Joburg’s Alexandra township, symbol of inequity, turns 100

Joburg’s Alexandra township, 
symbol of inequity, turns 100
Updated 20 June 2012

Joburg’s Alexandra township, symbol of inequity, turns 100

Joburg’s Alexandra township, 
symbol of inequity, turns 100

Alexandra, one of Johannesburg’s most notorious townships, marks its 100th anniversary this year with hopes of revitalizing a slum that has come to symbolize 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 some 400,000 people, a third of whom believed to be unemployed, packed into 7.6 square kilometers (about three square miles).
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 South Africa’s segregationist 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 color 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 neighborhood seen as a blight on nearby Sandton, moved tens of thousands of people to other townships such as Soweto some 40 kilometers (25 miles) away.
But they could never get everyone out, making Alexandra one of the only neighborhoods 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.
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 anti-immigrant 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.”