Alexandra turns 100 this year. And to mark this significant milestone, a documentary series on the history of the township, supported by the Gauteng Film Commission, will be launched at the Kings Cinema in Alex on Friday 21 September, fittingly the start of the long heritage weekend.

Board advertising Alexandra

Alexandra, My Alexandra begins a century ago when the first freehold plots in the area were sold to blacks by Herbert Papenfus of the Alexandra Township Company. The series is based on the book Alexandra, A History by Noor Nieftagodien and Philip Bonner, published by Wits University Press in 2008.

It charts the history of the township from 1912 to the present day in six one-hour episodes. Billed as “a history told from below” a host of Alex residents, past and present, provide the stories through which the township’s epic struggle for survival and for human dignity can be understood.

A handful of well-known characters feature in the series, include writer Wally Serote, who makes Alex come alive with his writing; Simon Noge, the Gunners footballer and activist who was known as “Slow Poison”; Louisa Rivers, who played truant from school to join the 1956 Women’s March on Parliament; Moses Mayekiso, a trade union leader who was central to the Six Day War in Alexandra in 1986; Paul Mashatile and Obed Bapela, leaders of the student movement in the 1980s; and of course, Nelson Mandela himself, who first tasted mass struggle during the 1943 Alex bus boycott.

Alexandra, My Alexandra will be launched by invitation with a screening of a theatre cut of episode three, directed by Norman Maake, himself a child of Alex. The episode covers the township in the 1950s, shortly after the Nationalists gained power and began to introduce Acts of Parliament that would have serious repercussions for the men and women of Alexandra. With the black township’s close proximity to Johannesburg, at a time when the government was systematically building the city as a white space which blacks could only enter for work, it was almost as though the pass laws were specifically designed with Alex in mind.

The episode also celebrates the township’s unique flair for musical talent and sporting heroes on the football field and in the boxing ring. The decade was also marked in fashion, with the gangsters of the day imitating American movie stars. The episode illustrates the close relationship between influx control in the form of pass laws and the increasing presence of gangsters terrorising residents.

“There is not one single person [from] the time in Alex who can say, ‘I was never a victim.’ Not one. We have a story to tell,” says resident Jacob Bobape.

Rehad Desai, the series producer, says: “The story of Alexandra, its colourful characters, its highs, lows and ultimately, its pioneering cultural and political influence on the rest of the nation, gives us a vista into our nation’s past and present. Many Alexandrans feel their story is yet to be told and fully understood and we hope to do some justice to that through this series.”

Maake says that as a director, it was a special experience: “As a filmmaker I am always confronted by the question of identity. Alexandra, My Alexandra has helped me to discover the roots of early urban black people and their struggle, desire and quest to rightfully belong here. And now I know that this right they fought for with everything is my inheritance.”

Alexandra, My Alexandra was principally funded by the National Lotteries Distribution Trust Fund. It is supported by the SABC, the GFC and the National Heritage Trust and is expected to be aired on SABC in 2013. The series has been developed with education and entertainment in mind and will eventually be available as a boxed DVD set for use in schools and in universities, accompanied by an online educational resource.