Alexandra: South African black township most visitors never see

Alexandra is the black township most visitors to South Africa do not see.

Instead tourists board government-run tour buses for a look at Soweto--the black community that became a focus of international interest when racial conflict flared in 1976.

Most visitors do not see Alexandra even though it is only a stone's throw from the hotels in affluent suburbs where many of them stay. Small and not well known, Alexandra has not enjoyed the attention and improvements that near-celebrity status has brought Soweto over the past six years.

Soweto, a community of about 1.2 million people, recently negotiated its first overseas loan. Slowly but surely, the government seems to be making Soweto a ''showpiece'' among black communities, and proof to onlookers that in this strictly segregated society facilities for blacks are being upgraded toward standards enjoyed by whites.

Alexandra offers no evidence of the government's ''separate but equal'' policy. Living conditions here remain as they have for decades--appalling.

''This is the worst legal slum in South Africa,'' concedes Gert Steyn, the government administrator of Alexandra.

Mr. Steyn, relatively new in his post, makes the judgement with the conviction that things are about to change for the better. Unrolling a large color-coded map across his desk, he points out the sequence of redevelopment that he says will eventually replace all of Alexandra's housing stock. ''This will be a model township,'' he asserts. He estimates the process will take another 10 years.

Meanwhile, residents of Alexandra are growing impatient.

''For the past three years the people of 'Alex' have been promised a great deal. You have a crisis of expectation here,'' says Jill Oertel, management committee chairman of the township's Thusong Youth Center.

It was in 1979 that the South African government decided to let Alexandra remain, reversing plans to bulldoze the community and convert it to a labor settlement of hostels for migrant workers. It was good news in Alexandra, particularly when accompanied with government promises that the community would rise ''like a phoenix'' in three years.

So far, however, little has changed here.

The township is home for some 70,000 people in an area of about 1 square mile. The typical plot of land, subdivided originally for a single home, now houses on average nine families in small brick or corrugated-metal shacks. Most of the dwellings are without running water or electricity.

Knots of black women and children converse on street corners while waiting to collect water from communal taps. Although most homes do not have electricity, some sport colorful light fixtures for esthetic effect. Residents rely on outdoor toilet facilities--an ongoing concern among health officials.

The community sits on a side of a hill that slopes down to the Jukskei River. Roads are not paved, and each fresh rain etches new gullies in the already deeply furrowed streets as water rushes to the river below.

Goats and horses wander through the streets, rummaging through large piles of rubbish strewn throughout the community.

Alexandra looks longingly across the river to vacant, grass-covered land. It wants the use of the property, but nearby white communities fear the consequences of having such a poor black town as an immediate neighbor.

With Alexandra's great density and lack of land, new vacant property is seen by government officials and community representatives as the key to beginning serious rehabilitation. Without new land, the process becomes a complex chess game: How can any section of the township be rebuilt if there are no spots to relocate displaced persons?

Two projects that appear about ready to move ahead are an educational complex and a housing development for 79 families. Land is available to start the housing project; then the homes in which the 79 families now live will be leveled and the educational facilities will rise in their place.

Housing and education are the most pressing needs here. The private sector has made the most progress in those areas. A nursery school and primary school have been built with private assistance, and private developers have put up 24 new homes for sale under South Africa's 99-year-lease system. (Blacks are not allowed freehold title of property.)

The new houses, while modest by white standards, are not as yet all occupied because they are beyond the means of many of their prospective buyers.

Existing schools are overcrowded. It is not unusual to have 50 students in a classroom. In some cases children sit on long benches. To write, they kneel on the floor and use the bench as a writing surface.

Mr. Steyn says the government recognizes Alexandra as one of the most needy townships in the republic. Despite budget constraints produced by the slowing of the nation's economy, he is confident the almost $15 million of financing needed for the first two phases of redevelopment will be made available.

Alexandra can accomplish little on its own. All revenues from the township go to the government. The local Alexandra liaison committee has mainly an advisory role.

However, in working with the white authorities, the committee is eager for some evidence of progress. ''We are losing our credibility in the community because we promised things would develop more rapidly,'' says committee member Lucas C. Koza.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Alexandra: South African black township most visitors never see
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today