Waiting to exhale: The story of Alexandra township

General view of a street in Alexandra
General view of a street in Alexandra
Image: Simphiwe Nkwali

A bird’s eye view of Alexandra in northern Johannesburg from the top of Alex Mall tells the story of how the 1913 Native Land Act changed the landscape of the City of Gold.

Patrons of the mall enjoy taking pictures of the breathtaking view but one is also able to silently hear the story of inequality being told, with the tall buildings of Johannesburg, Sandton City and the gigantic Mall of Africa in Midrand all towering over Alexandra.

Like a pirate ship that has been through many adventures, Alexandra is able to tell a century-old tale of the struggle of rural Africans who came to Johannesburg to look for greener pastures. The first 40 families arrived in Alexandra in 1913, with their houses standing tall and proud.

It is estimated that by 1916 around 30,000 people had descended on Alex. Today, the population of Alexandra is estimated to be around 700,000, which is putting pressure on the township’s resources.

A walk in Alex means getting used to raw sewage accompanying you on your journey. The smell of steamy malamogodu also reminds you of the many homelands the people of Alex come from. And the narrow streets full of hooting small taxis maneuvering up and down can make any new driver develop a thick skin, a necessary trait to survive in Joburg.

As you penetrate the streets of this overpopulated township, music bangs from corner to corner. It can be a bit difficult figuring out which house the music is coming from because most of the houses on the old side of the township are veiled by shacks and other makeshift structures.

An uprooted tree that was planted by former president Jacob Zuma is a sign of the community’s frustration

Alexandra was born out of greed and inequality, with its founder, HB Papenfus, cashing in on the 1913 Land Act by selling property to black people. The old cry for land can be heard even today, with people building shacks and other structures near the river bank.

Shack blazes are a regular occurrence because of the close proximity of the shacks to each other. There is little space for playgrounds in schools because they are also feeling the pressure of a massive population influx.

Locals in the area still call the streets by their old colonial names, such as London and John Brand roads. A big contradiction exists as these are classy European names.

However, poverty can be found walking all over these streets, with many young people unemployed and winding their time by drinking shirtless on the side of the road.

On 2nd Avenue, a big ram walks all over a small illegal dumping site. No one seems to care that it’s there. Whether it’s rams or rats, the residents seem to be used to the sight of displeasing animals walking all over the township.

The City of Johannesburg had tried sending in owls to deal with a massive colony of rats in the area but that project failed when residents started attacking the owls. There was a spiritual concern with the presence of owls.

Residents seem to have also lost faith in the government, especially with the mystery of how the Alexandra Renewal Project funds went missing.

An uprooted tree that was planted by former president Jacob Zuma is a sign of the community’s frustration.

The same frustration waved its hand when Alexandra made national news after a picture of a foreign national being stabbed was published on the cover of the Sunday Times in 2015.

It was a moment of shame for the township.

Alexandra Township is where Hugh Masekela began his musical journey in the 1960s.
Alexandra Township is where Hugh Masekela began his musical journey in the 1960s.
Image: KEVIN SUTHERLAND

Continuing the walk, one is immediately captured by the numerous languages that filter through the air – from Bemba (Zambian language), Zulu, Venda to Sotho. Many of the residents are able to switch from one language to another – a sign of a dynamic township.

Residents have learnt to live harmoniously with each other despite their different cultural backgrounds and languages. They all have a common goal – to get a piece of the pie in Joburg.

Vukuzenzele [get up and do it for yourself] is a common phrase among the township’s entrepreneurs. For those who can’t find work in the city, starting a business is the next best thing, the most common being food stands and taverns.

For those who don’t mind getting their hair done in the sun, there are braiders near Pan Africa shopping centre.

Walking in groups is encouraged because of crime in the area, especially at night. Life was not always this way in Alexandra. Once upon a time the jazzy music of Alexandra called black workers from across Johannesburg to come and relax in Alex, where they could jam to Kofifi music and Marabi while unburdening themselves of the dog-eat-dog nature of city life.

Many cultures were present, Indian, Chinese and whites who had returned from war.

The house where the late former president Nelson Mandela rented a room as a young man when he first came to Johannesburg in 1941.
The house where the late former president Nelson Mandela rented a room as a young man when he first came to Johannesburg in 1941.
Image: Veli Nhlapo
Before townships like Soweto carried the Struggle against apartheid and colonial laws, the residents of Alexandra had been carrying the fire of resistance

African workers from the Diaspora also became part of the community, marrying local women and participating in local politics. Many of them came as workers to the gold mines of Johannesburg.

Not only did the gold rush of 1886 bring workers to Joburg but it also brought European missionaries who came to preach the good news among natives. The clerics would eventually find their way to Alexandra, where they started churches that would teach Africans how to read and write – but they would also play an important role in the fight against apartheid.

Some of these missionaries included a German group of priests who founded the St Hubert’s Catholic Church in 1919 on 1st Avenue.

Despite the National Party’s heavy hand on black people, Africans living in Alexandra bloomed like wild flowers, with leaders of high calibre such as ANC’s trio of Zanele Mbeki, Kgalema Motlanthe and Joe Nhlanhla emerging.

There was also a string of musical talents such as Hugh Masekela, Caiphus Semenya and Ntemi Piliso.

Nelson Mandela and Samora Machel also called Alex home for a short period of time. Creative writers with an excellent command of the English language such as Wally Serote and Don Mattera also emerged out of Alex.

People taking cover after a protest march turned into a gunfight with the Police in Alexandra township , Johannesburg. Pic: 26/03/1992.
People taking cover after a protest march turned into a gunfight with the Police in Alexandra township , Johannesburg. Pic: 26/03/1992.
Image: Tim Zielenbach

Before townships like Soweto carried the Struggle against apartheid and colonial laws, the residents of Alexandra had been carrying the fire of resistance. This started with the 1940 bus boycott. The city wanted to increase the four-penny fare to five pennies (one penny is around R1 in today’s terms).

However, the township came out in protest and for six months residents boldly walked 15km and more to their places of work. Their resilience paid off – at the end of six months the penny increase was dropped. The campaign was known as Azikhwelwa.

The residence of Alex did it again in 1954 when the apartheid government passed the Bantu Education Act, which stated that blacks now had to submit to an inferior system of education, preparing them for inferior status in SA society.

Thousands of school children boycotted their schools in April 1954 in Alexandra and around the country.

Sixteen teachers from Alex lost their jobs.

The hostels of Alexandra – a protruding thorn, a piece of history no one wants to remember – stand strong, but an eerie atmosphere still surrounds these buildings.

In the early 1990s, a fight broke out between residents in the men’s hostels and residents south of the hostels, an area that became known as “Beirut”. Sixty people were killed, while nearly 600 were injured and around 10,000 displaced from their homes.

It was a painful procession towards the 1994 elections.

The black-on-black violence was one of the many challenges Alexandra had to overcome.

Today, Alexandra still stands as a symbol of inequality and tenders gone wrong and residents of this 105-year-old township are wondering when their time to exhale will come.

The ‘Godfather’ of Alexandra, Linda Twala
The ‘Godfather’ of Alexandra, Linda Twala
Image: Veli Nhlapho

The “Godfather” of Alexandra, Linda Twala, shared some of his thoughts on the issues surrounding the place of his birth.

Twala’s parents moved into Alexandra in 1903 and were among the first families to settle in what youngsters today call “Gomora”.

His family is a true reflection of the beginnings of Alex, with some of his family members having Asian and European features.

“I do not think that people from Alexandra are xenophobic but I think that we are in a crisis of resources, we need more land. There are too many of us living on a square mile,” Twala says.

The land issue in Alex is something close to Twala’s heart.

He says he was saddened by the slow yet painful loss of Alexandra land to Sandton developments.

“Some of our old burial sites are close to that area as you go to Mall of Africa ... we used to swim in Limbro Park,” says Twala.

He says he was playing with the idea of organising a land protest by the elderly community of Alex.

“If it is young people that do this protest, they will arrest them,” says Twala.

“Everywhere you go you see young people all over the street, even during the morning. Where are the work opportunities for young people?” asks Mbanjwa

Although Alexandra is still close to economic opportunities, the township is not immune to South Africa’s staggering 29% unemployment rate. Muntu Mbanjwa, 41, is one of those who are sceptical about the future of Alex. His great-grandfather was one of the first property owners in Alexandra.

“Everywhere you go you see young people all over the street, even during the morning. Where are the work opportunities for young people?” asks Mbanjwa.

He also questions the slow pace of development in the area. He is particularly concerned about the growing disparities between Alex and its classy neighbour, Sandton.

“You are able to see the high-rise buildings of Sandton from here but they cannot see us,” he says.

“We do not have clean air in Alex, you can smell the difference in the air you smell here and the air in other parts of Johannesburg.”

The mayor of Johannesburg, Herman Mashaba, has launched a probe into the Alexandra Renewal Project, which was meant to give the township a R1.6bn facelift.

The project was aimed at changing the physical, economic and social environment of Alex and was billed as a joint urban regeneration project involving the local, provincial and national government as well as the private sector and non-government and community-based organisations.

But since its launch in 2001, little appears to have been delivered.

A view of the Alex Mall, built on the site of the former sporting village of Tsutsumani in Alexandra close to the N3 freeway.
A view of the Alex Mall, built on the site of the former sporting village of Tsutsumani in Alexandra close to the N3 freeway.
Image: Veli Nhlapo

In a statement, the city said it was proud of several developments in the Alexandra area but no comment was given concerning the Alexandra Renewal Project.

“As a city, we will continue to do all we can to ensure that change is brought to our communities,” said the city in a statement.

Father Ronald Cairns, a priest at St Hubert’s, says he has been working in the township for over three decades and has beautiful memories of the township.

He tells a quirky story of how he was rescued by a group of drunkards after he was hijacked in the area two years ago.

“They took me out of the car and some people from the neighbourhood spotted them and told them, ‘hands off our priest’. They rescued me and took me to a tavern where I found a lift to my house,” says the elderly priest.

Despite the human bonds the people of Alexandra have built, Alexandra lies below the towering buildings of Johannesburg, Sandton and Midrand, hoping to one day rise. Her children wonder if the Struggle will ever divorce Alexandra.

The destruction wreaked by the 1913 Land Act is not only felt in rural KwaZulu-Natal or by the chiefs and kings of different tribes, the after-effects can still be seen in present-day Alexandra.

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