I spent the whole of last week carrying out research on Africa’s industrialisation and the role of China in Kenya, and in the previous month stayed in Ethiopia for a week.
These two cities, namely Nairobi and Addis Ababa, reconfirmed my confidence in Africa’s developmental prospects.
During my sojourn in Addis Ababa, President Cyril Ramaphosa delivered the State of the Nation Address in which he outlined that, “I dream of a South Africa where the first entirely new city built in the democratic era rises, with skyscrapers, schools, universities, hospitals and factories”.
This envisioned smart city is in line with the Fourth Industrial Revolution theme that President Ramaphosa has been advocating since the advent of his administration.
Shockingly, the idea was widely dismissed as a sheer dream not anchored in reality by the opposition parties and some academics. There is a famous Chinese saying: “If your dream does not frighten you, it is not big enough.” Africa’s developmental dreams are slowly being realised in Ethiopia and Kenya.
Right in the city of Nairobi, Avic, a Chinese multinational corporation, through a subsidiary, is erecting a Global Trade Centre, a smart city that will comprise more than 40 storeys of office space, 315 hotel rooms operated by JW Marriott, 51 service apartments for guests who might be staying longer than usual, a boutique mall, a large conference room and about four apartment blocks.
The completion date is 2020 and the smart city will be the first of its kind on the African continent and its main target, multinational corporations, will undoubtedly be attracted to a convenient, safe and strategically placed node in the East African region.
If South Africa does not respond to the demands of the emerging era of technology, it will cede its place as the most industrialised economy and indeed will find itself lagging behind countries such as Kenya.
To date, South Africa remains a vastly divided economy and one of the most dangerous places to live in the world.
This bleak reality brings to the fore a number of challenges. One of the challenges is convincing South Africans that, if the country cannot manage existing cities, what is the rationale behind erecting a new city? Would it not be more plausible to first sort out the major challenges that bedevil existing cities before embarking on a new city?
Those who would answer such questions in the affirmative would find it hard to seriously receive Ramaphosa’s “dream” smart city.
And, in their defence, can refer to the smart city that was once mooted for Modderfontein in the east of Joburg, which was to be established by Zendai Developments from China. This particular smart city was going to be bigger than its Kenyan counterpart.
Building the project was going to take 15 years from 2015 to 2030. However, due to a raft of challenges, such as disagreements between Zendai and the City of Joburg, the erratic nature of the rand, and no clear assurance of real estate benefits, the project died.
The failure of the Modderfontein project provides a salutary lesson for those who espouse Ramaphosa’s dream city. That the project failed should not prevent similar projects being attempted.
The Ramaphosa government should be alive to the realities that confront South Africa. This could help in putting up realistic expectation in terms of the nature and scope of a smart city.
Though the task of establishing such a city will be inescapably onerous, the government should not shy away from daring to dream. A lot can come from dreams; but when awake, the content of dreams should be adapted to real circumstances of the waking mind. That is what the ANC government should accept.
* Monyae is the director of Africa-China Studies at the University of Johannesburg.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.