(This Piece first appeared in The Herald on 10 February 2023)
I’ve been working for some hours at home today. I am not sick or being lazy or even seeking peace away from the city. Instead I am here because loadshedding happens at my home office at different times to my “city office”. So I plan my travel in to town to synchronize with when there will be power there. I am sure others have many of their own stories to tell of their strategies in coping with the almost impossible reality of running a small business at this time.
What I want to talk about today though has only partly to do with loadshedding. I want to discuss the growing realisation that we have a huge oversupply of unnecessary red tape in this country. There is a slowly emerging acknowledgement that red-tape has played and continues to play a significant role in perpetuating South Africa’s 15 year old electricity crisis. While the causes of the rolling blackouts we experience today in South Africa are numerous (and largely criminal), I am made to be slightly hopeful by the President’s recent acknowledgement of the role that excessive red tape has played in causing and exacerbating this crisis.
My knowledge of electricity generation, Eskom and state capture is very limited. What I do know quite a bit about though is land and buildings. It is in this part of the economy where you will find red-tape galore. Red-tape, though, has devastated the property development sector in a different way, perhaps in even a more vicious way, than it has devastated electricity generation. I say this exactly because the devastation in this sector is very difficult to measure and so therefor very difficultly for journalists to write about or for presidents to make speeches about. When excessive red-tape has caused load shedding, the physical evidence is there; plain and obvious. The lights go off! The Wi-Fi stops working. Farm animals die cruel deaths and fast food outlets stop serving meals.
But the devastation in the construction and property industry is invisible. We cannot see a block of flats that has not been built. We cannot visit a clinic that has not been opened. We cannot attend classes in a school building that has remained un-built because of departmental delays and inter-governmental haggling about budget cycles and whether or not the Auditor General may have this to say or that to say about the manoeuvres that were carried out to avoid the red tape in order to get things done!
No huge billboard goes up on a vacant site that says “There would have been a nice Hotel here right now if the Municipal Planners (or Provincial Heritage Authority or The Environmental Approval Process) had not dragged on for ten years causing the investor to loose heart and go somewhere else” No. There is nothing as dramatic as the lights going off, just the silent closure of long running construction companies; just the gaunt look on the faces of skilled artisans, now jobless at the side of the road.
But what of the red tape? Why is it there? Who does it benefit? and … Is there anyone that is even vaguely interested in removing any of it?
Of course there must be some order and where there is order there must be a process. There must be some red tape. In the property sector we need to have enough order and enough process to be sure you know what land you own and what you don’t own. The basic rules though are not a problem. The problem that we have faced over the years since we have first started building cities and towns in this country, is that every time some rich connected aunty is un-happy with something in her street she makes it her life’s work to get legislation, or zoning, or by-laws in place that will make things more comfortable for her already privileged self. Eventually over the years no property can be developed without a huge amount of planning control governing how high, how wide, how long a building may be and what you may and may not do in the building (if it is ever built). Of course with every new rule, comes and new application process. Red tape builds up over the years. Every time a new rule is invented, a new application process is dreamed up and a new army of junior officials are employed to mindlessly “process” the applications with a glazed over “I’m just doing my job” look on their face.
Slowing the economy down like this is a rude irritation for those who live in first world cities and towns, but to the voiceless 42,8% of the Eastern Cape population that is ravaged by unemployment, this state of affairs can only be understood as unforgivable, genocidal neglect.
But; it has taken a very long time to build up this complicated and unnecessary amount of property red tape. I am not saying it must be made to go away in a day. In fact, all I am calling for is that our city’s leadership, our Mayor, take the lead from our president and at least acknowledge that we have a red-tape epidemic in our own Metro. From this clear leadership, plans can begin to fall in place to remove all but the most essential limitations on those driven to create jobs and opportunities by building buildings with their own money on their own land.
Is this too much to ask?