Alexandra, symbol of inequity, turns 100

2012-06-19 10:56

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 7.6kmĀ².

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."