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Redesigning apartheid’s spatial design in Johannesburg

The City of Joburg’s Corridors of Freedom strategy is tipped to transform the way residents live, play and work.

At the crack of dawn, 25-year-old Palesa Mavuka, who is a resident of Jabulani in Soweto, readies herself for work in Johannesburg’s suburb of Rivonia.  

It’s a slick but cumbersome everyday routine: up at 4am and out of the house at 5.15am to make it for a Putco bus that may never come. If Mavuka is lucky, the dilapidated bus arrives, but it’s chock-a-block, leaving her to stand during the two-hour, 44 km-long journey to work.

She has to clock in at work before 8am.

“I am a young working adult now trying to forge my way in this world and I find it really hard to commute from home to work and back again,” the marketing junior tells Moneyweb.

Mavuka’s hardships are not unique to her; thousands of Johannesburg residents live in far-flung areas, taking an inordinate amount of time to travel to places of work.

Johannesburg’s spatial- and town-planning conundrum is no accident. It’s the legacy of the Group Areas Act of 1950 – a carefully-engineered legislation that racially divided urban areas. And more than 60 years later, cities are still grappling with the concept of inclusivity when it comes to areas of work and play. 

If the City of Johannesburg had its way, the poor and rich would live side-by-side. Residents of the city would relinquish their love affair with cars and revert to public transport and the so-called ‘white’ and ‘black’ areas wouldn’t be part of the national lexicon.

The city is trying to achieve this through its spatial development strategy dubbed the ‘Corridors of Freedom’ to eliminate sprawling low-density areas without practical public transport networks. 

The plan, which has been implemented since 2012, uses the Rea Vaya Bus Rapid Transit System (BRT) and other mass transit systems to link areas on the outskirts closer to economic nodes, so Joburgers can live in affordable housing that is closer to their workplaces.

The City of Johannesburg’s executive director for development and planning, Yondela Silimela, says suburban living is not efficient, as leisure amenities are shared by few people. The proposal by the city is urban mixed-use areas that promote shared public spaces such as swimming pools and tennis courts between the rich and poor, to close the widening inequality gap.

Does this plan sound familiar? It probably does. Since 1994, plans have been drawn up to change the landscape of mixed-income spaces, including the Reconstruction and Development Programme and the Strategic Public Transport Network. Although these plans fast-tracked homeownership for lower-income citizens and high-intensity use of public transport, they’ve made a small dent on Johannesburg’s inefficient town planning.

Silimela says the difference between the Corridors of Freedom and other plans, is that there are now closer working relationships with city planners and property developers. A successful blueprint for the Corridors of Freedom is Bombela Concession’s high-speed Gautrain, which has attracted large-scale commercial and residential property developments around train stations. 

BRT routes

Work on the 2040 Corridors of Freedom, with a city-wide and long-term budget of R100 billion, has begun. About R3 billion will be invested over the next three-years. The city has already invested on a BRT service that already runs from Soweto to the CBD via the Soweto Highway and Empire Perth. Other routes that are under construction include the Louis Botha Corridor linking the CBD to Alexandra and Sandton.

Planning is underway for a corridor running east and west of the mining belt that currently divides the city.

The next round of the integrated transport plan includes a BRT service running from OR Tambo International Airport through to Modderfontein and connecting to Randburg and Sandton.

“We are then looking at a north-south connector that will run from Randburg to Fourways then to Diepsloot, or Randburg past Cosmo City and Kya Sand towards Lanseria International Airport. We are looking to strengthen the north-south belt that cuts through the northern suburbs,” says Silimela.

It may be a long shot getting people to use public transport, given its limited reach and the high cost of various systems. On the latter, a recent Statistics South Africa survey revealed that South Africa’s poor households spend too much money on public transport (taxis, buses and trains), utilising more than 20% of their monthly household income on transport.

Affordable housing

Much of the Corridors of Freedom’s success will rest on partnerships with property developers in changing land near BRT routes into higher-density and mixed-used developments. Private equity development financier the International Housing Solutions (IHS) is one of the residential developers that has rolled out housing near BRT routes. IHS partnered with JSE-listed construction firm Calgro M3 to develop 700 affordable housing units at Fleurhof, sandwiched between Soweto and Roodepoort. Fleurhof, which has an extensive BRT route running from Soweto to the CBD, is regarded as a success case when it comes to the Corridors of Freedom plan.

IHS, which owns over 8 000 units in the affordable housing space, has a mandate of investing in housing developments that are valued from R400 000 to R700 000.  The company’s managing director Rob Wesselo says unzoned land that is closer to economic nodes is expensive, which often puts developers off.

Another problem, Wesselo says, are bulk service contributions made to local authorities for the upgrade of surrounding road, water and sewerage infrastructure to obtain the necessary zoning and municipal planning approvals.

“Nobody is asking for land to be free, but the state can provide it at an affordable rate and not with large service contributions. But the condition of this should be that affordable units are developed at a maximum price of say less than R700 000,” Wesselo adds.

Overall, industry players welcome the Corridors of Freedom. Property economist and associate professor at the University of Cape Town Francois Viruly says, although transit plans in South Africa are still in the early phase, the Corridors of Freedom have the potential to transform Johannesburg’s spatial landscape.

The approach to mixed-use developments in South Africa, purporting a live, work and play lifestyle, has largely targeted higher-end individuals – with the likes of Melrose ArchWaterfall City and Steyn City, catering to the well-heeled that retreat behind high walls and beefed up security.

“Our challenge is to bring mixed-use developments down a notch and that is where these corridors can play an important role by offering affordable offices, shopping malls and housing in one area,” says Viruly.

He adds that property developers should bring affordable housing to the market, especially when it comes to targeting buyers that rely on government’s Finance Linked Individual Subsidy Programme, which offers housing subsidies to individuals with a monthly income of between R3 501 and R15 000. Read more here.

“For every 30 units that you sell in the affordable housing market, four or five will get financing. It’s one thing to draw an urban design and high density and it’s something else, whether people can afford that.”

What is clear is that policy certainty is key and certainty will likely make it easier for the private sector to buy into the City of Johannesburg’s ambitious vision.





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Why doesn’t Palesa secure a job closer to her home then she wouldn’t have to travel so far each day – oh I know the pays good in Rivonia.
I had many work colleagues who lived in the Krugersdorp areas but worked in the Kempton Park, Germiston, Isando areas, but they did this because housing was cheaper in the woesrand.
We really need to get over blaming apartheid for every idiosyncrasy that people are faced with, there was great fanfare a good few years ago that in Fairlands they were going to build a “mixed residential” development – where is the development – hasn’t happened, I wonder why can be due to limitations on people movement.
Sometime have a look at the commuters using efficient railway, bus, or taxi systems then then see where these people are travelling from, many travel 50 or more klms from residence to work daily, why because they want well paid jobs in the large cities

Securing a job closer to where people live especially in areas like Soweto is almost impossible considering the fact that most companies are based in the Northern suburbs, the frequently available jobs in areas ie. Soweto and other townships are in retail, and let us not limit people to specific jobs just because they live 50 km away from the city.
We need to understand that the Apartheid government & regime did a lot of damage and that damage will not be erased any time soon. – The Apartheid system was set up so the good paying jobs would be in the urban areas, and that is why we still bring it up in issues regarding the socio-economic inequalities that our country still faces.
– Also this “We really need to get over blaming apartheid for every idiosyncrasy that people are faced with, there was great fanfare a good few years ago” is such an ignorant statement because it is a reality, people are still living in poverty, without the proper resources and inequalities are evident.

Have you tried using these “efficient transport systems such as Railway”? How efficient was it really?

Let me start where I will, end: Damniet, once said: ‘of all the arts, architecture, is the one that influences the soul the most.’
I have maintained for years now, that one of our biggest problems is that we are trying to use former abattoirs and killing fields of the apartheid regime as sacred and dignified living spaces for our people. Pretending in the process that they can somehow magically be caused to have memories of things they (these spaces) were not designed to conjure. Let me make my point clear: the apartheid geopolitical design was first and foremost at its inception a violent inception, that was meant to brutalize out people and injure permanently their dignity and given them an identity that thinks of itself as ‘less than’. Our people were coerced into these spaces, be they individual townships, or several homelands, by dint of arms and at the end of a bayonet. They were killed and started killing each other, as crabs would do otherwise when packed into a bucket like sardines. And that institutionalized violence and brutality, lies in my humble opinion, at the root of the seemingly inexplicable levels of violence that are particular to South Africa. Thus to change our people, we must change drastically the landscape and spaces they live in, not only intentions of places. And painting over the former abattoirs of apartheid, and its torture chambers will not suffice nor will it do it. We need new architecture and construction of living spaces that dignify our people. I am reminded to this end, of the words of a French philosopher, priest and poet, Damniet who, when speaking of the influence of architecture has on the soul and therefore man and woman said: ‘of all the arts, architecture is the one that influences the soul the most.’ If our planners and urban designers thought of this, they can produce for us living spaces that give us the new men and women we seek. We have many sacred and holy spaces in the townships and today cities, which if properly designed and planned can produce remarkable human beings.

when govt. starts to provide electricity and other services these problems would go away quickly- also the laws need to protect the rentor as well as rentee – if they don’t pay the process must be quick and lethal. Murray and Roberts are giving all kinds of diplomatic reasons for leaving the construction sector , i reckon it is because they are gatvol of Azania red tape.

End of comments.





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