Moving towards undoing Joburg’s spatial apartheid

On February 28 2020, Joburg’s city government woke to the promise of a new and powerful policy. The Nodal Review, which passed a council vote on February 27 and aims to deliver on the city’s spatial planning masterplan — the Spatial Development Framework — is arguably South Africa’s most transformative land-use tool.

The policy aims to bring people closer to jobs by opening up Joburg’s well-located areas to high density development, which will make more efficient use of the city’s infrastructure while curbing its environmentally disastrous sprawl.

Peripheral housing for a black majority alongside exclusive, economically viable suburban enclaves for a white minority is as much a legacy of apartheid as it is a barrier to Joburg’s efficiency today. Researchers have established, for instance, that spatial apartheid contributes directly to Joburg’s chronic unemployment. The further people live from jobs, the more likely they are to be without one.

A polycentric city?

The Spatial Development Framework has outlined a more inclusive future for Joburg for some time, encouraging high-density, mixed-use developments in the city’s well-located neighbourhoods while putting a dampener on peripheral developments. It is a vision in which Joburgers will live where they work and go to school.

Other localised land-use plans, however, have stubbornly maintained the segregated status quo the Spatial Development Framework sets out to undo. The Nodal Review is poised to rectify this mismatch. While the policy outlines in granular detail new minimum densities for developments in different parts of the city, some cases are illustrative of its transformative potential.


Take Atholl, a wealthy neighbourhood set among Sandton’s immense economic opportunities and infrastructure, including new Rea Vaya routes and the Gautrain. Since 2008, developments in Atholl have had a minimum density of 10 homes per hectare. In Blue Hills, a comparatively new neighbourhood on Joburg’s far northern periphery, out of the way of the city’s established economic centres and infrastructure, the minimum density has been as much as 16 times that of Atholl, 160 homes per hectare.

Densities like these have encouraged urban sprawl by allowing high density on Joburg’s peripheries, like Blue Hills, while keeping the economic and infrastructural opportunities of neighbourhoods like Atholl exclusive.

Under the Nodal Review, at least six times more homes will be allowed to be built on each hectare in Atholl. (Since Joburg passed a first-of-its-kind inclusionary housing policy a year ago, around one in every three of those homes must be affordable.)

What this makes possible, according to Margot Rubin, an associate professor at the University of the Witwatersrand’s school of architecture and planning, is “more progressive and inclusive projects to go ahead in areas that had previously been untouchable”.

“Well-located areas close to social amenities and economic opportunities will now become nodes that are mixed use and mixed income,” said Rubin, “changing monofunctional areas into more inclusive, productive and generative spaces as more people and activities are crowded in.”

Another appendage of apartheid’s urban design is the inefficiency of public transport. Rea Vaya infrastructure, for instance, struggles for relevance in a sprawling city that was essentially designed for private cars.

The Nodal Review looks to combat this by bringing people nearer to public transport in “transit-oriented development nodes”. Any residential development within 500m of a Rea Vaya, Prasa or Gautrain station must now have a minimum density of 60 homes per hectare. The aim is to get Joburgers out of cars and onto buses and trains.

Bipartisan support, contested ownership

The Nodal Review is the accomplishment of a handful of city bureaucrats who have effected planning policies in spite of the bottlenecks posed by Joburg’s recent coalition politics. But political ownership of the policy is contested, despite its bipartisan support in council.

It has its genesis in the mayorship of Amos Masondo, was championed as one of many progressive planning interventions during Parks Tau’s term, and went through a gruelling process of debate and compromise in the city’s Section 79 Committee under Herman Mashaba’s administration.

During a day of high political theatre in council, former member of Mashaba’s mayoral committee in charge of development planning, Ruben Masango, welcomed the Nodal Review while outlining additions made to the policy during the DA’s time in power.

Economic Freedom Fighters’ councillor Sipho Sithole, calling the Democratic Alliance councillors “Zionists” and “molecules of apartheid”, admonished them for “claiming the higher ground” after having delayed the policy. It was criticism repeated by the ANC: “Today you’re singing the hallelujah? I don’t know where you got that?”

But it was the Freedom Front Plus’ lone councillor, Franco de Lange, who homed in on concerns in Joburg’s affluent neighbourhoods when he raised the spectre of a rate boycott by wealthier residents. “Yes, pro-poor development is on everyone’s mind. But we have tax paying citizens in Johannesburg. If you don’t keep taxpayers happy, you’re going to have big trouble in the future.”

There is a common misconception that wealthier neighbourhoods bear the brunt of contributing to Joburg’s tax revenues alone. A recent analysis by the City’s city transformation and spatial planning unit, however, suggests that the shape of a neighbourhood is at least as important as its residents’ wealth when it comes to generating revenue for the city. Figures from 2018 show that denser neighbourhoods have the potential to generate similar revenue to low-density neighbourhoods, regardless of wealth. The potential annual taxes that can be raised from Berea in the inner city, for instance, are comparable to those of affluent Houghton Estate.

Suburban resistance

The Nodal Review will now face a new set of challenges. How a city administration plagued by an infrastructure backlog will deliver the bulk infrastructure required for densification, for instance.

But its most immediate obstacle may come from suburban Joburg, where resistance against the policy has been marshalled for some time.

Joburg United for a Sustainable Tomorrow (Just), a “civil action group” that emerged in resistance to densification policies in the city, claimed responsibility throughout 2019 for the delays in the Nodal Review, going so far as to declare it had succeeded in having the policy withdrawn.

Just, which has warned Joburg’s suburban residents that the Nodal Review may “change the complexion of your suburb” and “result in spaza shops and shebeens in your neighbourhood”, has been seeking suburban donations to mount a legal challenge against the policy if necessary.

Senior figures in Joburg’s administration are taking the threat seriously. Ruby Mathang, for instance, an MMC of development planning and finance in former Joburg administrations and currently a special advisor in the office of mayor Geoffrey Makhubo, fears that the Nodal Review will be dragged through the courts before its promise is fully realised.

This article was first published by New Frame.

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Dennis Webster
Dennis Webster has a research background in labour, land and housing. He writes about cities, farmwork and popular politics in rural areas.

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