25 March 2019

Six years ago Modderfontein New
City project was announced in South Africa. Billed as a game changer, it was
meant to alter the urban footprint of Johannesburg, Africa’s richest city,

Zendai, a
Chinese developer, bought a 1600-hectare site north-east of Johannesburg for
the development, dubbed as the “New York of Africa”. Early plans showed it was
to include 55,000 housing units, 1,468,000 m2 of office space and
all the necessary amenities for a single large-scale urban district. The cost
estimate was set at R84 billion.

The developers believed that
Modderfontein could function as a global business hub and would become
Johannesburg’s main commercial centre, replacing Sandton. The project would
also strengthen 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 scaled-down project – a
gated-community style housing development.

Modderfontein has faded away from
the public consciousness. The story of why it failed has never been adequately
told in the media.

Our research, which
took place over the course of several years, sought to understand the factors
which led to the project’s demise and how Modderfontein’s failure relates to
the broader African urban context.

We found 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.


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.

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,
Johanneburg’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.

Meanwhile, problems were mounting
for Zendai. The owner, Dai Zhikang, was eventually forced to sell his stake in the project to the China Orient Asset
Management Company. The asset managers sold the land to the company behind the
new housing development on the site.

cities in Africa

Over the last decade, a variety
of developments like Modderfontein, including Eko-Atlantic in NigeriaNew Cairo in Egypt, and Konza
Technology City
 in Kenya, have been touted by public and
private sectors as panaceas for Africa’s urban problems. The thinking is that
as the developments are disconnected from the existing urban landscape, they
won’t be burdened by crime or informality. However, these projects can take
badly needed resources away from the marginalised areas of the city.

To make them more palatable to
domestic and international audiences, the developments are usually marketed as
“smart” or “eco-friendly”.

But these developments can fail at the point of implementation. This is because, as speculative projects, they generally don’t recognise the need to fit in with the wishes of the local authorities or adapt to the existing city. In the case of Modderfontein, the city government had the capability to push back against the developers and, in the end tried to shape the project to better fit Johannesburg’s urban realities.

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