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13 Mar 2015 00:00
Douw Steyn's estate in Johannesburg is a stone's throw from the Diepsloot informal settlement. (Cornel van Heerden, Gallo)
Graça Machel sank to her knees and patted earth around the base of a 2m bush willow tree seeded by her late husband, Nelson Mandela, nearly eight years ago. “Trees, I think, celebrate much better his life and his presence, perhaps better than a statue,” she mused.
In bright sunshine, Machel took a glass of champagne and poured a little on the clipped grass, explaining that this was her husband’s custom at a celebration.
And so Steyn City, four times the size of Monaco, more than twice the size of New York’s Central Park and the largest development of its kind in Africa, officially opened on Tuesday.
To its creators, the megaproject north of Johannesburg embodies a “dream lifestyle” where pedestrians and cyclists take priority, children can play in a skate park among sculptures of giants, and a range of properties – from one-bedroomed flats to opulent mansions – allows for a racially diverse mix of residents. And, they say, it had the blessing of the country’s first black president. Mandela was a friend of the city’s founder, billionaire insurance magnate Douw Steyn, and attended the launch of the plans there in 2007.
But to detractors, Steyn City is the chilling development of a trend that has seen the wealthy, fearful of violent crime, retreat into high-security gated communities cut off from the rest of society. This, critics say, is bound to reinforce an “us and them” mentality in what is already one of the world’s most unequal societies.
Patrick Craven, spokesperson for trade union federation Cosatu, said: “It is almost a form of apartheid, not in a strictly racial sense, though in practice those who are the target of restrictions into certain areas tend to be black people.”
Proximity to DiepslootSteyn City appears to invite such criticism because of its jarring proximity to Diepsloot, a sprawling informal settlement where some 200 000 people live among shacks, uncollected rubbish, unpaved roads and criminal gangs. But its developers argue that the estate’s location has enabled it to hire workers from Diepsloot and provide them with skills.
Giuseppe Plumari, an Italian-born property developer who acquired the land and is now chief executive of Steyn City Properties, said: “The development is at the doorstep of Diepsloot. That’s the very thing we’re criticised for – opulence next to poverty – but that’s exactly where developments should be to empower people to get jobs, so they don’t have to spend half their salary on transport.
“Let’s applaud the wealthy man who comes to South Africa to build on the doorstep of Diepsloot and let’s vilify the wealthy man who runs away. Who’s going to make a difference to the people? I would kiss Bill Gates’s feet if he came and built a house in Diepsloot. It would create a lot of jobs.”
The multibillion-rand Steyn City Lifestyle Resort launched on Friday March 6. (Photos: Cornel van Heerden, Gallo)
Plumari was speaking at an upmarket deli overlooking a swimming pool where offerings included Danish pastries, Turkish delight, devil’s rose chocolate cake and red velvet cake. The site was previously a quarry.
Other parts of Steyn City used to house an informal settlement of 20 000 people. Plumari said: “We worked with the government to move them to 5 500 permanent homes built last year and 99.9% of them were ecstatic.”
Officials claim Steyn City has created 11 800 jobs to date and, with just 7% of the development completed, there will be many more in future.
Local workforceOn Monday, in an underpass, Martin Umali was among a team of artisans working on a tiled mosaic. Umali (37), a Zimbabwean living in Diepsloot, said it takes him only 10 minutes to get to work by minibus. For him, the clash of rich and poor is not a problem. “Our next focus in Diepsloot is to expand to the youth so that kind of poverty will go away: use your hands and don’t expect the government to do everything,” he said.
Nearby, amid a cacophony of drilling and hammering, men in hard hats and blue overalls beavered away on a construction site that will one day be a shopping mall. Yet surrounding it were advertising billboards dominated by white faces – a detail likely to add to the unease about the social demographic of Steyn City.
The estate has planning approval for up to 10 000 residences, ranging from one-bedroomed flats for R1.65-million to show homes costing between R16-million and R22-million. Plumari insisted 80% of the properties would be apartments. “It will be a racially diverse cross-section of society. A single mother and her children will rub shoulders with everyone on the estate.”
Plumari said the design is an antidote to big cities dominated by cars, highways and high walls. Steyn City will feature crescents, cul-de-sacs and a network of footpaths, and every house will have open borders to a park and road. “What inspired me more than anything was London’s Hyde Park,” Plumari explained. “The people who live there can roam around the park and we’ve tried to replicate that. In London you walk out of your house and meet your neighbour; in Johannesburg I don’t know my neighbour.”
The attempt to emulate Britain will even include unarmed “bobbies on the beat”, Plumari added, although more conventionally South African security measures include a 3m-high perimeter wall with electrified fencing and “intrusion detection technology”, CCTV surveillance “including advanced video analytics”, a “state-of-the-art security nerve centre and control room” and “integrated bio-metric, RFID tag and licence plate recognition access control technology”.
‘Madiba’s presence’Steyn (62) launched Auto & General in South Africa in 1985 and moved to the United Kingdom to start the Budget Insurance company in 1992. Mandela wrote part of his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, at Steyn’s home. On Tuesday, in a white marquee with four bowls of white lilies and white roses, a photo of Mandela shaking hands with Steyn was prominent as a school choir sang the national anthem. “If you look at the weather and the sunshine, I really feel Madiba’s presence today,” Plumari told the gathering. “We thank Madiba for endorsing the resort.”
Machel described Mandela’s relationship with Steyn as one of father and son. Mandela died in 2013 and Steyn, who was absent on Tuesday, is suffering from an illness that family and colleagues were reluctant to disclose. He already lives on the estate with his wife, Carolyn, an actress, in a Tuscan-style villa estimated to have cost R250-million – thought to be the most expensive property in South Africa.
Despite ongoing controversy over expensive security upgrades to President Jacob Zuma’s own home, and a recent Oxfam report showing that one in four South Africans goes hungry on a regular basis, the ANC has thrown its weight behind Steyn City. Gauteng Premier David Makhura told guests that he had played golf there – a popular pastime among the emerging black middle class – and described it as “catalytic” for the area and “one of the shining examples of business working with government to change lives”.
Steyn City offers a ‘dream lifestyle’ with a pedestrian- and child-friendly layout.
He said: “I know there are those who say: ‘Premier, why do you speak about a development for the super-rich?’ I say: ‘You don’t understand.’ First, an injection of the amount of money put in the provincial economy, in our country’s economy, in the initial phase of development: more than six billion rand. And the number of jobs already created has made a big impact on the economy this side: 11?800 jobs.”
He added: “It integrates people who have been left out of our economy. That is something Madiba would be smiling about.”
But Godrich Gardee, secretary general of the opposition Economic Freedom Fighters, said: “Our people in Diepsloot and other informal settlements do not want to be just workers. It’s about land and homes. Golf estates and shopping centres are taking over the land of the people. We have enough golf estates already. Do we really need another one?
“I do not think it’s in the best interests of the country if the state continues to provide land to the wealthy at the expense of the poor and the downtrodden.” – © Guardian News and Media 2015
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