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Alex's history is finally told
12 November 2008
The Alexandra Heritage Centre, to be opened in 2009

The rich history of Alexandra has been written by its residents, and has finally been published in the form of a "fat book" - Alexandra: A history.

ALEXANDRANS must be ecstatic: the history of the 96-year-old township, as told by them, has finally been published. It's called Alexandra: A history.

It's taken six years, some 130 interviews and 420 pages to tell the social and political history of one of Joburg's oldest townships. 

An excited crowd waits for the launch of the book in the Alexandra Heritage Centre
An excited crowd waits for the launch of the book in the Alexandra Heritage Centre

 The book, written by Philip Bonner and Noor Nieftagodien of the History Workshop at the University of the Witwatersrand, was launched on 11 November, in the Alexandra Heritage Centre in the heart of the township. A small group of some 50 quietly excited people braved the rain to gather in a room in the centre, overlooking Nelson Mandela's backroom. 

A number of parties have come together to make this book possible. It is a product of the Social History Project, a component of the Alexandra Tourism Development Project, which was initiated by the Gauteng Tourism Authority in 2001, and implemented by the Heritage Agency in the form of Jo-Anne Duggan. Funding came from the Alexandra Renewal Project and the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism.

As a first step to engage the community, the Alex Heritage Team was established. The team comprised young Alexandrans with no formal heritage experience and skills but with plenty of enthusiasm and commitment.

By late 2004, the team had completed interviewing Alex residents but it took another three years of writing and further discussions before the book was ready. Those interviews will form a community archive, which will be housed in the centre, to be opened in 2009.

"The building of the community archive means that the Social History Project will live on into the future," says Duggan. "The project will also live on in the exhibitions that will fill the Alexandra Heritage Centre and in the interpretive signs that will mark over 100 heritage sites identified through the process."

In the immediate future 20 sites will be signposted.


Happy
"Whew, finally the history book of Alexandra," said researcher Boitumelo Khunou at the launch. "I am so happy to celebrate the book. I never thought this day would come."

Bonner said: "It's a fat book because Alexandra has a fascinating history; it's a rich, rich, rich place."

The cover of the book, showing a typical Alex street scene
The cover of the book, showing a typical Alex street scene

In Alexandra, like in Sophiatown and Kliptown, blacks had freehold at a time when they were being dispossessed of their land in the early 20th century. 

Bonner said that unlike many townships where blacks were being settled on the outskirts of cities, Alex residents "demanded to be urban".

"The 1943 bus boycott is absolutely key - it was led by women and so tells women's history - because it led to the formation of the ANC Youth League."

The 1957 bus boycott and the turmoil of the 1980s in Alex led to new stages in the struggle for democracy, he added. "I've learned such a lot from all of you, I hope the rest of South Africa will too."


Bottom-up approach
He explained that it was difficult to capture the complex history of the township. "We're rewriting the history of this country from the bottom up," he added, referring to collecting material from the people who make up Alex - the residents. "Alex is and always has been a special place."

Youth often did not appreciate the stories told by the old timers in the community, Bonner pointed out.

The researchers consulted with the Community Reference Group, a group of older Alex residents consisting of Simon Noge, Arthur Magerman, Paitence Pashe, Marjorie Manganye and Keke Koalepe. They "brought their collective wisdom and experience to bear on the project".

"Their love for Alexandra and their determination to uncover and preserve the history of the township made this an enormously satisfying experience," he says in the preface to the book.

Bonner says that more than 100 Alex residents, young and old, invited the researchers into their homes. He dedicates the book to these interviewees and all the residents of Alex.

Duggan, who walked around excitedly at the launch with a pile of books under her arm, said: "Thanks very much; it has been a huge privilege to work with this group of people [the Reference Group and the Heritage Team]."

The book will soon be available in bookstores. To order your copy beforehand email Duggan at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it


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