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Johannesburg's oldest township of Alexandra is set to get a cultural and economic boost with Alex 100, a project that aims to celebrate the centenary of the settlement’s founding in 1912.
JOHANNESBURG’S oldest township of Alexandra is set to get a cultural and economic boost with Alex 100, a project that aims to celebrate the centenary of the settlement’s founding in 1912.

 

Mpho MutsumiGalxcoc president Mpho MotsumiWith the aim of building pride among residents, developing the township into a sustainable economic hub and celebrating the birthday with cultural activities, Alex 100 is due for official launch in February 2012.

The project is an initiative of the City of Johannesburg, the Greater Alexandra Chamber of Commerce and Industries (Galxcoc), the Alex Youth Chamber and the Department of Economic Development.

“In order to ensure that the celebration is meaningful and beneficial to the people of Alexandra, we have designed a number of strategies to deal with socioeconomic challenges,” said Mpho Motsumi, president of Galxcoc.

The business chamber is a Section 21 company established in 1969 to represent the interests of local business people and aspiring entrepreneurs. Its main purpose is to advance the industrial and commercial interest of Alex residents in the provincial, national and regional business sectors.

“Alexandra is one of the oldest black formal settlements in South Africa which has a rich and proud heritage that has been hidden for a long time,” said Motsumi. “It is time that we tell the story of Alex.”

But the celebration won’t be all business. There are also a range of cultural events lined up, according to Tony Chance, MD of events-management company Adele Lucas Promotions.

Alex has changed since Alex has changed since 1912“As part of commemorating the 100th birthday of Alexandra we are planning to organise arts and culture events such as drama, music, and dance performances that represent the culture and diversity of the township,” he said. “We will also host environmental awareness campaigns to educate people about the importance of preserving the environment.”

 

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Business Expo
According to Motsumi, Alex 100’s economic development initiatives will target young people and small businesses in particular. “We seek to address challenges that are faced by the people in this disadvantaged area – especially the youth – such as unemployment, and lack of skills development,” he said.

“Currently we are busy organising a Business Expo aimed at empowering small, medium and micro enterprises [SMMEs], as part of the economic development strategy. During the expo we will provide business training workshops that will go a long way in helping young people deal with daily challenges in their businesses.”

The Business Expo may become an annual event, Motsumi said. “The commemoration of 100 years of Alex must leave a lasting legacy. Branding Alexandra is what we are all about.”

The expo, slated for November 2011, will be the first of its kind in the township. Exhibition stands will allow small business owners to showcase their products, share information and network with other enterprises.

 

Informal traders in AlexInformal business thrives in AlexThe project will also give unemployed graduates a platform to venture into business, said Motsumi. “Part of the plan is to match unemployed graduates with SMMEs who often require professional business skills but can’t normally afford to employ such services.”

A number of private sector and non-governmental organisations have already expressed interest in helping to fund the project, he said. Funds will also be raised by sponsorship and from companies’ corporate social investment budgets.

 


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A new Alexandra
Alexandra has long had a reputation for poverty, squalor and underdevelopment – despite being a stone’s throw from the affluent area of Sandton in the north of Johannesburg. Greater Alexandra as a whole – which includes Old Alexandra and the relatively new areas of the East Bank, Far East Bank, Marlboro Industrial, Wynberg, Kew and Marlboro Gardens – is characterised by high levels of unemployment and shortage of basic services such as water, electricity and housing.

Over the years, a number of projects have been implemented to deal with the township’s problems. Notable among these is the Alexandra Renewal Project (ARP), one of Alex’s biggest development projects, and one that will be recognised as part of the Alex 100 celebrations.

Launched in 2001, the ARP seeks to improve and extend the housing available in Alex. At the time, many residents lived in squalid, substandard dwellings, including 19 000 public space shacks, 52 000 backyard structures, 1 800 hostel rooms, and 6 000 old bonded houses.

In the first phase of the ARP, 11 000 residents moved from the banks of the flood-prone Jukskei River to Braamfischerville in Soweto, and Diepsloot north of Randburg.

A total of 11 250 housing units, including RDP houses, rental and bonded houses, upgraded hostels and social housing have been built and handed over to beneficiaries since the start of the project, which is still underway.

 


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Dark City
The story of Alexandra dates back to 1912, when a farmer called S Papenfus founded the settlement, naming it after his wife. But it failed to attract white residents, so the same year it was proclaimed a “native township”. It was later classified under the land act of 1913 as one of the few urban areas where black people could live and own land under a freehold title.

Alex, with the Far Eastbank suburb in the backgroundIn 1916 the population of Alexandra had grown to 30 000. As its population grew, Alexandra’s infrastructure became increasingly dire. With swelling shack settlements, untarred roads, no sewage systems or street lights, Alex turned into a ghetto. While the rest of Johannesburg lit up at night, Alex remained in shadow. It became known as Dark City.

In 1948 the National Party came into power and, as part of its apartheid policies, placed Alexandra under the direct control of the Department of Native Affairs.

At the peak of apartheid in 1960s the government began a scheme to demolish all family accommodation and replace them with single-sex hostels, a move which caused widespread protest. But high cost, lack of alternative housing and escalating opposition led by the Reverend Sam Buti’s Save Alexandra Party meant only two hostels were completed, and the scheme was cancelled in 1979.

In 1980 the Master Plan was introduced, an initiative to divide the township into seven suburbs with a central business district holding shops, offices and light industry. Also planned were new schools, sports complexes, parks and a dam. The idea was to transform Alexandra into a “garden city”.

An amount of R25-million was set aside for the development. The implication of the plan was that all properties would be bought by the state and all houses demolished. Residents would be accommodated in temporary houses and refurbished buses while waiting for new houses to be built.

From 1981 to 1984 around 260 houses were built on the East Bank, across the Jukskei River. An additional 2 200 houses were still to be built, but by 1985 the plan came to a halt, mainly because of the high costs involved.

In 1986 the Urban Renewal Plan was launched in Alex, again with the objective to move to private ownership. By the end of 1987 over 6 000 stands had been surveyed and demarcated. But because of the squeeze on space, each stand would have to accommodate between three and seven families, with both original stand owners and tenants – many of whom had been issued permits to be in Alex in the 1950s – both feeling they should have rights to the property.


 

Alex boasts a modern shopping centreAlex boasts a modern shopping centreIt was only with the end of apartheid in 1994 that any real effort was made to begin the long process of turning Dark City into a place which people could live and raise families in dignity. That process still has a way to go, but initiatives such as Alex 100 will help get it there.

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Famous residents
Alexandra prides itself of having produced a number of influential South African and African personalities. Its notable former residents include:
 

Nelson Mandela;
Zanele Mbeki, wife of former president Thabo Mbeki;
Former Mozambican president Samora Machel;
Irvin Khoza, chairperson of South African Football Association;
Mamelodi Sundowns goalkeeper Brian Baloyi;
Minister of Arts and Culture Paul Mashatile;
Caiphus Semenya, jazz musician;
Issac “Shakes” Khugwane, former Kaizer Chiefs Midfielder; and
Renowned author and poet Wally Serote.

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