, racially, economically—presents one of the greatest challenges of our time. In a sense, what you’re saying about Johannesburg is that probably we have the greatest concentration of differences, probably many more than most other cities. Would you say that is true?

PT: Yes. If you compare South Africa to most other African cities, Johannesburg is the one city that tends to attract more people from outside. And while that presents many opportunities, it also presents many challenges. The city struggles to create an interface between different communities that arrive here. People end up in enclaves and the integration is sometimes superficial, particularly at the lower-income levels. Higher-income communities are better integrated; there is cross-pollination and an interface between locals and internationals, between people from different backgrounds. At the lower economic level, however, people tend to congregate in much smaller communities.

We’ve been grappling with this in the Johannesburg Advisory Council: how do we create a sense of community? On the other hand, you have to appreciate the way people congregate amongst themselves when they come into a new environment.

LL: I’m not from South Africa or Johannesburg. The one thing that really strikes me here is how South African cities are always made up of three simultaneous cities: township, inner city and suburb. Are you trying to break the separation between these three very different forms of city?

PT: The three different “cities”, as you call them, exist by design. We inherited cities that were designed around mono-functionality where you had the historic CBD, which had concentration of commercial activity; a suburbia, which was exclusively white; and, finally, townships, which were exclusively poor and black with limited tenure. You had places surrounding the inner city, like Hillbrow, so-called “grey areas”, which, even before 1994, had black residents. At the same time as black people arrived in the inner city there was an exodus of whites leaving the inner city. Hillbrow, and neighbouring areas like Berea and Hillbrow, were places of transition. They have become the springboard for people who are coming into the city, a stepping-stone into the city. This is also the area with the highest concentration—if you look at the demographics—of migrants.

LL: I’m an architect and it’s quite fashionable for architects to disparage the gentrification that’s going on in parts of inner-city Johannesburg. I wonder how you see it? One of the things I notice in places like Newtown, Maboneng or Braamfontein is the genuine mixing that occurs—particularly amongst the young. What do you think of places like Braamfontein and Maboneng?

PT: They are really important. It’s been a great transition to get people back into the inner city, onto the streets and out of the malls, to create a sense of community. Areas like Braamfontein and Maboneng have become the real city. They create their own vibrancy where people can find themselves beyond the historic divides of the city. And I think in many ways it represents the future we aspire to. Understanding our history, we know that the future we want is one where you can see beyond race and class to a society that creates greater opportunities for people. We want this to be a city that creates equitable access, where people have the opportunity to gain access into an urban environment. People shouldn’t feel that the city “isn’t for them”’, that they’re not able to gain access to it. Those areas represent the beginning of something new.

LL: Is this a model that you would like to see taken up in other parts of the city? The model of regeneration along class, rather than race lines? South Africa has such a battle on its hands in the sense that not only do you have to deal with racial inequality, but also that class and race have been the same thing for so long. The struggle is on both fronts, simultaneously. I can’t think of many places that deal with it in such direct ways.

PT: Yes, it is tough. I always think it’s a measure of the progress we’ve made in the past 21 years, the fact that, as you’re growing the black middle class and creating people who’ve moved beyond the confines that apartheid imposed upon them, they are able to see beyond the limitations of race and class. We think about building a future South Africa and the process of building it is what we’re currently undertaking. It is about creating more and more of those people, getting more people out of poverty so that they can find self-expression in the city, so that they are both able to confidently interface wherever and with whomever in the city. Confidence is key. Some of the divides that still exist are artificial. People don’t go to certain parts of the city because they feel they don’t belong, or are not welcome in these exclusive places where they might not even be able to afford a cup of coffee.

LL: Going back to Sennett for a moment. One of his key ideas is that in order to be together, we have to practice at being together. Cities are collaborative endeavours. Like any other activity, practice makes us better, if not quite perfect. But since race and class have been interchangeable here for so long, black culture has become synonymous with poverty. How do black South Africans enact, as you call it, self-expression in the city? How does one enact one’s own culture within the city? My question isn’t just about being able to afford a cup of coffee or the right to be in certain parts of the city, rather what I’m asking is how can a city begin to articulate what culture really means?

PT: I think it’s in the ability to create confidence, or the feeling that you belong to the city regardless of race, colour, creed, or even nationality. You need to have a sense that you’re part of the city. In the first few years of our freedom, the bias was towards investing in the areas most marginalised, so that you bring the people up and emancipate them. There’s been somewhat of a shift away from this, not only in terms of developing the townships but also towards developing equitable transport. How do you bring the centre into the township? How do we get the bus rapid transit (BRT) into a wealthy mixed-use neighbourhood like Sandton directly from neighbouring Alexandra? How do you make linkages between Alexandra and Sandton through mobility? And how do you use technology to drive that? How do we reinforce what’s happening in Braamfontein through creating a wireless mesh over the entire downtown that celebrates the fact that this is possibly the highest concentration of young people in Johannesburg, where they are able to be in the city that they aspire to? Take the Neighbourhoods Market, a food and retail market held every Saturday in Braamfontein: that’s the South Africa we aspire to, and some of us are actually beginning to celebrate it. The challenge is how to reinforce that so that it becomes the norm, or the expression of what the new South Africa is.

LL: An interesting challenge because, on the one hand, whilst trying to articulate what the term “world-class African city” [a branded expression adopted by the City of Johannesburg] really means, you’re also trying to see beyond the problem. So, again, you’re back to doing two things simultaneously: articulating and innovating in the same breath. When you talk about things like technology being one form of access and public transport being another, it seems as though you’re grappling with a wide range of things in the same space and time. It’s an enormous challenge.

PT: It is, and in many ways, it’s come to be what we articulate as the need for an inclusive urbanism, one that accepts this history of segregation and separation, but at the same time, you’re trying to foster inclusivity in the form of urbanism, whether through space and mobility, or through technology. Accepting the facts of history, but also knowing what you aspire towards, so that you’re not just stuck in the past, or hampered by it.

LL: I was in Brussels a year ago and the outgoing EU President was trying to create a legacy—as they all do—and for one reason or another, his was African cities. Someone came up with the idea of an African Mayors’ Institute, a bit like Kofi Annan’s Peacekeeping Centre, where you’d bring together people—mayors, public officials, urbanists, architects and so on—to try to find African-led solutions to specifically African issues. Would you support something like that? When I hear you speaking about inclusive urbanism, it strikes me that you’re really talking about a different discipline—not quite architecture, not quite urbanism, not quite public policy—that requires a different sort and mix of skills. Is that idea something that excites you?

PT: Certainly it excites me because it suggests that we need to think outside the box. If you talk about Johannesburg as a melting pot, you’re bringing different things to the pot and you have to ask yourself: well, what do you want to get out of this pot? For me, it’s always been about vision. Can we set a vision and work towards it? We can’t always be talking about the past. We need to start talking about the future, and specifically, what sort of future are we building? And that future has to be about greater equity, in cities that have been defined by disparity. It has to be about transcending the limitations of a transition of power. So, should we talk about the digital divide in the next five to ten years, or should we talk about something else? Should we move beyond, to the next question, where citizens believe themselves to be part of a city and they are able to take advantage of the opportunities?

LL: When you use the term “world-class city”, what city are you thinking about specifically? Do you have a model in mind? Or is this more to say that we don’t want to be weighed down by perceptions of what an African city has come to be? How do you frame a world-class city for yourself?

PT: When we debated the “world-class city” category, there was this question, “Do you include African cities in the debate about world-class cities?” Maybe when you say the words world class, you’re defining yourself only within the context of the developed parts of Johannesburg where those parts are comparable to anything you’d see in more established cities in the world. Or do you accept that we are a city that is uniquely African and the characteristics of the way in which trade happens, the way people interface with one another, have greater informality. For us, being a world-class city means aspiring to be a city that deals with the problems it has, and knows that within our own environment we’re unlikely to be a Rio de Janeiro or New York, but rather that we’re a South African city with uniquely South African characteristics. We’re also a city that plays an important role in international affairs, both for the people in the city, but also in this country and on this continent.

LL: If you think about the cities you have travelled to, what are the characteristics cities that stand out for you?

PT: I think it is access. Maybe I’m trapped in my own history, in the history of our own city. It is the ability of people to gain access to all parts of the city, to the ladder of opportunity that all of us want to climb, where there are no limitations other than the ones you place on yourself. It depends on what you do, because it’s a city of opportunity. It’s always difficult when you arrive in a city and you find there are many different parts that don’t add up to the whole. And we have that here, and it is those things we have to overcome. It’s that ease of access, of openness in other cities that I’m attracted to, and where I find greater equity.

LL: One of the things that strikes me when I go to cities like London, for example, is how the public transport network functions as a great equalizer and leveller: you can sit next to anyone. It’s such a part of what makes London tick. Transport is the big issue here, for similar, if differing reasons, so it was interesting to hear you talk about putting infrastructure in place that will bring people together. It’s a risk, too, that you put these enormous projects in place in the hope that it will lead to something else, something different. Those sorts of undertakings are also beyond a four-year term, so how do you judge whether what you’ve done has worked? How will you judge your successes or failures?

PT: I would say that has probably been the most complex part of this administration because we set our sights on long-term objectives and we committed ourselves to leading the city on a new trajectory. The Corridors of Freedom transit-oriented development project aims to stitch the city together. We can’t achieve these things in the short term. It’s not something you can do in an electoral term and then say, “Look, here are the Corridors of Freedom.” In reality, these are complex spaces; they are designed within development spatial frameworks. There are a lot of market forces involved. You have to navigate all sorts of complex issues. But these are routes to the future. If you commit yourself to a growth and development strategy to take us into 2040, you need to build the stepping stones towards it. The conflict within the organisation has always been around how to deal with the future aspiration of Vision 2040, without forgetting our context: poor people who do not have jobs and access to opportunities.

I think in many ways that’s how we evolve, how we move towards this inclusivity that is not only defined in space, but in time. If you think about it, as executive mayor you put forth a vision for 2040 and accept that you may not even be there to see it unfold, or see whether it worked or not. But at least Vision 2040 has got us pointed in the right direction. We have to ask ourselves, how do we enable people in historically disadvantaged positions and communities to become responsible citizens so that they become part of they city, and how do you create that as a platform that enables people to believe in this vision for a different city? How do we begin to attract different activities into historically disadvantaged areas so that there’s almost the reverse of the spatial divide, not just by taking people closer to opportunity but by bringing opportunity closer to people? But those are long-term goals. You also have to define what you’re doing in the interim.

LL: It sounds as though you’re describing your role as a catalyst: you set the path, and then you hope that certain things will follow. It’s an interesting position for someone in his mid-40s, quite bold. You may not be there to see the results. Would that satisfy you as a legacy? To be the person who put these things in place and then left before anything concrete was delivered?

PT: I always think of my role as exactly that: a catalyst. It’s to put the building blocks in place because we can’t come back in 2040 and say, “Oh, here’s the apartheid city.” To answer your question slightly differently, I always say to my colleagues that maybe being young urges one to do exactly that. Chances are you’ll be in place to see the results, and to read the history books that judge what you did. So, you know, you say, when I come back in 2050, what do I want to see in the city? And this is the city we aspire to: I can’t take a short-term position on it.

LL: Some people would say that has been the curse of democracy in Africa: we’re hampered by political terms when so many of the initiatives we need to put in place require a longer-term view. We’re always back to square one. We rarely ever get the chance to see things come to fruition. You’re describing a situation in transition, but the reality is that the political processes are also always in transition as well. What do you think you’ll do next? After this stint as mayor, however long it lasts, is over?

PT: I don’t know. I’m going to start by answering the question you haven’t asked. When I come to the office, many people ask me what sort of legacy I want to leave and I haven’t actually thought about it. The most important thing for me is to build an institution whose orientation is progressive, whose focus is on achieving those basic socio-economic objectives, an institution that is not dependent on me to think about the issues that need to be addressed. An institution where it almost becomes second nature to think in this way. There are certain things that departments do now where I wake up and think: this is exciting, they’ve thought about the future, and about building the future. And that for me is possibly the most exciting thing about this job. It suggests that whilst we might not be there ourselves, we’ve built an institution where thinking about the future is part and parcel of what they do.

LL: It’s interesting you mention that because, as you know, working in the academy now, where the agenda is about transformation, the great temptation is to think about it only in terms of skin colour. But actually the bigger and more exciting project is the transformation of knowledge, of canon, of accepted truths. That’s what you’re hinting at: that it’s not just the city that might change, but also the way we think about the city. The way municipalities organise themselves to deliver services. Again, though, it comes back to the issue of the scale of the project. You’re tackling ten or more huge paradigms simultaneously. Apart from anything else, it takes an enormous amount of energy.

PT: Yes, it’s exciting. It’s what drives me—and my colleagues in the city. Sometimes, you do feel that this is a big project, trying to get to the next level. It’s not as easy as making decisions about housing—about where to plonk them and where are the best places, which is an easier thing to do—or cutting ribbons. The challenge is getting the institution to continuously think through things. We had a mayoral committee yesterday in which we raised questions about human development indices. How do you want to measure what you do against human development indices? What are these key indices and their interdependencies? Someone remarked that when you want to address life expectancy, you can’t think about it only as a health issue. There’s health, yes, but there’s also planning and nutrition. All sorts of factors influence your ability to achieve a particular index. People begin to see and appreciate the need for a broader interface. If we’re measuring the index, then in fact the dependencies are much greater. Increasingly the organisation is working this way: let’s integrate our efforts so that we’re able to achieve the greater goal.

So you have people in the department talking about different things: what are we doing about nutrition and you’re running nutrition programmes because the lifestyle diseases have become so prevalent, and you’re running programmes about exercise and healthy living and the debate is now about healthy living lifestyle indices, and the means of measuring where cities are going. That’s the exciting thing driving us in the city. We’re basically measuring qualitative elements of life, not quantitative. You have to accept that when you’re dealing with big issues, you need to keep your eye focused. But being in politics, there’s a risk that you have your eye on the bigger agenda, and you lose the agenda of winning the next election. [laughs]

LL: The curse of the five-year term. Listening to you, it strikes me that one of the things that is particularly special about South Africa is that you’ve come out of this legacy of very rigid separation and suddenly we’re in the opposite situation where we need to think about the connections, not separations. The shift in the way we think is enormous and exciting. The conditions force us to think differently. And that brings me to another point: architecture and urbanism. What are these disciplines? They’re being cracked open. I keep thinking that in 20 years’ time, the African architect will no longer be the creature we inherited, with particular skills and abilities, but with a different sort of skill set. There’s nothing negative about it: our conditions in Africa are such that we’re challenging the professions to organise and describe themselves differently. Maybe that is some of the excitement you’re talking about: forming things as we go along. But how would you measure your own success? If you looked at Johannesburg when you came into office and thought about it when you leave, what would be the things you’d look for?

PT: Inclusivity. That’s what cities are about. Digital access, choice of where to live, inclusivity in social and academic and work environments.

So, building a city that creates greater equity is really a measure of success. But those are not easy things to define or achieve—not as easy as building a BRT. Early on in my term of office, we had a debate on what the Phase 1 of the BRT should be. The original proposal was to run it from the CBD down Oxford Road into Sandton. We debated how inclusive that was. How about running a line from Hillbrow, past Houghton, into Alexandra over the M1 highway into Sandton. A difficult project but in many ways a much more exciting project, particularly if you look at what the potential of such a project might be, what it could do to Hillbrow in terms of access and the regeneration of the area, as well as areas along the way, some of the wealthiest suburbs of the city. So it became a much more politically complex project, but also more inclusive, bringing different communities into the same space and time. Maybe in the short term the wealthy might not hop onto the bus, but I suspect if you’re sitting in traffic for 30 minutes and the bus keeps going past every day, there’s a day when you’re going to decide to leave the car and use the bus.

LL: And I suppose it’s those small moments and gestures that you see here which have the potential to change the narrative. When I first moved to Johannesburg in 2009, the buses on Empire Road were largely empty. Now, six years later, they’re almost full: students, commuters of all races, workers. It’s a bit like a London scene. It’s taken five years for a shift to occur but I suppose that’s the thing about cities: change happens both slowly and rapidly.

PT: Yes, you have to have patience, and courage. You have to have the courage to wait for things to happen. I’m taking a huge risk here, but I’m confident that this might happen in five years. There may be a time when you have to say, well, it didn’t work, but if you don’t make the decision you’ll end up stuck in the past.

LL: That’s a great word to use when thinking about cities: courage. The projects that one rolls out have huge implications—from budget to policy—so you need a certain amount of courage to make the call.

PT: It can be very difficult. When we were buying the bus system, the Reya Vaya Phase 1 B, along Empire path, the infrastructure was standing idle for some time. The project was sequenced in such a way that we had to import the bulk of buses. We stood our ground and refused. The reports then stated that we had not spent our budget. The measures against which we were judged said we weren’t doing our job or doing the right thing. But we were clear that actually we had to help grow local industry, so those that judged us—or rather me—were likely to say that we weren’t doing our job, or doing it well. But we had to keep our eye on the ball: this is what we’re trying to do.

It’s like when we decided we were converting our Metro bus system, which is now a wholly-owned city bus company, as opposed to Reya Vaya, which is owned by a number of stakeholders including taxi operators. We said we’re going to use this as a platform to introduce alternative energy. Customers were unhappy, the operating team was unhappy: everything was stacked against us. But our team decided we needed to make the transition to alternative energy and buy green buses. It was a difficult decision. We know that our target is biogas, and to get there we have to make a transition from dual to CNG fuel, and eventually move to biogas. We’ve set our sights on the target, and we’re going to do it.

But it’s difficult.

It’s possibly easier in the first two years of your term of office, and gets more difficult [laughs] when near the end. In the beginning, you make the decision. You look at the opportunities and the sort of value chain you’re trying to create but also how do you make the leap forward? If you’ve made the commitment, you’ve got to follow it through. But the systems are still fairly bureaucratic. If you haven’t spent your money or your allocation during its time line, you lose your subsidy.

We have the advantage of a fairly solid balance sheet so in the instances where we do take the risk our balance sheet can carry it. The same is not always applicable to our counterparts in other cities. I find that the collective of public officials in this city is prepared to make those sorts of decisions.

LL: The topic is really interesting. It centres on how one behaves in the city, how we read instructions on what we should be like as city-dwellers, how we understand public culture. One of the interesting things about African cities is that there’s no general consensus about how to behave in the city, or how one should be—literally— in public. Do you think that education has a role to play here? Can we educate ourselves on how to become city-dwellers? Is that a worthwhile pursuit? How do we understand what to do when we arrive in the city? You’ve talked about Johannesburg being this city of migrants but how do such migrants interpret and negotiate public space, given the enormous differences in terms of where we’ve come from when we get here? Take, for example, the Americans and their citizenship curriculum. Do you think such a task could and should exist at school level? A class in what it means to be urban?

PT: I’ve never really processed that thought, but I think there’s value in having that discussion, particularly with our children about what a city represents, especially given our history. And what does it mean to be part of a civic culture. We’re not just individuals in terms of our civic culture, we’re also civic beings. It doesn’t mean your only option is to be an activist. It means recognising that the basic things—or requirements—of a civic individual, like space or mutual environment, are inter-dependencies that require people to work together. And I suspect it’s partly how you teach this idea, and how you grow and construct it. I’m not sure you can always say to people, you know, this is what being a Joburger is. I think it’s an interesting question nonetheless, and something we have to grapple with as we move forward, because cities are going to play an increasingly important role in all our lives as migration and urbanisation increase, and as cross-pollination—not just in cities, but also between cities—increases too. So, yes, there’s going to be a need for a common platform from which we address and speak to each other, but also from which we listen and learn.

Lesley Lokko is an architect, novelist and head of the new Graduate School of Architecture at the University of Johannesburg