The unbelievable story of how South Africa’s new mega smart city project is being “held ransom”

President Cyril Ramaphosa announced in his state of the nation address on 13 February that a new smart city is taking shape in Lanseria, Gauteng.

Ramaphosa said the new smart city will be home to between 350,000 and 500,000 people within the next decade.

He added that it will not only be smart and 5G-ready, but will be a leading benchmark for green infrastructure.

Premier David Makhura has also punted the development of the new smart city in his 2020 Gauteng State of the Province Address, which he said generated unparalleled private sector support.

While this project has indeed received widespread support and financing, it cannot progress because of a small number of people who occupy the land on which it is set to be built.

The multi-billion-rand Lanseria mega smart city project has been stalled for over two years because of this small group.

History of the Lanseria smart city

The plan for a Lanseria mega smart city started in 2007 when a developer invested in land around Lanseria.

Known as Cradle City at the time, it would be the first city planned around an airport in South Africa and would be an innovative, sustainable, and green development.

The city would be built on 912 hectares surrounding Lanseria International Airport, north of Johannesburg.

18 separate pieces of land, typically smallholdings, were purchased. This included one piece of land which belonged to Lindley Farms.

There was, however, a problem. There were “unlawful occupants” on the Lindley Farms property who were not evicted before the sale (see the legal document here).

It should be noted that the land occupiers obtained Extension of Security of Tenure (ESTA) rights through time for being tenants of Lindley Farms in the past.

What started as a seemingly minor issue over a decade ago has now evolved into a major problem – stalling the development of the Lanseria mega smart city.

Despite numerous attempts to move the 45 to 48 households (see the image below) off the land, they remain and are preventing the project’s progress.

The situation then escalated after the Government Employees Pension Fund (GEPF) agreed to purchase the land 30 months ago, with the agreement requiring vacant occupation.

If the land occupiers are not moved from the property, the deal cannot progress and the developer cannot start the project.

Attempts to get the occupiers to move

MyBroadband spoke to people involved in the Lanseria mega smart city development who described the situation as extremely frustrating and very damaging.

They said the Lanseria smart city project could have kicked off a long time ago. The land occupiers are, however, preventing this from happening.

They explained that negotiations and legal action to get the land occupiers to move did not help.

The issue has been heard in court multiple times, but to date there has not been a positive outcome.

While the landowner has a strong legal case, relying on litigation is not the preferred option – as it can take years before the matter is settled.

Over the past 30 months there were numerous discussions with the land occupiers, but according to well-placed sources it is difficult to make all the occupiers happy.

They said just as a mutually-acceptable arrangement is close to being reached, some of the occupiers backtrack and ask for more value to be added to the offer.

The current landowner also appears to have been very accommodating – even building houses for the land occupiers less than 1km from where they currently live (see images below).

As part of the proposed agreement they have also offered the occupiers a generous amount of money for their relocation and to start their new lives.

Despite these interventions a small group of the land occupiers still refuse to move and are demanding more.

What makes the situation worse is that some of the original households have allegedly moved off the land and are now renting their properties to third parties.

One of the people close to the project said it is astonishing that a handful of people, who do not own the land, can refuse to move and hold up a mega project.

Severely damaging

The people involved in the smart city project said the situation is extremely damaging to their businesses, the community, and the country as a whole.

The project holds tremendous opportunity for the community around Lanseria and is expected to create between 50,000 and 200,000 jobs.

This delay means the local community is not benefitting from the development and is putting the project at risk.

The community is also unhappy and previously launched protest action against the protracted process to move the occupiers from the land – but with no result.

An investor told MyBroadband that it is very uncommon for a mega project to be “held ransom” by a small group of people who do not own the associated land.

He said international investors do not understand the situation and that it is very damaging to the country’s reputation as a good foreign direct investment destination.

Lawyer for the land occupiers responds

Tyron Pather from Pather Incorporated Attorneys, who represents the land occupiers, explained that the matter affects approximately 45 to 48 households.

Pather said one of the challenges with these negotiations is that there is no “one size fits all” solution.

“We have looked at various proposals. Indeed, there are persons that are in agreement with some of the proposals and there are persons that have raised their objections to some of the items in the proposals,” said Pather.

“We are in discussions and we hope to achieve a solution to the satisfaction of all, if not then most of the participants,” he said.

Brokering a deal

Independent consultant Judge Sibanda was brought into the negotiation process in January 2020 to broker a deal between the landlord and the occupants.

Sibanda told MyBroadband that a lack of urgency and understanding of what is at stake has prolonged the negotiation more than what was necessary.

He added that a fear by the land occupiers of losing their Extension of Security of Tenure rights (ESTA) of this property has also had a negative effect on the negotiations.

This has, however, been addressed by the proposal where these rights are to be transferred to the new property.

He added that there was a failure of understanding by the land occupiers that the ESTA rights are not equal to ownership rights.

There is some good news, though. An offer has been made which the majority of the occupants agreed to accept.

“The occupants communicated their acceptance of the offer to myself, which prompted the negotiating team to draft the settlement agreement as per agreed terms,” Sibanda said.

The offer entailed that the occupants are to move to a property to be purchased and held in their names pending the finalisation of the property transaction.

After this transaction they will be given a cash settlement to enable them to start their lives on the new property.

This settlement has been forwarded to the occupants’ legal representatives, who were to meet with the occupants on 8 March 2020 to discuss the offer and possibly sign the agreement.

Unfortunately, the occupants and their legal team could not meet as advised, said Sibanda.

This deal does not completely resolve the problem, as a minority of the occupants want to be given their own houses, already built, or houses to be bought for them before they move.

“This has been communicated that due to the procrastinated negotiations that the parties have been engaged on, time to fulfill these demands was just not available to satisfy them,” said Sibanda.

“It was on that basis that a proposal was put across to enable those who want to accept the offer to do so and move off the land.”

No comment from title holder

MyBroadband contacted Cradle City director Alewijn Joubert, who is the title holder for this property, for comment, but he referred MyBroadband to the other role players.

Now read: South Africa’s new mega smart city – Here is what it will look like

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The unbelievable story of how South Africa’s new mega smart city project is being “held ransom”