Alexandra, the oldest township in South Africa, turns 100 in 2012. A new six-part documentary series currently in production, to be released in the run-up to the main centenary celebrations in September, explores the history of the settlement.

Board advertising Alexandra

In 1912 Herbert Papenfus divided the farm Cyferfontein into 2 308 plots, measuring 44 by 25 metres, to sell to African, Indian, coloured and Chinese people. (Image: Museum Africa)

Proclaimed as a so-called “native township” in 1912, Alexandra is one of the poorest and most densely populated urban settlements in South Africa, lying on the banks of the Jukskei River and next door to the gleaming spires of Sandton in northern Johannesburg.

The documentary is based on the book Alexandra: A History, published by Wits University Press in 2008, and is being produced by Uhuru Productions. After the book was published the Uhuru team, led by director Rehad Desai, approached the authors, Noor Nieftagodien and Philip Bonner, as well as the Alexandra Heritage Society. Together, they agreed to make a documentary on the township, with funding provided by the National Lotteries Distribution Trust Fund.

The documentary tells the tale of Alex, its colourful characters, its highs and lows, and its pioneering cultural and political influence. According to Uhuru Productions, the intention is “to create something that entertains, informs and inspires”.

“The approach is history from below, the people of Alexandra as much as possible telling their own history, not just of the political legacy of Alexandra, which is rich in itself and has its heroes and heroines, but the music, the poetry, the sporting heroes and the gangsters, all spawned from Alexandra’s dust.”

It is planned to make the series a movable heritage object that can be shared and exhibited through many spaces – from public broadcast platforms to civil society groups, schools, and museums.

“The episodes include interviews with over 60 people, including Wally Serote, who makes Alex come alive with his writing; Simon Noge, an activist whose father worked for Herbert Papenfus; Louisa Rivers, who [played truant] from school to join the 1956 Women’s March on Parliament; Moses Mayekiso, who led the Six Day War in Alexandra; Paul Mashatile and Obed Bapela, who were central to the youth movement in the 1980s; Kgalema Motlanthe, a child of Alexandra; and of course, Madiba himself, who first tasted mass struggle during the 1943 bus boycott,” says the production company.

Early Alexandra

A gravel street in the early days of Alexandra. (Image: Museum Africa)

Freehold location

Alexandra was unlike other South African townships, as Nieftagodien, who heads up the History Workshop at the University of the Witwatersrand, points out. “Alexandra occupies a unique place in South Africa’s history,” he says. “It is one of the only surviving freehold locations and has from its origins developed a distinct urban identity.

“Attempts by the authorities to remove the location were repeatedly met by stern resistance that was ultimately successful. Furthermore, Alexandra enjoyed a degree of independence, which made it a magnet for new arrivals in Johannesburg.”

In the book, Leepile Taunyane is quoted as saying: “Through the passage of time, Alexandra has earned itself many names, which have reflected both its vibrancy and the hardships experienced by its people.”

Taunyane, a teacher and civic activist, and the life president of the Premier Soccer League, has lived in Alex all his life.

“Some of the people know it as Dark City because for many years it had no electricity and water reticulation,” he says. “Others have called it Ga-mampyana [place of mother of puppies], which not many people can explain but it has been speculated that there were many stray dogs roaming the streets of the township; and finally, a few people have called the place Varkieslaagte [because of the proximity of a pig farm in the early years].”

Despite its dire social conditions, life in Alex was vibrant. The township produced marabi music and was once home to Nelson Mandela, who lived there for a while after leaving the Eastern Cape for Johannesburg.

Taunyane says: “Above all, Alexandra has always been a political hotbed. Notable bus boycotts and squatter movements were born here. Politicians of great standing and with diverse affiliations have been active here: the Sisulus, Josias Madzunya, Dan Khosa, Moses Kotane and Dan Mokonyane.

“That Alexandra is still here is a consequence of the struggle of its children over several generations, who waged epic battles against the apartheid government’s plans to disestablish it as a residential area. Those struggles reflect the strong affection we share about our home, Alexandra,” he notes.


 Alexandra washerwomen take the tram to deliver their washing in the 1920s. (Image: Museum Africa)

Early days

In 1905, Herbert Papenfus bought the farm Cyferfontein and divided up the land into 338 plots to sell to white residents. When the plan failed, in 1912 he re-divided the land into 2 308 plots, measuring 44 by 25 metres, to sell to African, Indian, coloured and Chinese people.

By 1913, 40 houses had been built in the upper areas of Alex and by 1919, 730 plots were sold. Nieftagodien says: “Property ownership became a critical symbol of status and of permanence in the urban areas. Plots in Alex [at that time] cost between £45 for middle and £50 for corner sites. At that time it was regarded as an upmarket version of Sophiatown.”

In 1916, the Alexandra Health Committee was formed to administer its affairs. By the end of the 1920s, Alex’s population stood at 7 200 families.

“Over the next decade its population increased steadily, mainly as a result of the state’s eviction of the squatters from inner city slums,” says Nieftagodien. “Approximately 5 000 of these squatters chose to move to Alexandra, causing its population to grow to 16 747 in 1936.”

By the 1940s, its population was almost 100 000, and it had become a hotbed of struggle, the most significant of which in the early 1940s were bus boycotts. “Between 1940 and 1945 the private bus companies attempted almost annually to increase the fares but they were met with strong opposition, forcing them to back down.”

Bus boycott

Alexandra residents line the streets hoping for lifts from strangers during the bus boycott in the 1950s. (Image: Museum Africa)

Defiance Campaign

Then, in the 1950s, came the General Strike, the Defiance Campaign and the Bantu Education boycott. From the late 1950s, the apartheid government implemented policies that promoted the homeland system. Within four years, 45 000 people were relocated to Soweto and Tembisa. By 1980, Alex’s population was estimated to be close to 60 000.

“By the end of the 1980s, the local civic movement led a campaign to transform the governance of Johannesburg by demanding a single tax base and major investment into upgrading of townships,” Nieftagodien says.

And by the early 1990s, local leaders were playing a key role in the negotiations to create new and democratic local authorities. “By the time of the first democratic elections in 1994, Alexandra was relatively peaceful and the tens of thousands of people who cast their ballots were understandably optimistic that their lives would be transformed in the new South Africa.”

In 2001, the government launched the R1.3-billion Alexandra Renewal Project to transform the township through a number of developmental interventions. Among its principals were generating local economic activity, creating jobs, and building new housing.

Nieftagodien adds that Alex has retained its status as a preferred destination for poor people who want to stay in Joburg. “It is a space of urban cosmopolitanism. It also remains a hub of multiple political voices, and of emancipatory politics … Few places have such a rich and colourful history that encapsulates the vision and struggle for emancipation in the face of overwhelming odds.”

And of the future, he says: “The realisation of an urban future – of equality, democracy and justice – will depend on Alexandra continuing to play a leading role, as it has over the past one hundred years.”

Alex today

A view of Alex today, with new social housing in the foreground and the skyscrapers of Sandton on the horizon. (Image: Chris Kirchhoff,

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