ALEX: CASE OF ARRESTED URBAN DEVELOPMENT
ALEXANDRA, like many other former "native locations", has a long and complicated history.
Vakele Richard Mbalukwana describes how his parents bought their home during World War II: "The neighbourhood was upper middle class with decent homes.
People made improvements to their homes. They built modern houses for those times; they used to look at Bramley and Yeoville and copy the architectural designs."
Vakele still lives in the house his parents bought in 1943. Today he is treasurer and spokesperson of Alexandra Property Owners Rights (APOR), an organisation of "aspiring property owners" with more than 1000 members.
Proclaimed a native township in 1912, Alex was one of the few places where blacks could own property. But, in 1958, the municipality expropriated the area, reducing property owners to tenants.
Twenty-five years later the properties were sold back to residents, but not with freehold title. Mbalukwana refused to buy back the property, though he still lives there. His neighbour, Ethel Mngomezulu, completed an "application to purchase existing property in Alexandra" and received a deed of sale.
Today all residents of Alex live without secure property rights - a situation that has led to the physical deterioration of Alex, as well as instances of violent xenophobia.
Though some residents did receive monetary compensation as part of a claim with the Land Rights Commission, former property owners are still fighting for freehold title.
Before the 1958 expropriation many Alex property owners received an income from tenants who rented small rooms at the back of their properties. Job seekers, including Nelson Mandela, often stayed temporarily in Alex.
But when in 1958 the municipality became the sole property owner, Alex property owners lost not only their landlord status and therefore the rental income from tenants, but were forced to pay rents themselves to the municipality.
The loss of tenant income contributed to the economic decline of Alex. Uncertainty surrounding property rights stifled investment: unsure about the future of the properties, families stopped makingimprovements to their homes.
Mbalukwana contends that had individuals had secure freehold title, there would be many more day-care centres and other small businesses.
Residents have good reason to doubt the security of their properties. In several sites in Alex, the municipal government ordered families to leave in preparation for demolition. Homes have been torn down to make way for a heritage centre. Such projects are undertaken without community consultation or compensation for the loss of property. A court order in January put a halt to the confiscation of properties.
Without freehold title, residents of Alex have greater difficulty accessing commercial loans. APOR chairperson Mandla Mhlanga explains that people would use banks to take out loans if they had freehold titles to their properties.
"Today, if you borrow money from your family, it might take a year to build a roof. If you had a loan from a bank it would happen much faster."
The insecurity of property rights upholds racial discrimination, economic subordination and, as recent events have shown, has contributed to violence and an increase in crime in Alex.
There is growing tension between former owners and former tenants. The former are upset because dozens of people now squat on their properties. Many of the squatters are foreigners. Without freehold title Alexandra has become a free-for-all.
Doreen, an elderly woman who inherited a double lot property from her parents, estimates that more than 100 people occupy the land. She has no way of monitoring who is coming and going.
Last December, five men attacked her on her way to church. Community members say the men were brought to justice.
Municipal planners are reluctant to allow freehold title because they believe this will lead to evictions.
But a return to freehold title would not mean the expulsion of the squatters, says Mbalukwana. "We need people there. We need to have rent-paying tenants."
The Alexandra Renewal Project (ARP) is part of the government's urban renewal programme and has been involved in development projects in Alex including RDP homes, new school buildings and a shopping centre. Thus far, ARP refuses to allow freehold title to former property owners.
Since the 1960s Alex residents have been fighting for freehold title. The new government is perpetuating apartheid land policies by denying freehold title to former property owners.
l Grube, a graduate of Beloit College, is a Fulbright US Student Programme member who spent 10 months taking part in Free Market Foundation projects. The views expressed are the author's and are not necessarily shared by the Foundation.