Mon, Oct 28, 2019 - Page 7 News List

The quiet failure of a Chinese developer’s ‘Manhattan in Africa’

A refusal to include affordable housing led Johannesburg to reject glossy plans for high-end housing, offices, a rail station and an entertainment district, but now the city is only likely to end up with more gated communities

By Nick Van Mead  /  The Guardian, JOHANNESBURG

Illustration: Yusha

The Gautrain rushes through the green rolling hills and grasslands of Modderfontein, the commuter rail’s gold livery recalling Johannesburg’s reason for existence as a mining town, and speeds past the platforms of the commuter station that was never finished.

Four lanes of smooth tarmac lead over the horizon. Streetlights evenly spaced and dropdowns from the kerbs make it easier for pedestrians to cross than in much of South Africa’s biggest city — except there are no pedestrians. The paint still looks fresh and the markings clear, but these roads to nowhere end in concrete and steel barriers.

These are the few signs of what might have been: a plan by Shanghai-based developer Zendai Group for a new city district of gleaming skyscrapers, high-end housing, offices and an entertainment zone to be funded by R80 billion (US$5.5 billion) of investment over 15 years.

Hailed by an excited media as an “African Manhattan “or a new New York for the continent, the view from the top of the tallest Modderfontein towers would have passed over the densely packed Alexandra township to the very real steel and glass of Johannesburg’s existing financial center in Sandton, 8km to the west, where the latest skyscraper, the 234m Leonardo, has just taken the crown as Africa’s tallest building.

Modderfontein was to be to Johannesburg what Eko Atlantic is to Lagos, Nigeria — a shiny new start on the periphery of an African city that promised to fix all its existing problems.

Beyond a few connector roads and streetlights, the Chinese developer’s dream never became reality. Refusal to agree to the Johannesburg authorities’ demand for affordable housing meant planning permission was never granted. The land ended up being quietly sold, and resold, and is now in the hands of a company that appears to be developing the site piecemeal into a series of gated communities.

“The sale of the land and failure of the project was never really publicly announced,” said University College London research fellow Frances Brill, who studied the case in depth with Ricardo Reboredo from the University of Dublin.

During a three-year period, Brill and Reboredo interviewed 50 consultants, architects, engineers and local authority planners involved to piece together what happened.

Did Modderfontein’s failure prevent the gap widening between an aspirational “world-class city” project and the reality faced by the majority of Johannesburg’s population, or should it be seen as a missed opportunity?

Back in 2013 when the project first hit the headlines, Zendai Group chairman Dai Zhikang (戴志康) told the South China Morning Post that the development would act as a hub for Chinese firms investing in sub-Saharan Africa.

With funds from the Bank of China, Zendai had bought Modderfontein from Heartland, the property development arm of South African explosives and chemicals company AECI.

The area had been the site of South Africa’s first dynamite factory until it closed in the 1990s. It also included a 111 hectare private nature reserve, home to a dazzle of zebras, allowing the Zendai development to be branded a “smart city” and “eco city.”

“It will become the future capital of the whole of Africa,” said Dai, whose company was best known for developing Shanghai’s Himalayas Center. “This will be on a par with cities like New York in America or Hong Kong in the far east.”

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