WE BUILT THIS CITY

Steyn City is a testament to the confidence that billionaire Douw Steyn has in South Africa

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The annals of history record remarkable changes in the human lifestyle. Imagine the task of getting to work in 2015 as perceived by a Victorian sensibility. The futurism of those times looks positively quaint.

Contemporary middle and upper-class living is often trumpeted as the state-of-the-art, but it saddens those who hark back to the time when neighbours and friends were greeted during a leisurely stroll down the park lane. Indeed, with work becoming as demanding as it has and the rise of social media and the Internet, social isolation has become an increasingly threatening phenomenon.

It is this trend of atomism and alienation that Steyn City is designed to outflank in order to restore a sense of community. Africa’s largest lifestyle development, Steyn City, which at a cost of approximately R6 billion for the first phase and over R50 billion planned for the second, was launched in Fourways, Johannesburg in March this year.

The brainchild of multi-billionaire Douw Steyn, the development has been endorsed by none other than the late Nelson Mandela, himself a close friend of Steyn, who took refuge at his home following his release from prison. Together with property developer Giuseppe Plumari, who has been referred to as the “creative partner”, Steyn City today symbolises the patriotism and enthusiasm that an investment of this magnitude implies.

The long journey

Leadership was granted an exclusive interview with Plumari—who also acts as official mouthpiece for Steyn on all matters project-related —and spoke to him about the long journey he has travelled to Steyn City, his inspiration and aspirations for the project and what it takes to tackle a behemoth of this scale.

Plumari, who’s family emigrated to South Africa in the 1960s from Milan, Italy, followed directly in his father’s footsteps and entered the construction industry after leaving school at Greenside, Johannesburg. Now with a good 40 years industry experience behind him, Plumari reflects on how it has transformed over time and admits that the most significant change has been the amount of professionalism lost to the overseas market.

“I think most industries in the country really feel that it is very difficult to get well qualified people. The real doers in the country somehow either get poached or they go off to Dubai etc. We have a lot of talent that has left the country and I think that is what has the biggest impact on the industry here,” he says.

Initially acquiring the 900 hectares of land for commercial purposes, Plumari was eventually approached by Steyn, who came on board as financial partner to fund what is today the biggest residential development in South African history.

Creating a legacy

As Plumari explains, “My objective was always to develop more in the commercial sector and a lot of land in those days went to commercial development. After Douw invested into my company, it became quite evident really early on that he had ambitions of his own, that he wanted to create a legacy. He had this dream of building a city. There was an emptiness in him that needed to be filled with a residential development. And as the developer and the creative person, I was entrusted with the ideology of building Steyn City.”

One would assume that after accruing a personal fortune of around R8 billion and successfully building the investment empire that Auto and General is today, Steyn would be content that he had achieved even beyond his wildest dreams. Plumari, however, says that, numbers aside, Steyn would have liked to leave behind a more tangible legacy which testifies to his love for the country of his birth, and his confidence therein.

“He gave me a brief and said he wanted to do something very special, something unique. He wanted the best. I was entrusted with that project and one of the first things I did was to sit down and start thinking about what would make this development stand out from the rest. Being a practical, more grassroots person, I saw the greatness of a home that didn’t have to be finished in gold. To me the value is in lifestyle. I’m a people’s person, I love my family. So what it [Steyn City] encapsulates is ‘how we should be living’ as humans,” he says.

As problematic as subjective statements about how we as humans “should” be living can be, Plumari nevertheless puts his foot down when he says: “I think society and the world has lost the way humans lived as a whole.” One of the culprits he identifies here is none other than the automobile. To Plumari the car has become a “cancer” in society, without us ever realising it.

“We do not live in societies anymore, we live in little islands in a sea of traffic. I have personally lived in my home in Northcliff now for over 20 years and went to the trouble of meeting my neighbours when I first got there, but since then they have moved and nobody has ever come to me and said ‘hi, I’m so and so’. I know my neighbours through my car window and I see them and sometimes I wave. If you go to the cities of old, there is a human scale to them that represents who we are and the only reason that the human scale is there is because they developed a few hundred years ago when there were no cars.”

Designed on a human scale

“Everybody loves a French Provincial or some Italian town with a Piazza, but the reason they love it is not because it is old, it is because it has been designed on a human scale. So that becomes a lot more pedestrianised, and we love it. So that is what we have tried to do and why there is so much public open space. And all the residents of Steyn City, whether rich or poor, get to frequent the same park and walkways. You will meet your neighbours and you are going to feel safe to send your kid to buy a pint of milk at the shop because you can get there without having to negotiate the traffic. That is the uniqueness of Steyn City—it has truly been designed with pedestrian living at its core,” Plumari says.

In fact, this is exactly where he sees the development in roughly 20 years’ time. “The way I see it is that the people who live there who bought a small apartment for 1.5 million rand will be rubbing shoulders with the very rich down at the park and relationships are going to be built.” This, he says, will lead to an integrated society where those living in the community and among friends are living the way everybody “should live”. Few would argue that this is by far not the case for the vast majority of South Africans.

As glowing a testament of confidence and patriotism as Steyn City might be, it has been criticised by various quarters, including both the public and government, for typifying isolated development that does not contribute to societal integration in South Africa. These objections are easily understood when looking at the country’s past, as well as its current social issues, but as Plumari says, in Steyn City’s defence, such criticism is a misinterpretation of the intent and vision they have for the development.

At the root of many, if not most, of South Africa’s social ills lie poverty and unemployment. Steyn City, having contributed to local infrastructure to the tune of a R300 million upgrade to the R511 William Nicol Road and a R35 million water reservoir which forms part of Johannesburg Water’s master plan for the region, has also impacted the lives of many people in the neighbouring Diepsloot informal settlement.

Only good things to say

In the project’s defence, Plumari says that what it symbolises is investing in the country as opposed to running away from its problems. “I have spent years with the Diepsloot communities and we have created thousands of jobs. If you go to the communities in Diepsloot, I can assure you that they have only good things to say about Steyn City. We have created over 12 000 jobs on an ongoing basis and that is just the beginning. Another positive factor, not a negative factor, was building it right next to Diepsloot. The community of Diepsloot does not resent people who have done well in life. They want the possibility to earn a living, but what is more important is to earn a living on their doorstep, from where they can walk to work. They are proud of working at Steyn City. We believe in this country and [need to] develop in a manner that says it is acceptable for you to live there.

“The real truth is that people like myself who have stayed behind believe in this country despite all its adversity. Every day there is every reason and temptation for us to pack up and leave this country. But it takes courage and determination to carry on here and we are the ones who are going to make a difference. Let us stay here, let us make a difference. And you do not need to get yourself killed in order to do that. I think that is something to take into consideration. But we have got to stay here, make a difference, create the jobs and I think that will bring the crime down, and then in time you won’t have to build the high walls and electrified fences,” he says.

Being somewhat euphoric about the creation of a colossus of this size does not mean that it has been smooth sailing throughout. As Plumari says, the biggest challenge to developments in this country is the fact that municipalities are “not the most well run institutions” at the moment. But for him, countering this has been the perseverance to work with government institutions and instead of throwing his toys out the cot and leaving the country, having the patience to make things happen through public private partnerships.

Admittedly, Plumari says, it has been tremendously challenging. A quality he atrributes to South Africans—and one of the keys to their success with the development so far—is tenacity in the face of adversity. “We must hold hands and be positive in spite of all our differences, in spite of all the challenges. Steyn City is a testament to the fact that if we want it hard enough, we do it,” he says.

He goes on to enthuse about the importance of patriotism and commitment to the country at this juncture in its history. Considering that Douw Steyn could have, like many others, taken his money elsewhere, investing such a sizable amount in South Africa is certainly worth lauding. Plumari says “the reason why Steyn did this was because of his patriotism, because this is the country of his birth. He is truly an African. And he is saying ‘let me put it somewhere, where it is going to make a difference’ and stand up as testimony in the time to come with the people that he loves, in the country that he loves. I think that needs to be commended. So if it strokes his ego a bit, why on earth not!”

Working together

“If we all act together, we are going to change the country. We need to be committed. It is not enough just to go overseas and criticise what’s going wrong in the country. Let us come back here and let us hold hands and work together,” he says. An idealistic notion certainly, and most fitting when discovering what Plumari considers his core values to be.

Plumari describes himself as a grassroots guy and says what has made him go from strength to strength is his commitment and belief in hard work. “I’ve always been a terribly hard worker, my whole family are hard-working people.” But at its core, this is grounded in absolute integrity he says. “When you work together and have partners, integrity plays a big role - people trust in you to do something.” Plumari says this has been the backbone of his success in life. “Douw recognised that, together with my creativity, that’s my strength as a person and he harnessed it. We have always had a very good relationship and friendship and I’m still friends with all the friends I’ve ever had. To me friendship, integrity and hard work is really at the heart of it all.”

Another important, and necessary, trait he admires is the willingness to share. Plumari says viewing something in terms of the investment it represents as opposed to only the money has served him well. “I always think ‘look I’ll buy this thing that only costs R10 but in years to come it will grow to be something more’. And in 10 years’ time it will be a very valuable piece of property. That’s at the very heart of what I’ve done over the years,” he says.

Striking fantastic deals

“You know there were properties that were worthless 20 years ago when I bought them and nobody wanted them because they were outside the urban edge. People could not see the potential, but I did a lot of work upfront to see where growth could take place. You bought them for very little and you could strike fantastic deals, but of course it took 20 years before those properties matured. So they were long-term projects,” he says.

Short term thinking, according to Plumari, is unfortunately quite common in South Africa’s business mentality. “They want to buy something, make a quick buck and carry on.” This is where he says greed comes into the equation. “Whereas when you have a long term attitude and planning, that greed factor goes away, and eventually it also means leaving a little bit on the table for everybody else,” he says.

It is in line with this visionary approach that Plumari says he believes Mandela was in favour of the development. Madiba, one of his icons, was a man, he says, not driven solely by money but rather by principle and someone who could see beyond the immediate situation.

“He realised at an early stage that for this country to function properly, we need to be one people and see everything in unity, and I think he believed that a project of this magnitude symbolises confidence in the future of the country. He also saw it as a development that can make a difference to the people in the area,“ he says.

Plumari concludes by saying, “Let us speak to all the successful South Africans that are abroad and tell them to come home and invest in the future.”

Whether or not one agrees with the ideology behind the endeavour, the sheer magnitude of an investment of this size warrants applause for the investor and developer determined enough to persevere and pull off a project of this incredible scale. ▲

Michael Meiring

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