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.