Ramaphosa dreams of skyscrapers and bullet trains – here’s what happened to the last R84 billion smart city

 ·23 Jun 2019
Modderfontein City

President Cyril Ramaphosa outlined his vision for a new state-of-the-art South African smart city in his state of the nation address this week.

“I dream of a South Africa where the first entirely new city built in the democratic era rises, with skyscrapers, schools, universities, hospitals and factories,” the president said.

“This is a dream we can all share and participate in building. We have not built a new city in 25 years of democracy.”

The smart city, the president said, would be connected to other hubs by a bullet train. “We should imagine a country where bullet trains pass through Johannesburg as they travel from here to Musina, and they stop in Buffalo City on their way from Ethekwini back here.”

“Has the time not arrived to build a new smart city founded on the technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution? I would like to invite South Africans to begin imagining this prospect,” Ramaphosa said.

The president’s vision of the future however, has been met with skepticism. Professor Loren Landau, of the African Centre for Migration and Society at Wits University told the Sunday Times that the concept of a smart city is a distraction from the real work that needs to be done.

“What we need is a dream for how existing cities can be made more equitable, connected, and productive,” he said.

“I expect a highly designed, fantasy city will further the country’s spatial division. Much like the elite enclaves constructed by private developers, it will reinforce the divisions between highly productive, well-serviced sites and places of poverty and marginalisation.”

Landau said that Ramaphosa should instead focus on upgrading and integrating existing cities that work for everyone.

Failed project 

Ramaphosa said his dream has been fueled by president Xi Jinping, “whose account of how China is building a new Beijing has helped to consolidate my dream”.

However, South Africa’s most recent effort to build a smart city did not go according to plan, and was eventually aborted.

In 2014, Chinese development group Zendai Developments, announced its intention to build an $8 billion city (around R84 billion at the time) in Modderfontein in the east of Johannesburg.

The development was promoted as a smart city which would rival Sandton with nine functional zones, including a CBD, entertainment centre, and residential and educational districts.

The project was earmarked to be built on a 1600ha piece of land over 15 years (to be completed in 2030), housing approximately 30,000 families and creating up to 200,000 fixed jobs for the local community.

However, with some infrastructure development making headway, news coming from the project fell silent by mid-2016. And by the end of the year, the project was dead.

Research conducted by Ricardo Reboredo, a PhD Candidate in Geography at Trinity College Dublin, and Frances Brill, a research fellow at UCL, tracked the project’s progress, trying to identify what went wrong with the plan.

According to the researchers, the project was thwarted by conflicting visions between the developer and the City of Johannesburg.

This was exacerbated by unexpectedly low demand for both housing and office space – which meant the original plan for the project was incompatible with the city’s real estate market.

“Zendai’s aspirations to produce a high-end, mixed-used 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,”  the researchers said.

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