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.
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.
"There was a call for people to build shacks so that when we became ungovernable and the police were trying to find us, there was someplace to hide," said Jane Madiba's son Marks, a former anti- activist who spent more than three years of his youth imprisoned without trial. Now head of a social justice group called Alexandra Homeless, Youth and Families, Mr. Madiba says many of Alexandra's current problems are rooted in the overcrowding that began in the 1980s, with the end of apartheid laws restricting the movement of black South Africans.
Today, the vast majority of Alexandra residents live cramped in one-room, unheated shacks the size of many American bathrooms. Most families own only a single bed, and children sleep on thin blankets spread over dirt floors that dissolve into mud during rainstorms. Water must be carried from public taps shared among dozens of families. Trash is piled on the streets, and the air is thick with the smell of sewage and burning wood from the trash-can fires used for warmth on cold days. With so much poverty concentrated into such a small area, crime has soared, although no one knows by exactly how much, since the national government has put a moratorium on issuing crime statistics.
Patricia Jojo has spent 25 years in the Johannesburg township of Alexandra, moving from one metal shack to another, rebuilding in a new spot every time police evicted her. Each shack has been much like the one she lives in today with two of her nine children: cold, dark, and damp.
"I stayed in Alexandra because I suffered," Mrs. Jojo says, pointing to the holes in her roof where the water gushes through during rainstorms. "I don't like to stay here, but I have no other place to go."
Abandoned by her husband and unemployed, Jojo rises early each day to collect scrap cardboard she can sell for food. The metal structure she calls home is propped against the communal toilet next door.
Between half and three-quarters of a million people live here in Alexandra, in a one-square-mile area originally intended to accommodate only 40,000. Revitalization plans call for more than 11,000 households to be temporarily relocated.
A recent attempt by the Gauteng Department of Housing to move about 400 Alexandra families from areas along the polluted Jukskei River to locations across the city sparked riots and evoked memories of the forced relocations during the apartheid era.
The residents who were moved say they did not know they were going to be relocated and were simply dumped in their new homes, almost 20 miles from their schools and jobs.
This time, the housing agency is working with community groups to avoid a repeat of the Jukskei River incident and is trying to secure land within a two-mile radius of Alexandra for the relocations, says Paul Mashatile, the head of the Gauteng Department of Housing.
Elmon Makhasa says he has been told his family will have to move for seven years while the new houses are being built. He worries that they will be uprooted from their current home - which is comfortable by Alexandra standards because it has electricity tapped from a nearby house - but will never get the promised house from the government.
"I expected change from the new government, but I can't see the change," said Makhasa. "Now they're building houses, but I don't know who will get to live in them."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor