South Africa


The President’s edifice complex: Dreams of a Wakanda on the Highveld?

The President’s edifice complex: Dreams of a Wakanda on the Highveld?
President Cyril Ramaphosa delivers the State of the Nation Address on Thursday 20 June 2019. (Photo: Leila Dougan / Illustration: Adobe Stock)

The startling image of an entirely new, hi-tech city in the president’s SONA speech piqued this author’s attention — and an exploration of the ideas behind such a dream.

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round;
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.

From Kubla Khan by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

While many in Cyril Ramaphosa’s audience both inside South Africa and beyond were looking and listening to his SONA speech on 20 June 2019 for the details of his economic revival plans and how he was going to deal with the country’s costly, endemic corruption, my attention was captured by another point. That was the president’s broad vision of a futuristic city arising some place far distant from the country’s current cities, with new high-speed rail networks, linking urban areas throughout the land.

Or, as the president said in his speech:

We want a South Africa that has prioritised its rail networks and is producing high-speed trains connecting our megacities and the remotest areas of our country. 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…

We want a South Africa with a hi-tech economy… that doesn’t simply export its raw materials, but has become a manufacturing hub for key components used in electronics, in automobiles and in computers…

“… 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. This dream has been fuelled by my conversations with four people: Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, Dr Naledi Pandor, Ms Jessie Duarte and President Xi Jinping, whose account of how China is building a new Beijing has helped to consolidate my dream… Has the time not arrived to build a new smart city founded on the technologies of the 4th Industrial Revolution?” [Italics added]

This extraordinary moment in the president’s speech got me thinking about the origins of such an idea. It turns out there is a long history of states and rulers ordering the establishment of new — presumably state-of-the-art for their time — exemplars of high culture, hi-tech cities and, most especially new capitals.

Consider the ancient Persians and their grand capital of Persepolis as their empire grew. Even in ruins, it can still impress and even awe visitors. Or think of historical China where successive dynasties often felt the need to establish their own capital, in places like Kaifeng and Beijing (and Xanadu), and then on to Nanking during the Republican era, and then back to Beijing with the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. Meanwhile, China now wants to begin the construction of a new government core located outside Beijing in the Xiongan New District.

Or, consider Japan. Building on the same early Chinese example of successive planned royal capitals, first there was Nara, then Kyoto, and only eventually, much later, Tokyo, a place that previously had been a collection of small towns clustered close together. More recently, the military rulers of impoverished Myanmar (Burma) established their strange new capital of Naypyitaw, hundreds of kilometres from the country’s traditional capital of Yangon (Rangoon). Even Indonesia is planning to build its own new capital city as its current one, Jakarta, is increasingly choked by traffic — and sinking slowly below sea level.

Over in Australia, Canberra was built as an entirely new capital in 1913. It was part of a conscious exercise of building a national sensibility out of a collection of sometimes squabbling former territories that had only lately come together as a nation just a dozen years before.

Moving westward, to make his country more modern, Russia’s Peter the Great had built a new capital on the western European model on a newly conquered bit of land as a replacement for the old feudal capital of Moscow and as a window to the West. In a similar vein, in rebuilding a defeated Turkey after World War I, Kemal Ataturk moved his country’s capital from the ancient, cosmopolitan, multiple-ethnic Constantinople — and to the isolated hill town of Ankara, thereby turning that city into a symbol of a new nation.

And, of course, there is the obvious example of Brazil. The bulk of the population remained clustered in the long-settled coastal provinces for centuries and so the government established the new city of Belo Horizonte in the interior in the 19th century, and then, in 1960, built the entirely new capital of Brasilia, even further into the country’s largely lightly-settled central interior.

Further north, obviously, there is also the establishment of Washington, following the adoption of the US Constitution, as part of a broader constitutional bargain to bring southern and northern former colonies together. This city was an entirely planned effort, albeit one designed by French architect Pierre L’Enfant who added the city’s famous (but confounding to generations of visiting drivers) traffic circles in the overall plan at strategic intersections. These circles were reportedly placed in those spots as places to station artillery in the event of a civil insurrection.

In Africa, several countries have elected to make a new start with new capital cities as well. These include the examples of Malawi with Lilongwe, Nigeria with Abuja, Tanzania with Dodoma, and Côte d’Ivoire with Yamoussoukro.

What is the impetus for this deciding upon and then building new capital cities and the shucking off of a warm embrace of their respective country’s — usually — biggest and most economically important city?

It seems there are several possible motivations. One can be the desire to start afresh, making a new city symbolic of a grand new political, social, or economic order. A second might be an urge to move government away and escape from the grime, disorder and chaos of the older city. Yet another can be a desire to impress the nation with the sheer power of their new order — let’s call this the totalitarian temptation to order thousands around and change their lives. And a final rationale is a desire to jump-start the country into a new technological or economic order, thereby creating incentives for research and development efforts, such as the examples of Petaling Jaya in Malaysia or Sejong in South Korea. (Sejong is also set to get governmental administrative functions as well.)

For the first, one can even trace a philosophical angle that reaches back — metaphorically at least — as far as St Augustine’s City of God, and the religious idea of the building of a “new Jerusalem”; and then the Rev John Winthrop who drew upon the biblical parable of the “shining city upon a hill” as inspiration for the new settlement of Puritan New England. By the 19th and 20th centuries, the British “city beautiful” movement and then the American “greenbelt towns” of the 1930s attempted to create new satellite cities freed from the overcrowding, dirt, and crime of the country’s older urban landscapes.

Meanwhile, Canberra, Washington, and Brasilia are exemplars of the theme of starting fresh with a new city for spurring on economic and political growth of a large, spread-out nation. The new capital in Myanmar was partially designed to get the government away from a potentially riotous population, while, historically, Albert Speer’s plans for an entirely new capital for Nazi Germany, Germania, was designed (but thankfully never built) to overawe the population of a conquered Europe.

For President Ramaphosa, an apparent sub rosa impetus for his dream, as described in his address (and picked up on by cartoonist Zapiro), seems to be aiming for the world exemplified in the recent action film, Black Panther, and its ultra-hi-tech, Star Trekian faux-African city of Wakanda. But such a development, in the real here and now, would have an extraordinary (perhaps even unknowable) cost attached to it.

This would have to include costs for arranging the financing, the planning, the project development, the land acquisition, the actual designing, the procurement of all of the construction inputs, the actual construction of actual buildings — and then the building of all the necessary transportation links by rail, road and air. Given the current state of the country’s economy, such an endeavour would almost certainly overtax the country’s real capacity for such a construction mega-project, thereby making a real contribution to inflation, serious input shortages and many other problems.

And all of this is before considering the critically important communications, water supply, and electrical grids. Of course, given the problems the country has gotten itself into in recent years, each of these elements could be like a powerful magnet for some unscrupulous bid rigging, tender corruption and other miscellaneous forms of corruption. At this point, one has to wonder why the president did not, instead, propose a massive national plan to add to the country’s already existing cities — with their already extant human and physical infrastructure and serious renovation and retro-refitting needs.

One key point seems to be the influence on the president’s thinking of what China has achieved in its creation of a superb national high-speed rail grid and the construction of a whole array of new urban developments. But this infatuation also ignores the reality that too many of such developments are largely ghost-like, devoid of residents and businesses, but built on the foundation of a construction boom fostered by cheap government bank loans and lots of speculation by would-be owners.

As a recent Australian Broadcasting Corporation report described it:

Fancy villas, high-rise apartment blocks, lakes, parks and sprawling road networks: Ghost cities in China have it all. Just one crucial element is missing — the people. There may be as many as 64 million empty apartments in China.

Many people buy the properties as an investment with no intention of ever moving in. Built for a population that never came, about 50 of these surreal sites lie desolate across the country. But still, the construction continues. These new cities are usually built in rural areas on the outskirts of existing cities.

Designed for populations numbering in the hundreds of thousands, the mass construction projects can include towering high-rise condominiums, huge shopping centres, city squares, street lights and replicas of cities in Europe and elsewhere. Dinny McMahon, author of China’s Great Wall of Debt, explained the driving force behind the new construction projects, seemingly built for no one. ‘The phenomenon very much has been driven by the debt splurge that really kicked into gear after the global financial crisis,’ Mr McMahon said.

“ ‘Local governments around the country tried to juice and stimulate their economies by building more infrastructure and stimulating the property market.’ This seemingly wasteful construction is carried out by both state-owned firms and private companies. ‘Private property developers will build housing in places that end up being ghost cities because they believe in the ability of the Chinese property market to only go up and up and up,’ he said.”


Some readers may also remember the great boom of publicity over a massive Chinese development in Modderfontein that would be an all-inclusive, hi-tech city for many, many thousands in a totally planned community. Eventually, however, despite the colour brochure, the supposed investment never actually came into being, and there were inevitable squabbles with the city and provincial authorities, as well as unsolved questions about transportation, power, water, sewerage and other infrastructure issues. In the end, the Chinese development company liquidated its new land holdings and was heard from no more on these shores.

And this, then, leads back to the question of why the president, by contrast, seems less interested in the desperately needed rebuilding of the country’s actual existing cities — or in smaller redevelopment zones within those cities. Perhaps it is just some kind of edifice complex on his part where erecting an entirely new thing is more valued than the less glamorous, but truly needed rebuilding of what already exists — but which is continuing to degrade without much letup.

It seems to this writer that turning to a step-by-step, national reconstruction effort in each of the country’s cities would make it much easier to carry out the training of the thousands of artisans and skilled craftsmen and women from among those who are already in the cities and who are desperate for work and training, than transporting everything and everybody hundreds of kilometres away to a totally new environment where there is now nothing in place.

Cities exist for a reason — natural resources, people, harbours, or convenient access to those inputs elsewhere. Without putting a real national shoulder to the wheel, an entirely new development is very tough — maybe even impossible — to sustain, unless you have the coercive power of one of the ancient Chinese dynasties.

Regardless, if the president is really serious about this idea, it should be central to the plan that the entire nation is involved in it. That means a national campaign to get ordinary people to articulate what they believe is necessary for national renewal — whether it is a gleaming, spired new city or the more mundane rebuilding of what is. Here is where schools, NGOs and many other bodies must be mined for their ideas and hopes, rather than just being presented with a fait accompli, delivered from on high. Call it the national inclusion plan if it needs a catchy phrase.

Otherwise, the high priests of government will be producing a plan that is merely an entertaining, expensive PowerPoint, just like that what was shown of that phantom plan produced for that chimerical new town at Modderfontein. DM


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