‘Unfinished’ Foreshore Freeways – An unexpected monument to struggle?


Eastern Boulevard Construction through District Six. Source: City of Cape Town Engineer’s Annual Report 1964


It’s almost fifty years since construction on the ‘unfinished’ foreshore freeways in Cape Town started. For most of the 1940s and 1950s the foreshore was a windswept, bleak sandy wasteland beyond Adderley Street. It had been reclaimed from the sea for the construction of a new port during the 1930s, but by the early 1960s the new land hadn’t been developed  yet. The intervening period was one of intense wrangling between planners, politicians and engineers about how to develop the area. In 1963 a committee comprising a Detroit traffic engineer; a Bishops educated, British Professor of Planning; and a local engineer finally articulated an idea for a freeway route around the city. It was typical of thinking at that time.

This new freeway would provide a fast route for national traffic from the western suburbs of Sea Point and Camps Bay to connect with the N1 and the rest of the country. It would also provide a freeway up Buitengracht Street as far as Shortmarket Street. The silent sixties in South Africa meant public reaction to most things, including such road building, was muted. When the Eastern Boulevard (now named “Nelson Mandela Boulevard”) cut through District Six housing in 1963/4 there was little response registered by the engineers. By 1972, however, the mood had shifted dramatically. Awakening heritage, conservation, environmental and civil rights movements started protest the development of these urban freeways. The huge arches of the foreshore freeways were suddenly labelled by the local press as a “concrete dragon”.

Similarly, outrage was being expressed in the US where freeways had been built through downtowns . The roads ripped through “black neighbourhoods” and contributed to the rising civil rights movement in a series of ‘highway revolts’. South African road engineers, returning from trips to the US, were shocked by how dramatically the mood in the US had shifted against the very urban freeway construction that South Africa was in the midst of. Returning from one such an overseas tour in 1968 a senior National Transport official argued strongly that National Government should no longer subsidise urban freeway building. Over the course of the 1970s urban road schemes across the country were either quietly dropped or downgraded. By the mid-1970s attention had shifted away from the Cape Town CBD to the then new Mitchells Plain, which required huge roads and service infrastructure investment to fulfil the Apartheid plan.

So yes, officially the foreshore freeway was stopped because the money ‘ran out’; it ran out because the international civil rights movement was waking up while, ironically, the Apartheid machinery was gearing into action. In this sense the ‘unfinished’ freeway can be seen as a physical manifestation of the struggle for human rights in making of cities. It stands as a memorial to painful struggles both at home and elsewhere.

4 responses

  1. This fascinating Lisa – really enjoyed this glimpse into history and also into your work. I am interested to hear your view of the latest plans/rumours to finish the construction of this flyover – the timing is interesting too! Is the full version of the PhD available to read?

  2. Thanks Elzette for the positive feedback!

    I’ve got a couple of blog pieces which will come up over the next two weeks which give my thoughts on the current developments so watch this space if you’re interested.

    The PhD thesis is a typical piece written very specifically for three examiners but I’m busy converting it into something more interesting to a lay audience which will hopefully find a publisher. As I’m doing that (over the next six months) I plan to blog little nuggets which local readers would find interesting. So let me know if there’s anything of specific interest.

    Do you have connections/history with the schemes?

    • Thanks Lisa!

      No connection to the schemes – as an urban planner, I have just always been very intrigued with this unfinished highway and the many urban legends surrounding it. I was in a discussion with 3 other people the other day when this topic came up – we all heard a different reason why this highway was never completed ha! Sure you must have come across a few more on your journey.

      Also love the way urban complexities have a way of surprising us all – who would have thought that it would become a very popular site amongst the movie makers of the world! How to generate some profits from an urban eye-sore!

      Great, i will look out for more blog pieces on this and look forward to reading the new version of your thesis when it becomes available.


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