JOHANNESBURG, June 2013 – City authorities in Johannesburg, South Africa’s economic hub, have unveiled an ambitious plan to undo urban inequalities of the apartheid era and turn the continent’s wealthiest city into the “New York of Africa”.
City mayor Parks Tau says the 10-year scheme, which is set to cost some $10 billion (7.5 billion euros), will lead to a “new era” for Johannesburg and its 4.4 million inhabitants.
Plans are on the cards for an extensive new road and railroad network, better houses and revamped buildings to spruce up the city, originally built on a gold rush in the late 19th century.
The inspiration for change is the cosmopolitan New York City in the United States, with its attractive bridges, roads and efficient subway network and parks.
“We are re-inventing the city of Johannesburg,” Tau said. “We are turning this city into a New York of Africa,” he added.
Officials say the project will correct urban planning dating back to white minority rule, which pushed designated black areas to the outskirts of the city, with poor access to transport and other infrastructure and services.
“This is a major step in reversing the inequalities caused by the apartheid regime,” Tau told AFP.
In some cases, commuting between the city centre and northern suburbs currently takes up to nearly two hours.
A network of enhanced public transportation enabling people in outlying areas to make connections by trains, buses and taxis will be established, together with cycle paths.
Alison Todes of the University of Witwatersrand’s School of Architecture argues that the time has come for an efficient transport system that will also help reduce the city’s carbon footprint.
“The city is quite spread out and a lot of people use private cars. Less travel time and less cars on the road will also be good for the environment,” Todes said.
The launch three years ago of a high speed train service linking Johannesburg and the administrative capital Pretoria was a milestone in providing efficient public transport.
But the train serves limited routes and high fares make it inaccessible to the bulk of the working class, who rely on crowded privately-run minibus taxis and ageing state-owned metro trains.
“Our economy is growing, so we saw a need to prioritise investment on infrastructure to boost the economic capacity of the city,” Tau said.
The city will finance the renovations from its own coffers.
Despite its established wealth, boasting the largest concentration of dollar millionaires in the country, parts of Johannesburg are dirt poor.
Clusters of palatial homes protected by gates and electric fences stand side-by-side with sprawling slums that have no running water and sanitation.
Nearly half a million of Johannesburg’s population lives in informal housing. Some have been on a waiting list for state-subsidised houses for 15 years.
Almost a fifth of the total renovation budget will be channelled to low-cost housing schemes dubbed “corridors of freedom”.
“Housing is the biggest challenge facing the city. We can’t claim to be a world class African city when we still have people living in poor conditions,” Tau said.
Building improvements will also reach into the inner city, which has seen an exodus of large businesses due to decay and high levels of crime.
Business giants like the Johannesburg Stock Exchange, Africa’s largest bourse, left the once-thriving central business district for northern suburb Sandton — now the continent’s richest square mile.
Many mining firms and banks joined the exodus to the north, though a few have started moving back.
“It is our goal to create a safe, business-friendly environment,” Tau said.
In 2009, closed-circuit surveillance cameras were installed in areas around the inner city to help fight crime.
But the main opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) party worries that the municipality will not be able to monitor spending adequately, amid daily reports of public sector corruption.
For the past three years the city has failed to get a clean bill of health from the country’s auditor general.
“We don’t dispute that it is a great investment, but we need assurances that public funds would be handled efficiently,” DA spokesman Mmusi Maimane said.
“My main concern is that there is no capacity to handle such a huge budget,” he said.