On an overcast day in November, children play in the street, chasing each other on a potholed road. On the corner, a group of young men hang around a car wash. A woman walks out of Waka Waka Mini Market with a plastic bag in one hand; she keeps her daughter close to her side with the other. The scene is one from a typical South African township, except this is not a township – this is the “suburb” of Cosmo City.
In late 2005, on a bare plot of land 25km northwest of Joburg, Cosmo City was born. The streets, laid out in different sections called “extensions”, were named from different countries of the world, from America to Asia. One can go from United States to South Africa, make their way to Angola, and hurry across to Sudan, or take a different direction towards Japan, in mere minutes.
“At first I didn’t understand what it was about. It’s like the government funded something which people do not understand. People don’t understand its meaning, even now,” said George Masautso (30) a resident of Cosmo City.
The rationale, from the moment the first brick was laid to the time the last street was named, was intended to foster integration across class and background. For the thousands moved by the government to this new promised land, this was a far cry better than living in informal settlements on the economic and physical periphery of formal residential and business areas, forgotten by all those who were not part of their communities. Since the late 1980s, 4 000 such people occupied Zevenfontein, an informal settlement located on private property close to Dainfern. Apartheid was in its twilight years, and when the ANC-led democratic government took over, they sought a solution that would place the community in more formal housing arrangements. This solution was presented by the City of Johannesburg and Gauteng provincial government as an integrated, mixed-use inclusionary housing development, the supposed answer to eradicating class prejudice and integrating Zevenfontein’s residents into formal housing.
For many of its residents, and for those at the helm of the new development, this was an opportunity for a fresh start.
“It’s better than where we came from. We were always fighting [there]. People from the shacks have no respect! I like my neighbours now. The people I was staying close to in Zevenfontein are far from me,” said Margaret Kakaza (48), a domestic worker who stays on Brazzaville Street. As she moved to make a way for a car to pass, she shifted her umbrella to shield her face. Her bangles, which matched her blue-and-white polka dot dress, slid up and down her arm as she gesticulated. She hinted that the poverty in her former settlement bred jealousy, making neighbours resent any person who was even a little better off than they were.
“There was just jealousy at Skotpola [the other name used for Zevenfontein],” she said. “My children are happier because now we have toilets inside the house; we’ve got water, we’ve got electricity.”
The challenges to urban development are often enormous, especially in government. Kakaza, who moved from Zevenfontein in 2008, said that although she considered Cosmo City a better place than where she was before, she is not happy with where it’s heading.
“There are a lot of people and it’s dirty now. It doesn’t look like before because they built rooms. When you look at the houses, you can’t even tell which ones are RDP houses because they’ve got rooms attached,” she said. For residents like Kakaza who moved from informal settlements, the “back rooms” and alterations people are making to their RDP housing cause problems of overcrowding and crime. It’s like Zevenfontein all over again.
Caroline Mothowagae (63), who moved from the same informal settlement in 2006, said back rooms are part of what makes Cosmo City a difficult place in which to live.
“You can’t blame the rooms, because a lot of people in Cosmo do not have jobs. There is no income except through these rooms,” she said. “I used to hate these rooms, but I have had to change because I am also struggling. I have now put in a room in my yard also, even though these are the same people who turn on us. It’s either that or I starve.”
Mothowagae, who is retired and stays in Extension 6, is often required to give financial support to her four children and their children, using the money she gets from renting out her extra room.
“If we had jobs, things would be better. I know I’m not educated, but there are those who are educated and don’t have jobs,” Mothowagae said.
The Cosmo City developer, Basil Read Developments, did not anticipate the direction it would take. Over the years, people from Zevenfontein and Riverbend were allocated to various sections. Other home-seekers from different parts of the country came to find a place they could call their own. Those who could afford bonded houses bought property in extensions 3, 5, 7 and 8, while there were some who bought subsidised units in extensions 9 and 10. In accordance with the government’s plan to make the extensions inclusive of people from every class, the plans of the extensions with wealthier houses overlap with houses that are subsidised. Extension 0, which is close to Extension 5, is also a credit-link housing area. Extensions 2, 4 and 6 are all RDP housing areas.
Another thing the developers did not take into account was how the names would be perceived. Streets in the wealthier extensions, such as 5 and 8, have either Western or Asian names, and poorer extensions, such as 2 and 6, have African names. This has caused many community members to conclude that the naming was done to reinforce the idea that Africa is synonymous with poverty.
“To tell you the truth, I don’t like the street names. Names like Zimbabwe – they gave us names of nations that are struggling. Are they saying that we deserve those names because we are the RDP section and we are poor?” asked Asanda Booi (23), who stays with her mother and daughter in Extension 2.
Masautso felt differently about the names, although he also had his reservations about some aspects. “I think they are nice names. They tried to build an African village for everyone. That’s why the whole of Africa is represented here. Except for the side where there the names are all American. Maybe they wanted that to be the rich side and because this is the poor side they made it Africa – I don’t know,” he mused. A dog ran to him from one of the houses, and he stopped to pat its head and talk to it. The dog, he explained, was his brother’s, who lives in the house it ran from. When he first arrived to Cosmo City, Masautso moved around Extension 2 before he settled on Tanzania Avenue, where he still stays.
“But for me it’s like a welcome to people from outside – when you are walking and you see your country’s name, you feel welcomed,” he continued. Masautso was born in Malawi. “This place does not have xenophobia towards the foreigners. They understand that life brings people to different places. It is not like Soweto or other places where you are scared that you might be in danger.”
Reservations about the seeming class divide they cause aside, Masautso concluded that “the names are fine. It reminds the people from here that Nairobi and Mombasa are in Kenya. Those names can help because they teach people about other places.”
“We think the names are cool,” said Seipati Molefe (16). “It’s cool to live on a street with a name like New York. But we don’t google them to find out where they are from.”
Thato Modika (17), who stays on Albania, did google them. “”I don’t know why they named the streets this way. I don’t know what happened there. But the names are cool,” he said. “I don’t know all the streets of this place but I googled some of them, like this one,” he said, pointing to a sign across from him that read “Moldavia”.
When Wish Maswaganyi (16) and her mother moved to Cosmo from Limpopo, she also found the names very different to what she was used to. “I like them, but at first I thought they were weird names. I thought it was random,” Maswaganyi said. “I’m used to it now. I guess people have different ways [of doing things].”
Basil Read touts itself as a developer that builds developments that “nurture neighbourhoods”, but even its best efforts did not prevent some community members from feeling alienated.
This is a concern for Philip Sithole (57), who has been staying in Cosmo City since before the streets were named. For South Africans like him, being excluded from the naming process means Cosmo’s history will not remember them.
“The names are not good because they do not honour the people who have lived here since before Cosmo City was born. Is there an Ndebele street here? Is there a Mahlangu street here?” Sithole asked. “There’s a Zimbabwe. Who is Zimbabwe? Where do they come from? They should have used names of people connected to this place’s history. If there was Khumalo Street, I could say Khumalo started his life here, he worked here, he died here.”
But he cannot, even though since arriving in the area in 1965, his knowledge of it is expansive. “No one told us anything about naming the streets. We just saw boards with these street names,” he said.
Far down the road from Tanzania Avenue into Lilongwe, a section of Cosmo City called Silahliwe begins. The area is so secluded that no taxis service the area, and it is surrounded by a fence that separates it from the rest of the area. But on paper it is part of Extension 2.
“Some people call it Iceland, while others call it Silahliwe,” said Prince Dzhivuli (39), an industrial machinery mechanic. Translated from isiZulu literally, silahliwe means “we have been thrown away”, deserted.
“They call it that because it is so excluded,” Dzhivuli continued. He moved away from his car, which was parked outside his garage, blasting Amadodana Ase Wesile, and pointed to a fence. “If you look over there, there is a barricade that runs all around this place. It’s as if we’re not part of Cosmo City.”
As he was talking, several people who passed by greeted him. Their section might be apart from the rest of the community, but they have found a way to make it work. Their seclusion has bonded them, and theirs is a unity stronger than other extensions have been able to achieve. Because of its location, the area is susceptible to crime, but Dzhivuli’s community has managed to combat it by forming a highly organised community watch.
He looked to where his two children were playing with other children from the neighbourhood, squealing and shouting to one another in delight. “The police in Honeydew even gave us an award for our efforts,” he said.
Silahliwe, which the residents mostly refer to as Extension 20, is an RDP section. Residents refer to extensions such as these, including Extension 0, as “ko low cost”, which means “where the low-cost housing is”; and extensions such as 5 and 8 as “ko dibondong”, meaning “where the bonded housing is”.
According to Lynette Groenewald of Urban Dynamics, a town planner involved in the process, ideas were requested from “interested and affected parties regarding themes for the street names”. These names were approved by councillors and local authorities. She said that, “Cosmo City extensions were not designed with a specific income group in mind.”
Despite this, many residents, such as Mothowagae, maintain they were not consulted. “They should have chosen names we are familiar with. Using unfamiliar names is not nice,” she said. “That’s why a lot of people here say Cosmo City is not a place for South Africans, it’s for foreigners. We are not welcome here.”
For Mothowagae, the clean slate did not give her the sense of belonging she hoped would come with having her own home and community. Whether it was intended or not, the names set a tone for how the place is perceived. Even in this supposed utopia, the class lines are still there, still noticeable.
In several ways Cosmo City has parallels to South Africa’s young democracy. Both were approached as clean slates, but came with the baggage of history. Both carried the weight of intersecting and often conflicting hopes and expectations. Both, in sometimes disappointing ways and despite the gains made, look a lot like the very things they were trying to move away from. But where the state, the city and the planners have failed, community members help each other, despite their differences. If there is a need, they meet it collectively. And like South Africa’s democracy, only time will tell what Cosmo City’s future holds.
All Pics by Dean Hutton