South Africa's revitalization to start in Alexandra
Over the next seven years, the government will spend millions on new houses, schools, and infrastructure.
ALEXANDRA, SOUTH AFRICA
Life in the Johannesburg township of Alexandra has never been easy. Once called "the dark city," it had no electricity or other services until 1982. Nearby, while the exclusive white suburb of Sandton glowed brilliantly at night, Alexandra's black children would study around dim gas lamps, and water had to be carried in buckets for blocks. Human waste was collected in "night pails" and left by the roadside for pickup once a week, filling the air with a stench that residents still recall with vividness.Skip to next paragraph
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Today, there are few places in the country where crime is more rampant or poverty more endemic - conditions that belie Alexandra's proud history. Once the headquarters of the African National Congress and the center of anti-apartheid activism, Alexandra used to be one of the few places in the country where blacks could own their own land.
This historic city is a potent symbol of the new government's inability to raise the standard of living for South Africa's poorest citizens. But an ambitious urban revitalization initiative aimed at preserving the historic township and building real homes for its citizens is giving new hope here.
Over the next seven years, the Gauteng Department of Housing will spend more than $180 million on new houses, schools, community facilities, and infrastructure upgrades in what authorities say will be a complete transformation of the township.
The effort is part of a larger government initiative to fulfill a constitutional guarantee of housing for all South Africans. An estimated 50,000 new homes will be needed to house Alexandra's residents. Almost 90 percent of the money earmarked for the project will come from the national government.
But Alexandra's transformation will be bittersweet for many people. Officials say there is simply not enough room in Alexandra for everyone who currently lives there, requiring the relocation of thousands of people. These relocations, with their echoes of apartheid-era removals, may prove to be the most controversial and logistically difficult part of the revitalization project.
Nonetheless, many residents are eager to see improvements. "It was good before. It was a pleasant place to live," says Jane Madiba, a dignified widow whose family settled here in 1920. Neighbors used to greet one another on the street, and there was a strong community. Mrs. Madiba still lives in the sturdy brick house built by her mother more than 60 years ago, but now says she no longer feels secure in her own home. "Now, after dark, you can't move an inch," she says. "You don't want to be outside after dark."
The face of Alexandra began changing in the 1980s. Shacks began filling the empty spaces between established houses like that of the Madiba family, partly to accommodate the massive influx of people moving to Johannesburg, and partly as a way of flouting the influence of white authorities.