Accepted paper:

The politics of myths in practice: an analysis of (failed) Chinese development in Johannesburg


Frances Brill (UCL)

Paper short abstract:

Chinese developers Zendai purchased Johannesburg's Modderfontein, shrouded in corporate opaqueness but bolstered by BRICS and 'China in Africa' narratives. Failing to secure planning permission, despite the myths of huge expected budgets, Zendai did not realise their anticipated development.

Paper long abstract:

The construction boom in African cities has, in some cases, been fuelled by foreign direct investment (UN, 2018), especially Chinese capital. Whilst in Johannesburg 'Chinese spaces' have long been part of the urban fabric (Dittgen, 2017), the rise of South Africa to 'BRICS' status ushered in a new (highly anticipated) period of Sino-South African relationships (Harrison et al., 2012). In 2014, in the north-east of the city, a Shanghai developer, Zendai, announced a 'new city' of spectacular, high-rise real estate. Modderfontein was pitched as a new financial hub for Johannesburg and the wider Southern African region, and Zendai announced a budget of 87 billion ZAR. In 2016, the CEO divested from Zendai, leaving behind a masterplan which had failed to capture local political imaginations (Ballard and Harrison, 2017; Brill, 2018). In the years that followed Modderfontein failed to manifest, and whilst a mediated version of the masterplan secured planning permission in 2017, the promised construction has not been realised. Drawing on 50 interviews with those involved, this paper argues that the political exceptionality which led to Zendai's acquisition of Modderfontein was premised on their perceived relatively unlimited financial resources. I argue the myth of unlimited capital and concomitant narratives around Chinese growth masked the reality of Zendai's corporate structure and capacity to see through their vision to completion. In doing so I question the role of Sino-African relations in the urban politics of real estate production in Johannesburg, and the long-term consequences of the city's development landscape.

panel Econ09
Inside a construction boom: politics, responsibility and the temporalities of urban development