Alexandra, often left off the tourist itinerary in favour of Soweto


Alexandra Township, commonly known as Alex is a mere 4 km from the heart of the wealthy CBD of Sandton. Home to some 350-400,000 people it covers an area of about 28 square km. (Compare this to Soweto’s +/- 150 sq kms and ca 1.7 million people.) Present day Alex is divided roughly into 3 areas. Old Alex or the West bank (ie West of the Juskei River which runs through Alex) is where most of the shack dwellings are found, while middle class residents live in mainly brick houses on the East Bank.  1 700 freestanding, semi-detached and simplex units were developed in Tsutsumani Village on the Far East bank during the All Africa Games in 1999.  These are now occupied by Alexandrans who were on the housing waiting list and qualified in terms of certain criteria.


As far as the tourist visit, Alex takes a back seat when compared to Soweto, being less of an international household name. However, recent guests from Australia who stayed here at Liz at Lancaster (and who also visited Soweto) really preferred their Alex experience which they found more immediate, warm and vibrant. They were driven there by Clio of ATT (who also arranged for a lunch at his relatives’ house in Alex) and their guide was Linky Ramodike (+27 83 474 5886). There are a number of other guides available, all of whom will collect from Liz at Lancaster:  Gerson Rasehlo Tel (mobile) +27 82 927 9919  or Rachel Phasha Tel (mobile) +27 76 385 4574; So, if you can fit it in, try to make a visit to Alex a part of your itinerary.


Alex was established in 1904 by Stephen Papenfus who named the area after his wife Alexandra.  As it proved to be too far from the city centre to be viable as a white residential township, Papenfus began selling land off to black buyers and in 1912 the settlement was proclaimed a Native Township. Because it was established before the infamous Land Act of 1913 (which restricted black ownership to 8% of the country’s land), it was one of the few urban areas where black people could own their properties.  By 1916 the Alexandra Health Committee was established to manage Alexandra, with inadequate funds for a settlement which now accommodated around 30 000 people. Alex has been the Cinderella of Gauteng townships with continued underdeveloped infrastructure and often non-existent services. Parts of Alex (particularly the older parts) still bear testimony to the lack storm water drainage, resulting in potholes and dongas; lack of proper water supply with one tap serving several households; lack of refuse collection; inadequate street lighting; and overcrowded shack settlements

THE 1940s AND 1950s

Alex has long been associated with resistance and contestation. During the 1940s and 50s there were bus boycotts to prevent an increase in bus fares and in 1957 there was strong  resistance against the enforced use of municipal beer halls.   In the early 1960s the Nationalist government decided to turn Alex into a hostel city which meant that families would be forcibly removed from Alex and single sex hostels housing migrant labour would be built. Although only 3 hostels were built (now redeveloped into family units), between the late 1950s to the early 1970s some 71000 residents were moved to Soweto and Tembisa on the East Rand. In 1963 some 2000 property owners were stripped of their freehold rights.

BY THE 1990s

In 1986, with the abolition of influx control (the apartheid government’s means of controlling the movement of blacks from rural to urban areas), shacks began to go up everywhere. According to Paulene Morris ( ‘Alexandra township – A history, lessons for urban renewal and some challenges for planners’ unpublished paper 2000), shacks increased from 7,352 to 20,000 by the early 1990s. This stretched the already inadequate services and infrastructure to even more unmanageable proportions.  Many who had built shacks on the banks of the Juskei (below the flood line) were forcibly removed in 2001 and relocated to another informal settlement (Diepsloot) about 30 km away. This move was very unpopular with many saying it recalled the apartheid era forced removals.

During the early 1990s prior to the first democratic elections, Alex was the site of violent clashes between residents of the two men’s hostels – ostensibly between the two opposing parties of the Zulu Inkatha Fredom Party (IFP) and the ANC.  In early 1992 some 60 people were killed and nearly 600 people were injured and around 10 000 people were displaced from their homes. (Morris, as above)


In February 2001 President Thabo Mbeki announced the Alexandra Renewal Project, a presidential project set to uplift the township, with an allocated budget of 1.3 billion over 8 years.  Much has been done: new houses have been built, over 3000 trees have been planted, a new primary school as well as a library have been built, the 80 million rand Alexandra shopping plaza was opened in 2005, the 16,000m2, Pan Africa Shopping Centre opened in May 2009, and the Alexandra Tourism Association was initiated.  But there is still much to be done.

Alex’s fraught history has been compounded by the recent additions of shack developments to house immigrants from neighbouring countries, primarily Malawians and Zimbabweans, immigrants who then became the target of xenophobic attacks.

It is this complex history which gives Alex its particular character and  make it a challenge in terms of upliftment and improvement.

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