Fears that development will build a new apartheid in South Africa

Pricey insta-cities in Johannesburg offer oases for residents but not those who build them

The entrance to a model home in Steyn City, just one of the urban utopias being developed in Johannesburg.
Kevin Wright

JOHANNESBURG — At first glance, the old company town of Modderfontein appears frozen in time. Its tree-lined streets are scattered with dollhouse-like antique buildings — relics of its late 19th century beginnings as lodging for employees of a local dynamite company — and the jutting skyline of nearby Johannesburg is lost behind a curtain of drooping willow trees. Even the airy rooms of the mansion built by the dynamite company’s first manager have been kept exactly as he left them a century ago.

That is, except for one thing.

The nearly life-size portrait of Chinese construction mogul Dai Zhikang that peers out over the mansion’s dining room hardly seems an authentic period piece. But it is an important clue to Modderfontein’s future.

Over the next two decades, Dai and his company, Shanghai Zendai, intend to transform this sleepy town and the 4,000 acres surrounding it into a futuristic $8 billion private city, stocked with schools, hospitals, a theme park and rows of Dubai-style glass high-rises popping up from the scrubby bush.

“It will become the future capital of the whole of Africa,” Dai said at a news conference in November 2013. “This will be on par with cities like New York in America or Hong Kong in the Far East.”

‘Many of the people who live in these gated communities want to feel they are part of the new South Africa while also feeling protected from it.’

Federica Duca

Ph.D. student who studies gated communities

If that vision seems dizzyingly ambitious, Dai is hardly the only developer with his sights set on building a city from scratch on the fringes of Africa’s richest metropolis. Nelson Mandela’s widow, Graça Machel, recently helped inaugurate nearby Steyn City — a development twice the size of Monaco and nearly as opulent, boasting golf courses, hundreds of acres of sprawling, well-manicured parklands and the most expensive house ever built in South Africa. And flanking Johannesburg’s main highway are row upon row of billboards of smiling couples and giggling children advertising the lifestyle on offer at Waterfall City, a massive estate whose major claim to fame is that it is constructing Africa’s largest shopping mall.

These insta-cities offer an alluring promise: an island of safety and cleanliness in a city best known for its crime and dirt. And with South Africa’s official unemployment rate hovering near 25 percent, developers proudly proclaim that they are engines for job creation. Steyn City says its construction has generated nearly 12,000 jobs to date, and Dai promises the Modderfontein development will generate 150,000 over the next two decades.

But as the scale and number of Johannesburg’s private estates grow, critics are raising alarms that they are helping create a new apartheid here, throwing up literal walls between Johannesburg’s rich and poor and stretching the resources of a metropolitan area already reeling from sprawl nearly to their breaking point.

“Many of the people who live in these gated communities want to feel they are part of the new South Africa while also feeling protected from it,” says Federica Duca, a Ph.D. student at the University of Trento in Italy who studies Johannesburg’s gated communities. “For these people, the [gated] estate is a way of exiting the city in order to re-enter the country.”

Gates as way of life

Gates, of course, are nothing special in urban South Africa. The suburbs of Johannesburg are canyons of high concrete walls and buzzing electric fences, the houses behind them often invisible from street level. But over the last two decades, many here have opted for even greater protection.

“In the 1990s, crime reached such epidemic proportions that it literally drove people out of traditional suburbs and behind the walls of a gated community,” says Kent Gush, the head of sales for Steyn City. “People in this city have come to see it as a way of life.”

Although Steyn City is equipped with thermal cameras, security patrols and hundreds of regular video cameras, the way of life Gush is pitching to his potential buyers goes far beyond security. There are Italian-style piazzas and a 26-mile ribbon of mountain bike trails, sprawling parks filled with local art and skate ramps and a sleek collection of modern office buildings.

In the elite city center neighborhood, refuse will be invisibly collected via a network of underground roadways. “One day all cities will be designed this way,” promises a billboard near the entrance gate.

The development — which is eventually expected to take on about 25,000 residents — is the project of insurance titan Douw Steyn, a family friend of the Mandelas, who has anchored his new metropolis with South Africa’s most expensive home, a $21 million Tuscan-style palace he calls the Palazzo Steyn.

But Gush insists this isn’t simply a playground for the überrich. Some 80 percent of the housing on offer, he notes, is apartments, offering a “wide range” of South Africans the possibility of one day calling Steyn City their home. But in a settlement whose cheapest property is a $137,000 one-bedroom apartment, that range reaches only so far.


The edge of Diepsloot township, outside Johannesburg, in April 2014. Many of the workers at Steyn City live in the settlement.
Mujahid Safodien / AFP / Getty Images

“Of course it makes me angry sometimes,” says Joseph Machoga, who works on a Steyn City road crew. “There are so many people here living nicely, while others of us are working every day but don’t.”

Like most of the workers at Steyn City, Machoga — whose monthly income tops out at about $250 — lives in Diepsloot, a congested settlement of some 200,000 people a couple of miles away.

Like Steyn City, Diepsloot appeared suddenly, a place carved from the wild expanses of farm and prairie that ring Johannesburg to make space for the city’s swelling post-apartheid population.

But unlike Steyn City, little about Diepsloot was planned. From above, the thousands of small houses and aluminum shacks that make up the settlement look like a tightly packed game of Tetris. Most of its roads are simply dirt gashes cut into the brush, and raw sewage regularly floods the streets.

“It’s a difficult thing, but we’re tired of complaining about it,” says Steven Munyai, who on a recent autumn afternoon was taking a break in the baking sun from fixing a Steyn City sewage drain. (There are few full-grown trees to take shade under, although Gush says about 1,000 saplings are being planted each day, for a total of 1 million by the time the project is finished.)

Munyai says the shack he rents in Diepsloot for $50 a month is a 45-minute walk from here, but he saves most of the $200 he earns each month to send back to his family in a rural area in the country’s north and, when he is lucky, to visit them.

“There’s no looking forward in a life like this,” Machoga says. “There’s no way to even think of keeping some money for yourself.”

A barbed history

Private cities are hardly unique to South Africa. Elsewhere on the continent, developers in Lagos, Nigeria, are busy reclaiming 4 square miles of lagoon to build a multibillion dollar development called Eko Atlantic. The walled Masdar City slowly nudging its way onto the skyline near Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates is being billed as the world’s first zero-carbon city. There’s Kenya’s Tatu City, India’s Lavasa and countless others like them — lavish, placeless oases of luxury in some of the world’s most chaotic or inhospitable corners.

South Africa’s private cities, though, have been born in a country with a particularly barbed history of using space for purposes of exclusion. For decades, places like Johannesburg were carved into a jigsaw puzzle of racialized zones. Barricading the borders between them — through laws and police presence and sometimes literal walls — was a mainstay of maintaining racial hierarchy and privilege. So to critics of new cities such as Modderfontein New City and Steyn City, then, they seem a chilly blast from this highly exclusionary past.

The well-tended grounds of Steyn City, just one of several posh developments taking off in Johannesburg.
Kevin Wright

But is it possible that walls could actually create community? That’s the thinking of Ivor Chipkin, the director of Johannesburg’s Public Affairs Research Institute, who has conducted extensive research on gated communities in Gauteng province, where Johannesburg is located.

In fact, he says, in many of the gated settlements he has studied, the desire for secure and open spaces has brought together people who might otherwise have little contact — young Afrikaner families from historically white suburbs, for instance, and upwardly mobile black civil servants from the townships.

“What’s really exciting from my point of view is that these are not just places where the middle class is going to live. They’re places that are actually helping to create the middle class,” he says.

The city, for its part, has encouraged the growth of the private cities.

“These developments will have major socioeconomic benefits with regard to decent employment and economic inclusion,” said Gauteng Premier David Makhura in his State of the Province address in February. Modderfontein New City is being developed in close consultation with the province, which is planning a stop on a high-end commuter train in the suburb.

But for Este Van Der Merwe, who works in a quiet complex of office buildings in the shadow of the half-finished Mall of Africa in Waterfall City, the advantages of living in such a place are simpler.

“I’d value the amount of freedom that goes with it,” she says. “Imagine — you could go on a run at night or walk to the shops and never stop to worry about what might happen to you along the way.”

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