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.”
International consultants including Atkins and Arup were hired to draw up a master plan for the 1,600 hectare site. In what would have been a radical departure for vehicle-centric Johannesburg, the plan submitted in 2015 largely focused on transit-orientated development, cycling and pedestrianization.
A new Gautrain station due to open by last year was to connect Modderfontein to the existing financial center in Sandton in just seven minutes, with the airport six minutes in the other direction.
There was talk of 50,000 new homes and 300,000 new jobs, in what Atkins called “the last available large development site in the city.”
Yet the city of Johannesburg, led by then-mayor Parks Tau, was insistent the site should accommodate 5,000 units of affordable housing.
“Zendai had clear aspirations of building a high-end, luxury, mixed-use development, which would cater to the elite of Johannesburg in much the same way as its neighbor, Waterfall,” said Brill and Reboredo in their paper, “Failed Fantasies.”
“In strong contrast with the aims of Zendai and their rhetoric, the city wanted the developer to build a more inclusive site which reflects the realities of the housing market in Johannesburg,” they said.
Although Zendai and the city discussed social housing “quite frequently and quite lengthily,” there was little negotiation, because the Chinese developer was clear it wanted to make luxury housing, one engineer who worked on the project told Brill and Reboredo, who anonymized all their sources.
“The council wanted us to include social housing as a portion of the bigger development, which as a developer I have issues with,” a town planner employed by Zendai said.
Failure to accept the inclusion of social housing meant the developer was not granted planning permission for more than two years, while the Johannesburg authorities “deliberated over what might be done to constrain the efforts to build an entirely new piece of city,” Brill and Reboredo said.
While Modderfontein was to be connected to Sandton, the airport and downtown via a new Gautrain station, it was not integrated into Tau’s “Corridors of Freedom” bus rapid transport network.
“[It had] few infrastructural or service connections with the existing city, severely limiting transit opportunities for the majority of Johannesburg’s population, as Gautrain’s ridership is mostly composed of middle-class residents,” Brill and Reboredo said.
In the words of Gautrain Management Agency chief executive Jack van der Merwe: “Our focus is on the car user. If you have enough money for a car, you have enough money for the Gautrain.”
Despite announcing the start of construction, and with some infrastructure being built, the project stalled.
Dai said he was leaving property development and moving into the art market. He later set up a 10 billion yuan (US$1.4 billion) peer-to-peer lending business, handing himself in last month to Chinese police investigating accusations of illegal fundraising.
Zendai Group sold Modderfontein to China Orient Asset Management Corp, which manages non-performing assets. They in turn sold the site to Pretoria-based developer M&T.
M&T has been hard at work, with a row of repetitive red boxes rising out of the dust along Centenary Road. Despite being marketed as “luxury apartments,” the Red Ivory Lane properties each measure just 47m2, featuring one bedroom and a carport. They are separated from the road by a high wall — a soon-to-be-gated community.
Looking over printouts of the old plans in Arup Johannesburg’s offices at Melrose Arch, transport planning associate Simon van Jaarsveld, who worked on the Zendai proposal, said its failure means the future of Modderfontein remains uncertain.
“The original plan had healthcare, schools and community centers,” he said. “It was a self-contained city. We could have had a city with mixed-use and people-centred design.”
“This could be another missed opportunity for Johannesburg if we end up with disconnected, low-density gated communities that are very car-oriented,” Van Jaarsveld said.
Brill, though, sees the rejection of a Chinese developer and coterie of international consultants as a sign of Johannesburg’s strength and as a rare example of an African city that had the courage to push back against external investment that would have benefited only the elite.
“For many African cities there is a huge gap between their aspirations to be a world-class city and the reality for the majority of their population,” she said. “The city of Johannesburg was very clear that Zendai’s development wouldn’t get through without affordable housing and it held out against pressure for two-and-a-half years. I think there’s something very positive in this.”
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