A Lesson to Be Learned: Johannesburg’s failed all-inclusive metropolitan city

The Modderfontein New City project was launched amid much expectation, fanfare and media hype

Six years ago a major evolution was announced in South Africa. It was billed as a game changer as it was meant to alter the urban footprint of Johannesburg, Africa’s richest city, forever.

The Modderfontein New City project was launched amid much expectation, fanfare and media hype. Zendai, a Chinese developer, bought a 1600-hectare site north-east of Johannesburg for the development, which is quickly dubbed as the “New York of Africa”. In the early plan, it was to include 55,000 housing units, 1,468,000 sq. meters of office space and all the necessary amenities for urban life in the form of a single large-scale urban district. The cost estimate was set at 84 billion rands ($5.8 billion).

The developers believed that Modderfontein could function as a global business hub and would become Johannesburg’s main commercial center, replacing Sandton. The project would also change Johannesburg’s international profile by strengthening relations with Asian corporate interests.

But, despite the release of futuristic computer-generated images which led to significant publicity for the project, it was never built. Instead, the land was eventually sold off. Another developer has since begun construction on a much more scaled down project, in the form of a gated-community style housing development.

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Modderfontein has faded away from the public consciousness. The story of why it failed has never been adequately told in the media. Research, which took place over the course of several years, sought to understand the factors which led to the project’s demise as well as how Modderfontein’s failure relates to the broader African urban context.

Research showed that the project was hindered by conflicting visions between the developer and the City of Johannesburg. Moreover, unexpectedly low demand for both housing and office space meant the original plan for the project was incompatible with the city’s real estate market.

The project’s trajectory also shows how African “edge-city” developments, which are generally elite-driven and marketed as “eco-friendly” or “smart”, can be influenced by a strong local government with the means and willingness to shape development.

A war of interests

Zendai’s aspirations to produce a mixed-used, high-end development did not fit with the City of Johannesburg’s approach. Rather than a luxurious global hub, the city wanted a more inclusive development – one which reflected the principles outlined in its 2014 Spatial Development Framework.

At the heart of the framework is the desire to reshape a trend that saw capital leave the old central business district for affluent Sandton at the dawn of democracy in 1994. This was accompanied by an upsurge in securitized suburbs further north towards Pretoria, the country’s capital city.

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These spatial trends were incompatible with the ideals of South Africa’s new democratic government and its strategy to mitigate the effects of apartheid-era planning. During apartheid, black people were prohibited from living in more affluent areas, which were reserved for the minority white population. Instead, they were forced into sprawling “townships” on the periphery of cities, far from work and economic opportunities.

To this end, the city demanded that Zendai include at least 5,000 affordable homes in its plans. It also wanted to ensure that the development was compatible with and complemented Johannesburg’s public transport system. The city was willing to contribute funding for the necessary infrastructure and inclusive housing.

Yet Zendai remained steadfast in its commitment to its vision, eventually deciding against fully integrating the city’s wishes into its planning application. This saw the city draw-out the planning process.

The owner, Dai Zhikang, was eventually forced to sell his stake in the project to the China Orient Asset Management Company as problems continued to mount for Zendai. Rather than continuing with the project, the asset managers sold the land to the company behind the new housing development on the site.

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A look at the Smart cities in Africa

Over the last decade, a variety of developments like Modderfontein, including New Cairo in Egypt, Eko-Atlantic in Nigeria, and Konza Technology City in Kenya, have been publicized by both public and private sectors as panaceas for Africa’s urban problems. The idea behind this is that as the developments are disconnected from the existing urban landscape, they won’t be burdened by crime or informality. However, these projects would swallow resources more needed in the marginalized areas of the city.


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