On the outskirts of the small Randfontein town in the West Rand of Gauteng, an old train station stands virtually forgotten. It was last used by rail parastatal Transnet while agribusiness giant Senwes, with its 10 silos next to the station, has been the sole user of the Middelvlei rail line.
But this week the Gauteng government set in motion a grand plan to refurbish the obscure station near Kocksoord into an economic hub. The R11 billion investment aims to stimulate the economy in the Rand West municipality, which suffered when the gold mines and related businesses closed down simultaneously.
Speaking on Tuesday at the launch of the new Montrose City Mega Development, which would use Middelvlei as the economic anchor of its residential and commercial developments, Gauteng Premier David Makhura said that renewing the railway line to ensure that people can move faster was a part of government’s multifaceted intervention to transform the economic landscape of the West Rand.
Montrose is among the 31 Mega Cities Projects that the Gauteng government is rolling out across the province as part of its vision to build smart cities – driven by broadband technology, energy efficiency and other smart solutions – that are able to cater to the needs of its residential and commercial residents.
The turnkey developer is SCM Properties and Development and other companies involved in the project include audit firm Sizwe Ntsaluba Gobodo, engineering firm SMEC and legal firm Adams & Adams, as well as empowerment partners like Nungu Marketing.
Statistically, mining areas like Kocksoord along the West Rand gold belt turn into ghost towns when mining activity shuts down, as seen last year in Thabazimbi in Limpopo, leaving behind a jobs bloodbath. In August, Sibanye Gold – one of the big miners in the area together with Goldfields and Harmony Gold – said that up to 7,400 jobs were on the line as it planned to restructure its operation due to heavy profit losses. In 2014 the unemployment rate in the West Rand district was 49%, according to the local municipality.
On Wednesday – a day after the Montrose project was launched – 31 year old Levitt Smith from Kocksoord brought his CV to the site hoping to get a job. He said he had only worked three months in his entire life after he failed to complete his sales and marketing course and at this point he was willing to do “anything, even if it means cleaning the toilet”.
Makhura said this week that “when government is building houses, it also takes cognisance of the fact that people must be able to work in and around the place where they stay”. He said that there should be job opportunities for the locals both during the construction of the project and after its conclusion.
Chief executive of SCM Properties and Development Sam Mhlaba said an integrated transport system of buses and taxis would form part of Middelvlei’s revival, adding that this would also link to the Cape Town train that passed in the area.
Prasa, currently operating a passenger rail starting in Randfontein, was earmarked to be the main operator of the passenger station that once complete would include a 20,000 square metre shopping centre, Mhlaba said.
“We are speaking to them (Prasa) and they are open to the idea of including Middelvlei in their routes,” he said, adding that there would be a sufficient market to make a business case for Prasa once the project is completed.
“This development is going to have close to 14,000 units once complete. With a conservative average of five people per household we estimate that will have a population of up to 70,000 using the train and other means of transport. That is enough of a market to reopen the station,” he said.
He said the envisioned economic development around the station, through partnership with Transnet, would cater for light industries like the production of tissues as well as heavy industries like the maintenance of trucks. Transnet would also have a role to play in bringing in companies that would use its services.
Mhlaba said it was likely to cost up to R1bn to reopen the station.
“We are trying to create a market even for the regional retail developers”.
The first phase of the project included 5 602 units consisting of 1 608 RDP house, 174 houses for military veterans, 1 225 bonded units, 1 915 social housing units and 680 rental units – plus a primary and a high school, a business zone and a government complex. The second phase would include another two schools, an FET college, a private hospital and a regional hospital.
“The problem that we face with ghost towns is that the business centres are always around the mine and when the mines close the business also shut down. The plan is to have mines procure from residents. In that way we will build an alternative market,” he said.