Alexandra, symbol of inequity, turns 100

2012-06-19 10:56
A woman washes clothes in a street of the Alexandra township. (Alexander Joe, AFP)

A woman washes clothes in a street of the Alexandra township. (Alexander Joe, AFP)

Multimedia   ·   User Galleries   ·   News in Pictures Send us your pictures  ·  Send us your stories

Johannesburg - Alexandra, one of Johannesburg's most notorious townships, marks its 100th anniversary this year with hopes of revitalising a slum that has come to symbolise inequality in South Africa.

The ramshackle township that was Nelson Mandela's first home in Johannesburg sits just across a highway from the gleaming high-rise buildings of Sandton, which boasts of being Africa's richest square mile.

Alexandra seems to have little to celebrate, with about 400 000 people, a third of whom believed to be unemployed, packed into 7.6km².

But Philip Bonner, historian at the University of the Witwatersrand, said: "The fact that it survived is a cause of some sort of celebration."

An accident of history, Alexandra survived the bulldozers and violence of apartheid rule.

Known popularly as "Alex", the township began in 1912 when a group of blacks bought the land from a white farmer who failed to find white buyers.

It became one of the few places in the country where people of colour could own property, giving rise to a tradition of autonomy and resistance which today is the pride of residents.

Apartheid authorities, determined to crush the black neighbourhood seen as a blight on nearby Sandton, moved tens of thousands of people to other townships such as Soweto, about 40km away.

But they could never get everyone out, making Alexandra one of the only neighbourhoods to successfully resist apartheid's forced relocations.

"I didn't want to go there, I wanted to stay here in Alexandra, because they were not farming there. Here we were farming," said Selina Mpisi, a feisty centenarian renamed "Lady Alex" who has become the embodiment of the anniversary.

A legacy project

Modern Alexandra is a far cry from the rural expanse that greeted Mpisi when she arrived 74 years ago. The first houses have been swamped in an ocean of makeshift homes where masses of migrant workers have gathered.

Not without incident. The xenophobic attacks that convulsed South Africa in 2008 began in Alex and quickly spread across the country.

In the early 1940s, Alexandra made headlines by boycotting buses to protest against fare hikes, forcing the white authorities of the day to shelve the plan.

Those boycotts helped inspire Mandela's fight for freedom, Bonner said.

"He says it made a big impression on him. It opened his eyes politically," Bonner said. "From that moment on he ... ceased being an observer and became a participant."

In 2001, South Africa launched an ambitious renovation project and built thousands of houses, tarred roads, put up street lights, and designed a park to replace a township that suffered regular flooding from a nearby river.

While many people wouldn't dare venture there, the township is not the lawless gangster valley it used to be.

"When I come back from the church, I am not scared, I just go. A few years ago you couldn't go alone," said Pauline Dlamini, who was born here 70 years ago.

Despite the improvements, Alex remains an island of poverty where goats graze among the trash accumulating outside a new shopping centre, and where the municipal council has procured a squadron of owls to hunt rats.

Organisers hope publicity around the centenary will draw attention and investment away from Soweto to Alex, said Mpho Motsumi, president of the Greater Alexandra Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

"We see it as a platform for changing the face of Alexandra, socially and economically, apart from just partying. We've got a legacy project - so that the people will always remember the 100 years of Alex."
Read more on:    johannesburg

Join the conversation! encourages commentary submitted via MyNews24. Contributions of 200 words or more will be considered for publication.

We reserve editorial discretion to decide what will be published.
Read our comments policy for guidelines on contributions.
NEXT ON NEWS24X publishes all comments posted on articles provided that they adhere to our Comments Policy. Should you wish to report a comment for editorial review, please do so by clicking the 'Report Comment' button to the right of each comment.

Comment on this story
Comments have been closed for this article.

Inside News24

There's an app for that: how apps have changed us

"There's an app for that" is more than just Apple's marketing mantra. Mobile apps have emerged over the last 10 years or so for practically every need in a person's day and changed our lives.

Traffic Alerts
There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.


Create Profile

Creating your profile will enable you to submit photos and stories to get published on News24.

Please provide a username for your profile page:

This username must be unique, cannot be edited and will be used in the URL to your profile page across the entire network.


Location Settings

News24 allows you to edit the display of certain components based on a location. If you wish to personalise the page based on your preferences, please select a location for each component and click "Submit" in order for the changes to take affect.

Facebook Sign-In

Hi News addict,

Join the News24 Community to be involved in breaking the news.

Log in with Facebook to comment and personalise news, weather and listings.