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City of Johannesburg: Shutting the gate on diversity


Koketso Moeti has a long background in civic activism and has over the years worked at the intersection of governance, communication and citizen action. In 2022, she was announced as a Mulago Foundation Rainer Arnhold Fellow. She is also an inaugural Collective Action in Tech Fellow; an Atlantic Fellow for Racial Equity; inaugural Obama Foundation Fellow and an Aspen New Voices senior Fellow. Follow her on Twitter at @Kmoeti

Just over 10 years ago, a report released by the South African Human Rights Commission found that, gated communities 'cause social division, dysfunctional cities and lead to the further polarisation of our society'. Despite this, the City of Johannesburg continues to fail to commit to ensuring that those who cannot afford to be in gated communities or have access to exclusive developments are accommodated in the city.

Earlier this year, the media was given a glimpse into Steyn City, a lifestyle estate being developed by insurance magnate Douw Steyn and his friend Giuseppe Plumari. This came after more than R6-billion had been put into the 2000 acre project.

According to the project’s website, the estate will be home to a private school located at its entrance; a golf course; a commercial park and also a variety of leisure, sports and recreation facilities, including a golf course.

The options available for residential purposes include cluster housing, apartments and freehold stands. The prices for these options range from R1.65-million right up to R60-million.

Just to put this into perspective, according to Statistics South Africa, 21.7% of the population live in extreme poverty, while 37% of people don’t have enough money to purchase both adequate food items and non-food items, with 53.8% of the population just getting by and living off just under R800 per month. But even these dire figures have been found to be underestimating poverty in the country.

Apart from the general poverty levels in the country, approval for plans such as Steyn City is also being granted in a city in which “most poor and low-income households live informally because the accommodation supplied by the private sector and social housing institutions is not affordable”.

But topping this off is the legacy of spatial inequality which resulted from apartheid and has as yet not been adequately addressed. Despite the City of Johannesburg using progressive sounding words to describe how it is “embarking on a new spatial vision for the city” and “re-stitching the social fabric of the city”, the approval of plans for developments such as Steyn City, which are essentially ‘closed neighbourhoods of the rich’, raises serious questions about the city’s commitment to actually doing what it says. It exposes the city’s move from exclusionary speak into development, progressive speak as merely symbolic.

The City of Johannesburg’s re-stitching strategy is based on transit-oriented development, yet very few – if any – of these private projects have been forced to be transit oriented. This essentially means that what could and should be public resources are being used inefficiently, as these mega projects are being subsidised by a huge public investment, an example of this being the creation and maintenance of the roads leading to them.

So not only are the poor subsidising these mega developments, but because those within them often end up turning to the private sector for services, it contributes to the poorer residents of the city getting worse services as it reduces the revenue contributed to the city.

In a report titled Road Closures/Boom Gates, the South African Human Rights Commission found that “the effect and impact of closures materially affects issues of urban mobility and functionality, and militates against the original idea of a city as a place where people could move around freely, engaging in business, social activity and recreation as part of a collective”.

It further went on to warn that “given our own history of exclusion and separation, we should be extremely careful, even if our motives are otherwise commendable, in embarking on an urban design that works against the notion of a united society. There was considerable evidence that booms and closures do indeed exclude and separate in a manner inconsistent with the idea of an open city”.

The commission’s findings are affirmed by Joan Clos the former mayor of Barcelona, Spain who went on to become the executive director of UN-Habitat. Writing for the Guardian, he noted that the continued proliferation of gated communities is an expression of increased inequality, increased uneasiness in accepting diversity.

The City of Johannesburg would do well to heed these warnings and deeply reconsider giving approval of plans for these private mega projects.

The continued migration to cities coupled with population growth means the just over 61% of the population currently living in urban areas will continue to grow. But until public space is recognised for the resource that it is, the city’s urban agenda will continue to see private mega projects being favoured at the expense of its poorest citizens. DM


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