by Iswamo Kapalu

A few days ago, on my way home from work I came to a stop in traffic. A middle-aged woman on the side of the road waved me down to ask for a lift to her daughter’s school. She reminded me, somehow, of my own mother so, I obliged.

First, there were introductions and then the uncomfortable silence that quickly and inevitably ensues between strangers. But soon, the dense and almost tangible quiet, that overwhelmed even the car radio, was broken and we began to talk.

She told me she worked for the City of Johannesburg. Never one to let mutual unfamiliarity restrain my curiosity, my first question was – albeit light-heartedly – about the City’s infamously poor billing system.

For the blessed among us who have never personally encountered the city’s wrath, the system essentially doubles some people’s rates in the space of a month. Contestations over the phone only produce an endless pile of scrap paper inscribed with a similarly endless list of reference numbers. There is, of course, never any resolution. Most people find themselves having to go, more than once, to the City of Johannesburg in person to try and sort this out.

Unexpectedly, but to my surprise, she explained to me that a good deal of these billing errors were not errors at all. In fact, she told me, they were a scam devised by some of her co-workers. The goal of the scam was to tire people out and solicit a bribe for a quick and painless resolution to the problem.

But she also explained that times are changing in the City of Johannesburg. She told me that the initial icy relationship between the city and its new government has somewhat thawed since last year’s election. She told me that the seriousness about combating crime has energised a workforce previously demoralized by rampant corruption. “People finally feel free to do their jobs” she said.

She regaled me with tales of the corrupt luxury some high ranking officials in the previous administration enjoyed. Breakfasts and lunches at hotels, overseas holidays and rigged contracts all on the city’s dime. She told me all of this with the tone reminiscent of a prisoner who had recently escaped captivity.

It had never occurred to me before but as she spoke it became clear that corruption not only benefits the corrupt, it simultaneously corrodes the will of the innocent to work towards good.

As we pulled up to the leafy street lined with parents franticly loading schoolbags and sports equipment into family sedans, we said goodbye. We thanked each other and went our separate ways.

For days my heart was at ease with who it was that has running my beloved city… but then enter Helen Zille.

In a series of tweets on the 16 March she implied that we ought to be kind of grateful for the displacement and social decimation of colonialism. Apparently this gave us piped water. Sigh. After the twitter rant I swiftly returned to my previous state… that of hopeless angst.