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​The luminaries who lived in the ‘Dark City’, the gangs that still roam there, the entrepreneurs and the migrants, the hubbub of daily life – a guided tour of Alexandra reveals them all.

ALEXANDRA'S first water reservoirs are fittingly on First Avenue, a section of the township containing a plethora of historical heritage about Joburg’s oldest surviving black settlement, located on its eastern periphery.

The four water tankers still standThe four water tankers still standToday the four water tankers are nestled by compactly built corrugated iron shacks, amid the hubbub of daily life in this area. At any given time people mill about the streets, seemingly without much intent. Pools of sewage water spill onto the tarred road and electricity power lines and cables criss-cross the landscape.

The air is thick with the smoke from coal fires and smells of burnt or roasted corn, sold around here. The ambiance is that of a slum, however eccentric, highlighting the plight of some of Joburg’s poorest residents, who live in this squalid section of the city characterised by inferior living conditions and poorly managed urban density.

However deprived, Alexandrians are neither lax nor inert. They are rather intrepid and resilient Joburgers, epitomising the aura of a wealthy city revered for being futuristic and full of opportunities, but perilous in more destitute districts.

Most of its residents are migrants who have come to the city in search of better livelihoods and improved future prospects.



The story of Alex
Much of Alexandra’s current infrastructure replicates the initial spatial design of the township, which started out as farmland sold to blacks as small plots of land, giving them the right of tenure. The story of Alexandra goes back to 1904, before its owner at the time, Stefanus Papenfus, sold it to blacks as a freehold suburb.

One of Alexandra’s first lower primary schools on First AvenueOne of Alexandra’s first lower primary schools on First AvenueToday most of the tenements and humble abodes are in an appalling condition; so are the innumerable compacted backyard shacks.

Sandile Mbatha, popularly known as Mjukuyt, was born in Alexandra to an entrepreneur father and a stay-at-home mother. He owns a few properties in Alex and conducts tours of the township in his leisure time to promote tourism in the 100-year-old freehold township.

Mjukuyt is acquainted with the history of Alex – nicknamed Gomora because of the notoriety it got when the Msomi gang roamed large – and narrates it with sharp wit and quirky humour. He tells it with much fervour and humility, narrating anecdotes with nostalgia. His recollections are vivid and his storytelling is vibrant.

He takes visitors through Alexandra hotspots, cascading through arterial roads. He is erudite on street culture and exudes decorum. Almost everyone passing on the street greets him, mostly in tsotsi-taal or with traditional African greetings. Erstwhile township tsotsis and gangsters, including locals, stop him to exchange greetings and for a tête-à-tête.

First Avenue
One of Alexandra’s first liberal churches, the Roman Catholic Church, still stands on First Avenue, where the tour starts. The road infrastructure is adequately developed and informal traders are multifarious along the alleyways and pathways, conducting their businesses.

The popular Kings Cinema used to host dramatic and musical performances in its heydayThe popular Kings Cinema used to host dramatic and musical performances in its heydayRichard Baloyi, the first black person in Johannesburg to administer a bus company, lived in a double-storey house in that street. The house is wrecked and the debris spills into the street. It was burned down during sporadic violent protests in the township a few years ago. Today, one of Alexandra’s busiest access roads is named after Baloyi.

A drive on Second Avenue is halted shortly by a herd of unherded sheep journeying across the traffic, grazing on each side of the road for dry stalks of grain as fodder. This is a common sight in the township.

The former coloureds-only primary school has been turned into a hospice, in the same neighbourhood as Alexandra High School and Kings Cinema.



Piliso home
The tour includes a visit to the Alex FM studios inside the premises of the Roman Catholic school on Third Avenue. The Piliso home, one of Alex’s first bonded houses, doubles as a spaza shop. It is the home of Topsy Piliso, one of the founding members of the Anti-TB Association, and was the home of the late saxophonist and composer Ntemi Piliso.
Fourth Avenue is where musician and social activist Caiphus Semenya and former MK leader and late defence minister Joe Modise resided.

The streets are rowdy and the laughter and squeal of boisterous children running about concocts an eclectic melody of natural sounds. Taxis hoot on each corner, foraging for passengers to ferry to a range of destinations.

The Piliso home is one of the first bond houses to be built in Alexandra The Piliso home is one of the first bond houses to be built in Alexandra Viable small enterprises spill onto the streets and its pavements, their owners plying their trade and competing for patrons with the big businesses in a neighbourhood that has a robust business environment.

A drive into Sixth Avenue is met by the hurly-burly of township life, characteristic of Alex and its treacherous streets and social fabric. Some of the clustered shacks are variegated and built in tessellation, forming a thread of clustered abodes, symbolic of reciprocity.

“Alexandra has always been a close-knit community; people live a communal life,” Mbatha says with vigour.



The Movers
This is where The Movers, a popular township brass band led by Kenny Sephai, enjoyed fame in their heyday. The group apparently still performs and all members are septuagenarians or older.

Seventh Avenue is where Nelson Mandela rented a room in a now decrepit and pitiable section of Alexandra formerly known as “Dark City”. Opposite the house is the defunct Heritage Museum, in a grandiose building of architectural artistry.

Nelson Mandela’s humble abode, nestled between two properties belonging to the Xuma family has been declared a heritage siteNelson Mandela’s humble abode, nestled between two properties belonging to the Xuma family has been declared a heritage siteIn the same neighbourhood, Lepile Taunyane, the life president of the South African Premier Soccer League, resided. Just down the road from Mandela’s humble abode is Kasi Gym, thriving amidst the squalor and very popular.

Tito Mboweni, the first Reserve Bank governor of democratic South Africa, lived on Ninth Avenue; so did Samora Machel, the first president of independent Mozambique, jazz virtuoso and trumpeter Hugh Masekela, and the late Joe Nhlanhla, former intelligence minister. The headquarters of the infamous Msomi Gang was also housed in this section.

South African deputy president, Kgalema Motlanthe, former president of the ANC Oliver Tambo, and Jack Lerole, famed pennywhistle player, lived on 15th Avenue. 
Eighties great and mbaqanga singer Simon Nkabinde, popularly known as Mahlathini, the Mahotella Queens and the first church of the Zion Christian denomination in Alex are on 18th Avenue.

“The initial people of Alexandra lived a communal life; they knew one another and used to share everything. People owned livestock and small shops. They were all business-oriented people. As years went by and the apartheid system was introduced, suppressing people, Alexandra survived,” says Mbatha.

Sandile Mbatha, popularly known as Mjukuyt, narrates Alexandra's history with much fervour and humility. Watch video.
The tour cascades all intersections of Alexandra, covering historical landmarks, heritage sites and historical plaques from First to 22nd Avenue. To book a tour telephone the Greater Alexandra Chamber of Commerce and Industries (Galxcoc) on 011 882 9516 or 078 401 6541.



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