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​To mark the centenary of Alexandra, a musical will chart the bus boycotts, showing how they inspired unity and the fight for freedom.
ALEXANDRA turns 100 this year and to celebrate, the Department of Arts and Culture is funding a musical that commemorates the 55th anniversary of the 1957 bus boycott.

Alex in 1912 (from: Johannesburg One Hundred - a pictorial history by Ellen Palestrant)Alex in 1912 (from: Johannesburg One Hundred - a pictorial history by Ellen Palestrant)Entitled Azikhwelwa – “we will not ride” – it opens on 17 February and runs until 3 March. It focuses on how Alex residents participated in and were affected by the boycott.

“It captures dialogues and debates between political figures from varying organisations, jazz lovers, journalists and the soft sides of human beings caught in the milieu of poverty, hope and courage,” indicates the department’s website.

Directed by Lindani Nkosi and written by Reshoketswe Maredi, the musical features seasoned South African television and stage actors, including Seputla Sebogodi, who appeared on Generations and is a veteran stage actor; Mpho Molepo, from Rhythm City; Mduduzi, who also has appeared on Rhythm City; Mampondo, a seasoned stage and television actor; Clement, a television and stage actor; Diaketseng Mnisi, a veteran stage and television actor; Phumla Siyobi, a singer and a budding actor from Alex; and Lerato, formerly from Umoja.

Music will be supplied by Alex jazz veterans and some Umoja band members. Africa Umoja is the resident song and dance troupe at the Victory Theatre, where Azikhwelwa will be performed.

Of the venue, Pascal Damoyi, the producer of the show, says: “The Victory Theatre is symbolic – it is on the route from Alex to town. The marchers would have marched past the theatre, and taxis and bicycles would have passed it too.”

There is to be a range of characters: a shebeen owner, a boycott leader, a policeman, a white employer and sympathiser, among 10 lead characters.

Alex100 logoA shorter version of the musical was produced in 2007 in Alex, says Damoyi. The script is being fine-tuned, and he wants to add more members to the band, in particular veteran kwela and jazz musicians from Alex.

Pending funding, Damoyi has ambitions to tour the country with the production.



Bus boycotts
Together with the suburbs of Sophiatown, Martindale, and Newclare, Alex is a township where blacks had freehold rights. But the township was far from the city centre, where most people had jobs, and, without their own cars, buses were the only form of transport to and from work.

The bus boycotts took place in the 1940s and 1950s. Alex residents lived on the breadline and they came under intense pressure when in the early to mid-1940s prices across the board rose, including for transport. Black people lived on the periphery of cities, forcing them to spend long hours and a fair percentage of their wages on transport.

In 1943, a single bus trip into the city centre cost four pennies, a slice of 17 percent of a worker’s monthly wages, write Philip Bonner and Noor Nieftagodien in Alexandra, A History.

In 1944, the Public Utility Transport Company or Putco, and the Road Transportation Board decided to raise bus fares by one penny per trip.

“Firstly, it presented a real threat to survival; secondly, it exposed for all to see the injustice (or conversely responsibilities) of the entire segregationist project.” People simply could not afford to spend two pennies a day extra on bus fares.

They didn’t have a choice – they took to the streets and walked 14,5 kilometres to work and 14,5 kilometres back home again.

“This stirred up guilty feelings among whites like no other event of the war and created a climate of public opinion that inhibited the authorities from taking forceful action against the boycott, and thereby contributed to the conditions that allowed the boycott to succeed,” write Bonner and Nieftagodien.

These “mass based movements of unusual unity orchestrated by the community of Alexandra itself” were of enormous significance.

“It provided an alternative model for political action, as well as the wake-up call that led to the formation of the Youth League of the ANC, and it began the tactic of the stayaway, a key weapon for the ANC for the next decade and a half.”



A watershed
It was a watershed for the people of Alexandra – an act of resistance that established their right to protest, but also their right to be permanent residents in cities. “It was the particular trajectory and experience of urbanisation in Alexandra that allowed this [permanent residence] to be advanced and achieved.”

The price increase was dropped and people again travelled to work by bus.

Nelson Mandela, who was living in Alexandra at the time, joined the march to the city, along with 10 000 others. “In August 1943, I marched with Gaur [one of the leaders] and ten thousand others in support of the Alexandra bus boycott, a protest against the raising of fares from four pence to five,” he writes in Long walk to Freedom.

The campaign had a profound effect on Mandela. “In a small way, I had departed from my role as an observer and become a participant. I found that to march with one’s people was exhilarating and inspiring.” It took just nine days, he says, before the company re-instated the four penny fare.



1957 bus boycott
The bus boycotts of the 1940s were repeated in 1957, when some 15 000 people walked to and from work in the city centre for three months. People in Sophiatown and some Pretoria townships joined the mass action, resulting in 60 000 people showing their discontent with price rises.

The boycott spread to Germiston, Randfontein and Moroka/Jabavu in Soweto, as well as Bloemfontein, Port Elizabeth and East London. White Joburgers sympathised with the boycotters and gave lifts to hundreds of workers on their march to Joburg.

Looming over the boycotts was president HF Verwoerd’s desire to remove the township altogether.

After much negotiation between the local ANC branch, the Johannesburg Chamber of Commerce (JCC), Putco, the municipality, and the Alexandra People's Transport Committee, a decision was reached.

A coupon system was to be introduced – commuters would buy a five-penny book of coupons that would cost them four pennies. The JCC would make up the difference to Putco. “By the time the JCC funds were exhausted it was hoped that the JCC and the municipality would have succeeded in obtaining a rise in the Native Services Levy,” according to Tom Lodge in Black Politics in South Africa since 1945.

The levy was a fund supplied by commerce and industry to finance various services and housing projects.

“There was also a general undertaking that employers' organisations would encourage a rise in wages," states Lodge.
On Monday, 1 April 1957, Putco buses were re-introduced to Alexandra and, despite some continued confusion, people boarded the buses to work. The boycott in Alexandra was over.

The people of Alexandra had won, again.



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