Part 1: Introduction.
Tokyo. Shanghai. Sao Paulo, Cairo, New York. In the modern day, vast megacities sprawl across hundreds or even thousands of square kilometers within the world’s most populous and powerful nations. In an increasingly globalized world, a megalopolis is often the crown jewel of a country’s economy, culture, and government. Most modern-day megacities have a rich and intricate history—Mexico City has been continuously occupied since the Aztec period,1 Delhi has been a major population center for many centuries,2 and Moscow grew from a small town in 1147 CE to the bustling city of over ten million inhabitants that we see today.3
But some cities, and even some on their way to megalopolis status, do not come from such storied pasts. Cities are functional creations—they are centers of commerce and industry, with the resources and infrastructure to sustain truly mind-bending populations. As such, having a certain city in a certain place, and at a certain time, carries a great deal of advantage—and when the demand for a city is not immediately met, there are other ways to deal with the challenge.
Sometimes, a federal, provincial, or even a local government decides it’s time to simply erect a city from the ground up, teaming with developers and industry leaders to create a new urban center in exchange for billions in taxpayer dollars. Putrajaya, Malaysia, was established in 1995 and filled with people driven out of Kuala Lumpur by overcrowding; Songdo, South Korea, is an eco-friendly smart city that probably deserves its own Megaprojects video, where construction began in 2002. Even South Korea’s new administrative capital, Sejong City, was just opened for business in 2012.4 Build it, and people will come—or at least, in theory.
In South Africa, the Modderfontein New City was an attempt at this same visionary endeavor. An ambitious project that would have put a second major urban center just outside the capitol of Johannesburg, Modderfontein’s initial capacity at opening would have placed a hundred thousand jobs in the district, along with a hundred thousand residents, with involved corporate representatives selling it as “the future capital of the whole of Africa”. Instead, the reality was very, very different: a 6.4-billion dollar sinkhole that, in the end, produced almost nothing.5
At the beginning of the New City project, South Africa’s Modderfontein was little more than an industrial wasteland. With a 2011 census count of 131 residents,6 the village had been a largely backwater place since the decline of gold mining in the area. The village even got its name from the nearby, aptly named Mud River—Modderfontein is Afrikaans for “mud fountain”. This is why it was a shock to area locals when a Chinese investment firm, Shanghai Zendai, set its sights on the area as the site of a new mega-development.
Zendai primarily works with property management and sales in China as well as hotel holdings, but has distinct development interests in South Africa in the long term.7 Their initial development proposal called for an investment of 84 billion South African rands, or well over $5 billion American, to be poured into land that had been owned by a local chemical and explosive company for years. A group of London-based consultants designed the Modderfontein proposal, which was meant to be Zendai’s new flagship project abroad.8
The proposal had it all. The city was intended to host a hundred thousand occupants broken across thirty-five thousand residences, with a bustling economy created to keep all of them busy. Modderfontein would host a stadium, a cultural theme park, hospitals, schools, hotels, offices, shopping malls, and many other amenities. Concept art showed a skyline of suburbs, graduating to townhomes, to municipal buildings, to sleek, modern skyscrapers.9 10 It was to be the New York of Africa.
The initial settlement was intended to occupy just under sixteen square kilometers, a small space to hold all of what Zendai planned, but certainly not impossible, especially given the substantial open land around the settlement where future expansion could take place. The city was marketed as an exercise in living harmoniously with nature, aligned with traditional Chinese values.11 Optimistic locals saw potential for badly needed jobs in the area, and expressed interest at the prospect of a sustainable, healthy city.12 Eventual goals for the development were a total of 50,000 homes, 300,000 permanent jobs, and tens of billions of dollars pumped directly into the South African economy.13
Unfortunately, not everyone in the greater Johannesburg region was optimistic as Zendai themselves were about the future of the project. This is an unusually large obstacle in South Africa specifically, at least compared to other nations, because in South Africa, it is municipal governments that make decisions on whether urban planning proposals can go forward. Rather than relying on back-channeling and lobbying at the highest levels of national government to get a proposal passed, in South Africa, if you don’t have the support of local authorities, you don’t have a development. Johannesburg governed the area set for zoning into the Modderfontein New City, and they had an existing, conflicting plan to focus on low-income housing in that area. Even worse, they learned about the project in the news—not from Zendai directly. And perhaps most troubling of all, the center of the proposed New City site was a nature reserve. Perhaps not surprisingly, Zendai’s proposed environmental measures for the area didn’t say anything to prevent Zendai from pouring concrete over the whole thing.14 Seeing all this, Johannesburg still chose not to outright kill the project, but they did reject its special status application, and sent the red-tape equivalent of a five-hundred-pound anvil to Zendai headquarters.15
This wasn’t the only problem Zendai ran into, either. If you’re going to take on an urban project in South Africa, particularly a big one, you’re going to need to find your own money in order to do it. Developers and rich financial backers take care of the building process, and the South African government will compensate after the fact through rebates. Zendai, however, was fresh out of luck on both fronts, with not enough internal cashflow to be able to build the New City, and not enough investors. This embarrassing headache for Zendai only got worse when their existing Chinese assets didn’t pull in the revenues they were counting on, further stunting the growth of the project.16
On top of all this, as anybody who’s made the regrettable decision of joining their town’s Facebook page knows, a fair portion of the local community simply wasn’t on board with Zendai’s vision for Modderfontein. Skepticism about the project’s starry-eyed presentation, frustration with the lack of more basic infrastructure and social services in the area, and fear around the potential effect of Chinese influence in the area all worked together to create an environment that was lukewarm at best.17 Others alleged that the development was secretly linked to the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative and that it would send pollution spiraling out of control. Among the most pointed concerns: that the Modderfontein New City was in fact nothing but a vanity project for Dai Zhikang, the chairman of Zendai, who had taken an outsize role in promotion of the development.18
Negotiations between Zendai and Johannesburg during the planning stages were tense, to put it lightly. Still unhappy that they had been left out of the loop early on with the project, municipal officials did not have any intention to play kindly with these international developers looking to sweep over their own best-laid plans. Resistance to the project was informed by culture and very recent national history, as well: putting a fancy, high-tech town for the rich in the middle of post-apartheid South Africa was a dicey proposition. During apartheid, black people would have been forbidden from living in places that resembled Modderfontein New City, at least judging by the concept art. Johannesburg demanded that five thousand affordable homes, or preferably more, be included in the development, plus additional demands to integrate the New City into the area’s existing public transit network. Zendai, apparently not very fond of being told what to do, refused to change the plans, which in turn led to a slow, dull procedural checkers match that probably doesn’t warrant much discussion.19
To Zendai’s credit, the firm did eventually break ground on Modderfontein. In 2015, construction commenced, with the plan’s road network receiving a first look. About 300 residential units were developed, and work on a commuter rail station did, at least, begin. Whether Johannesburg had begun to make concessions, or Zendai pushed its limits as part of ongoing negotiations, or local officials simply saw the writing on the wall and chose to let Zendai sputter, there was some real-world work put in to make the New City happen. Unfortunately, though, that’s about as far as things would go.
Barely two years after it was initially announced, Modderfontein New City was so weighed down by financial problems, red tape, and logistical issues that it was clear to anybody looking that the project was essentially dead in the water. Zendai was hemorrhaging money, and the city of Johannesburg didn’t appear to be particularly moved to help. If there was anybody left who hadn’t begun to see red flags, they certainly did in January of 2015, when chairman Dai Zhikang was forced to sell all of his shares in Shanghai Zendai to a state-owned Chinese asset management company. Dai Zhikang had held a plurality of the shares available, and when those passed into China’s hands, so did Modderfontein. First, the new leadership explored options to scale down the plan for the New City, but by mid-2015, they had decided it would be best to just sell the land and be done with it.20
As the dream of Modderfontein New City crumbled, so too did the company that had pinned all their hopes on it. In 2017, Zendai’s local assets were sold to South African development group M&T for 1.8 billion rand—just over $110 million. In 2018, Zendai Developments hit a bad stretch and took fairly hefty losses. And if you remember, once more, chairman Dai Zhikang…well, he was arrested in China in 2019, and charged with illegal fundraising from the public.21 Luckily for the pride of all those involved, the New City died in more of a whimper than a bang, and at the time it barely made a ripple in newsrooms outside the region.22
Today, you can still visit the village of Modderfontein if you’re so inclined, and you can see four-lane roads that lead to nowhere, blocked off at both ends but still lined with streetlights. Some of the area has been repurposed by M&T, to be made into a soundly underwhelming housing development. Where the plans for the New City had envisioned an interconnected, self-sufficient community, today the land it was supposed to occupy instead features scattered pockets of suburbs and not much else. Nestled inside the shadow of a city that never was, the local nature reserve remains largely untouched, as do other broad swaths of land once meant for skyscrapers and stadiums.
As for whether this ending is good or bad, in the end…well, that’s up to you. Modderfontein New City would have brought homes, jobs, facilities, and resources, and it would have alleviated overcrowding in other areas. A community of hundreds of thousands of people may itself have become a seed for an even larger city, expanding outward and reaching megalopolis-status in record time, with all the real, human good that can come from urbanization. Or, it may have become what Johannesburg officials feared—a haven for the wealthy that did nothing for South Africa’s middle- and lower-classes, a gaudy distraction from the real work that had to be done. Maybe it would have allowed foreign influence to seep into national politics, or maybe it would have just laid empty in the end. Maybe Zendai would have built the New City, and nobody would have come. Regardless, we will simply never know what might have been. For all its ambition, for all its potential, Modderfontein will always be the New City that never was.
1 Frances F. Berdan, The Aztecs of Mexico: An Imperial Society
2 Travel Delhi, India. p. 12. ISBN 9781605010519 –
3 “Начало Москвы: пир после убийства”. BBC News Russian. April 11, 2017.
4 Travel Delhi, India. p. 12. ISBN 9781605010519.
6 “Sub Place Modderfontein”. Census 2011.