Alexandra Township, or “Alex” as it is commonly referred to, is Gauteng’s oldest township and one of the poorest areas of the region. Lack of infrastructure, overcrowding and rampant crime make living there extremely difficult.
Today, some 170,000 people are jammed into the two square kilometers that make up Alexandra Township. This overcrowding puts extreme stress on government services including educational, medical, sanitary and other services. It is ironic that Alex is located only 3 km from Sandton, the new financial heart of Johannesburg and one of the wealthiest and most opulent suburbs in all of Africa. It borders the industrial and business parks where manufacturing and high tech industries are based and yet it suffers from unemployment rates officially recognized to be 32% but believed by NGOs to be much closer to 60%.
Alexandra Township was originally part of a tract of farmland bought by S. Papenfus, a wealthy white landowner in 1904. It’s earliest residents were the farmer’s cook, Hey Mbanjwa and his family, who built a mud hut on what later became 2nd Avenue. Until the late 1990s Mbanjwa’s daughter, Annie Twala, continued to live in the hut where she came to be known as the mother of Alexandra.
The township was named after Papenfus’ wife when he began selling plots to black families drawn to the area by the possibility of jobs. In 1912 Alex was proclaimed a “native township” where black people could own land freehold. The next year, the South African Parliament under the Native Land Act of 1913 dissolved black land ownership rights. However, Alex continued to draw people, mainly from rural areas, due to its proximity to Johannesburg and the surrounding mines.
It is where Nelson Mandela lived when he first came to Jo’burg as a young man. He worked as a law firm clerk by day and studied in his tin-roofed room at night by candlelight. In his autobiography he says: “Life in Alexandra was exhilarating and precarious.”
Even in the 1970’s and ’80’s Alex was known as Dark City because there was no electricity. Students continued to study by candlelight.
Unwelcome in Johannesburg in the evenings, the black population frequented local shebeens, illegal brew houses where beer and music were plentiful. Shebeen owners competed for clients by adding dangerous chemicals to their beer to make it more potent. Crime was rife in this environment and the unpaved roads so narrow that police vehicles wouldn’t venture into the township. Residents were left to fend for themselves.
Politics, too, was a major factor of life in Alex. During the apartheid years residents resisted forced removals, staged bus boycotts against fare increases and had to endure government policies that were designed to make life as grim as possible to force them out. But the people of Alex would not be moved.
In the early 1990s, as South Africa approached its first democratic election in 1994, Alex erupted with violence. The conflict was ignited between residents of the men’s hostels, built under apartheid to house migrant workers, and residents of homes near the hostels. The clash was ostensibly between supporters of the Inkharta Freedom Party and the A.N.C. In all likelihood, hostilities between the two groups were inflamed by those attempting to undermine South Africa’s movement towards democracy. The area around the hostels became known as “Beirut”. Some 10,000 people were chased from their homes by the violence and lived as displaced people for the next 10 years.
In 2001, the government embarked on The Alexandra Renewal Project, building new houses, providing electricity, paving roads, building clinics, new schools and community centers. East Bank is part of this development and many of the displaced families have found new homes there. East Bank lies across the Jukskei River from the original township. It is where the East Bank Clinic is situated.