Located about 50km north of Cape Town, Atlantis was a failed experiment of segregationist planning during South Africa’s Apartheid era. Now the area hopes to shed its troubled past and embrace a forward-looking economy focused on innovation.

In 2018, the local authorities launched the Atlantis Greentech Special Economic Zone (SEZ), with ambitions to make it a hotspot for the development and production of clean, resource-efficient and socially inclusive products and technologies for South Africa, as well as the rest of the African continent. 

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“For us, Atlantis SEZ is an opportunity to try to capture the green manufacturing impetus as well as address some of the unemployment and poverty in Atlantis,” says Pierre Voges, head of the Western Cape Strategic Economic Development Infrastructure Company (Sedic) in charge of developing the Atlantis SEZ. 

Former manufacturers

Atlantis was established in the 1970s by the National Party government with the intention of forming a self-sustainable district for non-white working-class families. The government lured heavy manufacturing companies into setting up shop in the area through generous incentives.

In its heyday, some 50 industrialists were active in the area, drawing workers from about 8000 families. Most left as quickly as they had arrived once those incentives were phased out, however, leaving the area exposed to the short-lived regeneration programmes and boom-and-bust cycles of the post-Apartheid era. 

Atlantis SEZ now plans to tap into the area’s industrial legacy and make it the foundation for a new sustainable technologies manufacturing hub. “Over the next 15 years we are targeting to capture about R3.7bn ($191.3m) in industrial greentech investment and hopefully we will have created about 3000 jobs by 2030,” says Mr Voges. 

Since the SEZ was officially approved by the central government in 2018, five companies have signed up and met the requirement to operate within the SEZ regime, and another 10 are in the pipeline, according to Mr Voges. 

So far, the SEZ’s marquee investment has come from Spanish Gestamp Renewable Industries, which has invested R475m in a wind tower manufacturing facility able to produce 150 towers per year.  

Strong governance

“We have a few ingredients we believe make the Atlantis SEZ a compelling investment. The managing company has a strong corporate governance,” says Mr Voges. “Unfortunately, at the moment in South Africa state-owned enterprises are not that trusted. We have to make sure that the company internal system can be trusted. Besides, the infrastructure in the area for importing or exporting goods is very good – we have a very active port in Cape Town, and another one upgraded in Saldanha.

“Last, we have a very strong skills base from the former days of industrialisation. All that, combined with the green tech hook, forms a compelling investment argument.”  

The interconnectivity element may prove particularly relevant as the African continent grows and embraces renewable energy and clean technologies. “South Africa is a very small economy, we have to focus and encourage exports. Africa, in particular, is a huge market that we are very keen to target,” says Mr Voges. 

As Atlantis turns the page on its past and attempts to make the best of its complicated legacy, its next chapter lies in the green technologies that many consider to be the future.

This article first appeared in the April-June edition of fDi Magazine. The full digital version of the magazine is available here