The story of Alexandra spans a hundred years. It is a story of a people born into servitude who refused to die in darkness. Instead, they turned the lamentable living conditions into livable and lively lifestyles.
It is also a story of a courageous people. They refused to acquiesce to an unjust system; from refusing to pay a penny hike in the 1940s and 50s, to resisting forced removals in the 1970s. They even fought the might of apartheid armed forces with stones in the 1980s, until the system buckled in the 1990s.
The story of Alex is punctuated by sadness and joy, trials and tribulations. From its cradle days in 1912 when it was a farmstead to its growth as a fully fledged township under the heydays of apartheid, to its survival threatened with extinction from mass removals. Every episode has contributed to shaping Alex to what it is today.
Many have since departed, but many have survived to tell the tale. This rich story can best be told by those that travelled the better part of this century-long road.
Among these storytellers is Mandela himself. He made his barely noticeable but remarkable entrance into the township in his early 20s. He is joined by a long and illustrious list of struggle stalwarts, social activists, brilliant entrepreneurs, talented musicians and artists, and even rogue personalities. The story of Alex is the story of evolution of struggle.
It can be traced from the day when a desolate piece of land in what was then named Zandfontein was purchased by S Papenfus.
This farmstead (which is said to have been named after his wife) evolved to be the Alex it is today.
Even during a period when land was forcefully usurped from blacks through the Land Act in 1913, Alex still enjoyed freehold rights. Since Africans were regarded as sojourners in the urban areas, urban administration was not given serious thought. Hence its administration was left to an unfunded Alexandra Health Committee in 1916 and without a drainage system and basic amenities such as water, sanitation, electricity and so on.
The idea that Africans were passersby in urban life was reinforced by the establishment of single-sex hostels.
The urban crises had reached its peak in the 1940s and 50s when the working class embarked on the first wave of protests; noticeable of these was “Azikhwelwa” a bus boycott against a one penny hike in the bus fare from four pennies. In protest the working class walked a 15km distance to their workplaces in town, a battle that lasted six months and was ultimately won.
Another wave was led by a middle class triggered by the enactment of Bantu Education in 1954. Among the earliest Alex activists in the 1950s was Josias Madzunya, a political activist. He also participated in the resistance against the introduction of a litany of discriminatory laws in the 1950s, including Bantu Education and the Pass Laws.
The waves of protests ebbed in the 1960s in the face of increasing state repression after the Sharpeville massacre of 1960.
In attempting to construct new social relations and to disown Africans of their properties, the apartheid administration applied a dual strategy. Residents had to accept menial compensation for their properties while at the same time effecting mass forced removals. Alex was thus earmarked for demolition in 1979.
This act triggered a new wave of middle class-led resistance by the property owners in Alex. At the helm of this “petty bourgeoisie” resistance was Reverend Sam Buti, the Dutch Reformed Church minister who initiated the Save Alex Campaign in the late 1970s.
The apartheid state opted to create a buffer class against the militant youth that emerged during the student protest of 1976 against the introduction of Afrikaans as the medium of instruction.
Perfect candidates for this buffer class were a group of professionals represented in the Residents’ Interim Committee established in 1974 led by Buti. This new governance model was formalised with the introduction of Black Local Authorities Act in the 1980s. It marked a turning point in the political landscape in the 1980s and set off a new wave of youth protests under the stewardship of the United Democratic Front’s (UDF’s).
Meanwhile, Buti proceeded to participate in the Alex council and became its first mayor. His refusal to heed warnings led to his house being petrol bombed.
This happened during a turbulent period characterised by the “people’s war”, the mass insurrection led by the youth aimed at dismantling apartheid institutions. This in response to the call by OR Tambo, then leader of the ANC and commander-in-chief of Umkhonto weSizwe, the ANC military wing, to render the country ungovernable and apartheid unworkable.
Among the youth that joined the political underground at this time was Vincent Tshabalala, a student and youth activist. In apartheid’s last ditch attempt to hang on to power, it perpetrated internecine violence in the African townships, including Alexandra.
The so-called black-on-black violence raged between hostel dwellers and the township residents. The war-torn area of “Beirut” claimed many innocent lives. The 1994 political transition, with Nelson Mandela at its helm, brought about a welcome relief to many in SA – Alex was no exception. Then the presidency of Thabo Mbeki announced the inception of the R1,3-billion Alexandra Renewal Project.
For the first time since its existence, Alex held hope for a better future. Alexandra may still need to travel a long road before it changes the legacy of its traumatic past, but it is a journey that it will travel boldly as it did in the past century.