Jo’burg’s Cosmo City: A new hope

Sand and dust swirl in the afternoon air as construction vehicles grind their way across a sprawling settlement dotted with unfenced pastel-coloured houses.

Walls are being erected, gates fitted, gardens watered. The stillness of the air belies the activity of turning a house into a home, a development taking place across the mixed-income housing development, 25km north of Johannesburg’s central business district.

The children of this community roam freely and play together on narrow, winding roads oblivious to the different economic status of their parents.

This idyllic picture awaits one on entering Cosmo City, a place of hope for the new working class looking for an affordable home and a dream come true for people from informal settlements who now live in more than an enclosure of zinc sheets.

A public-private partnership between the City of Johannesburg, the Gauteng provincial government and developers Codevco, Cosmo City is a R3,5-billion multifaceted urban mixed-land-use development.

It brings together sectors of the country’s population who would never have imagined living side by side.

The first beneficiaries — from an informal settlement -‒ took occupation of their houses in November 2005.

By December 2006, 2 978 houses were occupied, a secondary school and two primary schools were completed. Other amenities are on the cards.

By the end of this year the aim is to have 6 155 houses completed, a private-public clinic, three more public schools, a private school, four churches and a bus stop or taxi rank.

Shopping centres, garages and a municipal multipurpose centre are also set to be built in the 1 105-hectare development, scheduled for completion in September 2009.

A lively, 95-year-old widow, fondly known as ”Gogo” by both developers and residents, was the first person to move into her Cosmo City home on Swaziland Drive.

”I’m very happy here because I have water and electricity,” she said.

Sitting in the tiny kitchen of the fully subsidised home she now owns, the former Zevenfontein resident, born in 1912 — the year the African National Congress was founded — said: ”I couldn’t have this when I was young. I can die here now.”

Gogo and other residents without an income living in the 2 500 Reconstruction and Development (RDP) houses already built, receive food parcels from churches in Cosmo City regularly.

Josephine, who lives a few streets away, on Luanda Crescent, stood outside her home enjoying the mid-afternoon sun with her three children. She too, had previously lived in a shack in Zevenfontein and agreed with Gogo, saying her present living arrangements were far better than what she had.

”It’s better than where we used to live. We have a house, water, electricity and toilets,” she said.

Before moving to Cosmo City in October last year, Josephine was taught how to ”live” in a house with a ”dustbin, toilet and electricity”.

”I mean before, we used to just go anywhere.”

She did however lament the loss of the business she ran while living in Zevenfontein: selling fruit and sweets from her shack. This was prohibited in Cosmo City.

While the roof over her family’s heads was a blessing, she now could not afford to pay her children’s school fees without an income.

Codevco general manager Des Hughes said people were allowed to trade, but only in designated areas, some of which were still being built.

”It is illegal for people to trade from their homes, areas are being built, but it’s a process,” he said.

People were also being taught to grow and nurture their own gardens, both for food and aesthetic purposes.

Crossing into Texas Street, where the bonded homes were located, one notes that the street names changed from the names of African states to that of American — a point of some controversy, said Hughes.

It was thought that the African names of the streets lined with subsidised homes and the American names of the streets where the bonded or larger homes were found alluded to stereotypical associations of Africa with underdevelopment and the West with affluence.

The houses on Texas, Tennessee, Chicago and Oregon Streets were fenced in, larger and more pleasing to the eye. Posh vehicles were parked outside, another indication of wealthier territory.

Residents in these houses did not mind that their neighbours hailed from informal settlements.

”At first I was worried but so far it’s all right,” said Justin Shrinath, a 25-year-old former North Riding resident who now lives with his wife in a three-bedroom bonded house.

A fashion designer, Portia Mosime (33), shared her sentiments.

”So far, it has been okay, no issues and no problems. It’s better then Kempton Park,” she said.

Mosime moved to Cosmo City last October from the East Rand suburb and had renovated her home to her own specifications, with a fully fitted kitchen, a high perimeter wall, a shapely front lawn and a designer, wooden front door.

Meanwhile, Albert Thomas, a Zambian who bought a home in the new development said he was happy that he could now bring his wife and children to South Africa to live with him.

As he worked in a shed welding security gates for a nearby home in the area, Thomas unwittingly realised one of the main aims of a mixed development like Cosmo City.

City of Johannesburg spokesperson Nthathise Modingoane said the government hoped that mixed developments would promote a reciprocal relationship between residents — with a nearby labour force, wealthier residents would provide employment for those needing it.

The housing development allows people of different races and incomes to live nearby and interact with each other without fear.

While some people complained about burglaries, others said it was ”so far” a safe area. Those who had complained seemed convinced that the crimes where committed by outsiders and not Cosmo City residents.

The development addressed the government’s need to provide accommodations for the informal settlers of Zevenfontein and Riverbend who had been illegally occupying privately owned land in the north west of Johannesburg.

In this way it was a departure from the tradition of relocating poor people to the fringes of South Africa’s metropolitan areas, far removed from job opportunities and other city amenities, said Hughes.

Project manager Davina Pick said there were also plans to ”eventually” build low-income houses for the people living in the Itsoseng informal settlement near Cosmo City.

This would happen once Cosmo City was completed.

Modingoane alluded to plans for similar developments in the south of Johannesburg in the near future.

Housing remained one of the biggest challenges faced by government, especially in larger, economic centres like Gauteng.

Developments such as Cosmo City address the ever-growing housing crisis but the thinking behind the development addresses a larger need in South Africa. The need to unite people of all races, cultures and incomes and to see them living happily side by side.

Whether this all important goal will be accomplished remains to be seen. – Sapa

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