Pretoria faces tough odds in new effort to win over urban blacks

The Battle of Alexandra is under way: a crucial test of the South African government's strategy to woo urban blacks away from the ideology of revolution. On the face of it, Alexandra is a forbidding battleground. The most squalid of the country's segregated black townships, it is one square mile of unpaved streets, barefoot children, open sewerage, and jampacked dwellings - abutting Johannesburg's plush suburbs. Last year, Alexandra was also the site of periodic fighting between township youths and Army troops. The violence ended in a ``six-day war'' that left some 22 people dead and brought the resignation of the black mayor.

Under a national state of emergency declared last June, the Army and police have locked up Alexandra's activists and sealed off all but five entrance roads. Steve Burger, a white civil servant, has moved in as interim ``administrator'' - determined, with what aides term strong backing from Army brass, to wage a street-level campaign to win the hearts and minds of residents by upgrading the township.

This upgrading project is the most ambitious of various plans under way nationwide. It reflects an evolving government strategy to combat the black political unrest of the past 2 years not only with police muscle, but also with efforts to give ordinary blacks a greater stake in stability. One of the most vocal advocates of the approach has been the defense minister, Gen. Magnus Malan.

The project's centerpiece is a $45 million plan to install underground sewerage, electricity, and telephones in Alexandra; help refurbish houses; and expand the township onto some 150 acres of adjacent land. Perhaps most important, Mr. Burger intends to make use of the central government's reinstatement of urban blacks' right to home ownership. This prerogative was taken from Alexandra residents some two decades ago, in the heyday of apartheid, South Africa's system of enforced race segregation.

``A stable society,'' says town clerk Irvine Florence, ``is a society that has an interest in its own affairs - a tangible interest, through home ownership.... The goal is security. But you cannot have security unless you have services.''

Alexandra offers advantages as a testing ground. It is far smaller in both area and population than some black cities and squatter areas. The security forces could, and did, lock up nearly all key figures in antigovernment unrest. They broke down the local ``street committees'' to an extent so far impossible in some townships. And the very fact that Alexandra is the most backward of black urban areas makes visible improvement fairly easy. Finally Alexandra has, in its 75 years, developed a clear sense of community.

``We are Alexandrans,'' says Martha Motshegwa, a school principal. ``We were born here, grew up here. We love Alexandra.''

On the surface, at least, Alexandra displays a new calm. Graffiti bear testimony to the antigovernment unrest. Streets and school buildings have been renamed by paintbrush to honor leaders of the outlawed African National Congress - the most prominent black nationalist group fighting to overthrow Pretoria.

``But,'' says one teacher, ``the mood has changed. Before, in a history class, a student might stand up and demand, `Tell us about Mandela!''' - the imprisoned ANC leader. Many students boycotted classes altogether. Not these days, he says.

``The youth leadership,'' says a town clergyman, ``is gone. Maybe there are remnants of the street committees, but there is no unity, no organization.'' Regardless of how residents feel about this, he adds, there seems little doubt most are relieved by the end of the violence.

But will Stage 2 of the crackdown, the ``hearts-and-minds'' campaign, work?

In the short run, at least, the chances seem good. ``Of course we welcome the idea of improving Alexandra,'' says a metalworker near one of the many shanty dwellings that have sprouted among the town's small brick homes. His parents are among the many homeowners expropriated (with compensation that many defiantly refused) under the apartheid theory that urban blacks were mere ``temporary'' labor fixtures who really belonged in distant tribal ``homelands.''

Still, he has no doubt his family would be glad to buy back its house. ``Why not pay? If the authorities do this good thing for us, we should pay,'' he says.

Some residents seem especially to welcome Burger's plans in light of the recent influx of a new generation of squatters - freed from the danger of summary arrest by the government's repeal last year of a ``pass law'' system. This system barred unauthorized blacks from living in urban areas. The assumption is that, despite government assurances that it has abandoned ``forced removals,'' many of the newcomers will be moved out as part of the Alexandra upgrading.

A recently completed census found that the township holds some 120,000 people but has only 4,000 houses.

Still, to welcome the advent of water-borne sewerage, phones, or electricity is one thing. To respond by choosing the government's vision of race-policy reform over the ideology of unrest may be another. ``The upgrade may solve a housing problem,'' says an Alexandra community leader. ``But whether it will solve the political problem ... I doubt it.''

One of Burger's junior aides agrees. He says he senses that violence still lurks beneath the surface. ``Give the blacks anything, the fact remains that they want to take over. Let's face it.''

Mr. Florence acknowledges that success of the Alexandra strategy may be difficult. The already visible aspects of the upgrading have won a positive response, he says. Phones, previously the unique privilege of churches and a few families, have been extended to 2,020 homes since last August. Public phones have also been installed. Not one, in contrast to some white areas, has been vandalized. The administration offices have been deluged with requests to repurchase houses. Florence says tentative plans are to price them at only about $2,500.

But sewerage and electricity will not come on line until later this year, and the township's legacy of officially tolerated squalor has bred ingrained mistrust. ``I had one woman come in here yesterday,'' says Florence, ``and say that she'd heard all sorts of rumors about improvements. She wanted to know if they were true. When I said yes, she said, `You know, sometimes we have to pinch ourselves, to see whether we should believe.'''

In November, Burger used a newly introduced community newsletter to suggest that ``every resident'' pick up a can of paint and a brush and spruce up his home. A cash prize was offered for the neighborhood that did best. The prize was to be awarded last month. Because of a lack of response, it was shelved.

Still, Burger proceeds at full speed. He has sought out nearly all community leaders still free, regardless of their political views. He is accelerating plans to set up sports and other facilities on the hillside marked for the town's expansion. He has detailed ``information teams'' to convince doubters of coming improvements.

``Sure, it's a challenge,'' says Florence. ``But our ideas have changed. I think that we have all grown.''

This report was written in conformity with South Africa's press restrictions.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Pretoria faces tough odds in new effort to win over urban blacks
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today