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Hopes for a high-end ‘eco city’ in South Africa turned out to be hype

An artist's rendering of the doomed, high-concept Modderfontein development in South Africa. (Photo source: Handout)
An artist's rendering of the doomed, high-concept Modderfontein development in South Africa. (Photo source: Handout)

Easy access to commuter rail, pedestrian-friendly, community centers, schools, eco-friendly — what’s not to like?

The lack of affordable housing, it turns out.

The city of Johannesburg rejected Chinese developer Zendai’s plans for a self-contained, luxury residential zone on par with those found in world cities such as Shanghai, Hong Kong and New York.

The project, which was planned for the exurban Modderfontein district outside Johannesburg, was scrapped after the developers refused to accommodate local demands for affordable housing.

Money troubles also dogged the project; Zendai chairman Dai Zhikang ultimately sold his stake, attempted to pivot to big-ticket art sales, then to a multi-billion-dollar peer-lending scheme — and eventually turning himself in to Chinese police for illegal fundraising.

Critics say the failure of the project was a victory for South Africa in the face of exploitative Chinese investment practices.

China has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in South African real estate since 2010.

Although a principled stand for affordable housing ultimately doomed the Modderfontein project, the land has since been sold to other developers who are putting up car-centric “luxury” gated communities for suburban commuters.

Sources: The Guardian (U.K.), 2OceansVibeNews (South Africa), BizNews (South Africa), China File, Center for Chinese Studies (Stellenbosch University PDF)

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Mark A. Bonta

Cultural geographer and educator Mark A. Bonta covers ecology, democracy, local self-reliance and community-based solutions to global problems.
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