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Story Publication logo September 19, 2016

Alexandra: Room to Grow

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The South African government is working to reform Alexandra Township, one of the poorest, most...

A property in Old Alex, the densest part of Alexandra township
A property in Old Alex, the densest part of Alexandra township, where up to a dozen families will sometimes live in a backyard together. Rosaline Selepe, who has lived in the house on the left since 1980, says that though she would like to expand her property, she has no space to do so. Image by Christian Belanger. South Africa, 2016.

Every day at four in the afternoon, the streets of Sandton, Johannesburg's financial capital, referred to as "the richest square mile in Africa" on train station billboards, begin to fill with gardeners, security guards, and other service workers. Some make their way to taxi ranks, where they take minibuses back to their neighborhoods, often in the predominantly black areas on the periphery of the city, like Diepsloot to the north or Soweto in the south. Others walk to a temporary bridge erected over a busy highway and into Alexandra (or Alex), one of the densest, poorest townships in Johannesburg.

Right next to this temporary structure, a permanent bridge, set to be completed in October 2016, is in the final throes of construction. Outfitted with broad paths and bike lanes, the $10 million project is part of a city initiative designed to combat the lingering effect of apartheid geography. It will service the 10,000 residents of Alex who work in Sandton, giving them an alternative to taking dangerous taxis or playing chicken on the M1, the highway that snakes around the industrial strips surrounding the township and, as a critic remarked, "acted as a visual and movement barrier to reinforce segregation."

And yet if the bridge is a symbol of the city's attempt to correct its obvious economic inequality and the legacy of apartheid, some say that it is also symbolic in a different sense. "Yes, it helps the township for those who walk to Sandton. But it's not something that we may say is essential," said Richard Mbalukwana, the president of Alexandra Property Owners Rights, one of two groups representing property owners in Alex. "People can already take minibus taxis over there. I do not need the bridge to get to Sandton."

The township's residents say that many of the efforts at urban development over the past 15 years, conducted under the aegis of the extensive Alexandra Renewal Project (ARP), have fallen into the same trap as the new bridge, with a lack of community involvement leading to projects that either aren't useful or fail to address the actual needs of residents.

"We are not happy to see the project. They have built things they can claim, but those are small things," said John Mgogodlo, a lifelong resident of Alex and editor in chief of community newspaper Greater Alex Today.

Others are more blunt. "They are creating war between us," said Dumezweni Gumbi, who lives in Extension 9, an ARP development. Gumbi, who moved from a neighborhood in Old Alex called the Jungle, is referring to the tensions in the development between would-be landlords and reluctant tenants; he makes the comment when his friend Sekediama Moses, a fellow tenant, says his landlord openly displays a gun during their interactions.

Moses and Gumbi are both Rastafarians. Before being moved to Extension 9, Moses used to live in Rasta Village, a settlement on Alex's East Bank that was razed to make room for another housing development. Now, they say, the township's Rastafarians are scattered throughout the area in government-provided apartments and houses.

The ARP began in 2001 as part of a nationwide project combating urban poverty. One problem it aimed to eradicate was the proliferation of informal structures in Alex, which mostly came in the form of shacks. It's a nationwide issue: though the right to housing has been enshrined in the country's constitution since 1994, the housing backlog has actually increased over the past 20 years and, along with it, the number of informal settlements.

Since its inception, the government has poured more than 2 billion rand (around US$140 million according to the 2016 exchange rate) into the ARP, with some payoff. The apartheid-era, single-sex hostels, built to house and control the labor force that fed the surrounding industry, have been renovated. Athletic fields and other sports facilities were repaired and upgraded, as were some of the schools in the township. And the government has managed to improve water and electricity services—the place once known as the "Dark City" is now largely lit up at night.

In 2009, the project won a prestigious U.N. award. The drive for a better housing provision has also had some successes, such as the River Park project that created 900 houses on the outskirts of Alex.

But a 2013 study found that the ARP had only achieved either 15 percent or 34 of its 2001 housing target, depending on what counts as adequate housing. That's in part because of a recently resolved legal dispute that halted development in parts of Alex for nearly a decade. It's also due to the ambition of the ARP's initial goals. "The problem is that everything you do in relation to those overambitious objectives looks like a failure—even if you do fantastic things," said Julian Baskin, a former ARP director, in a government publication, titled "Urban Renewal: Documenting Emerging Practices."

Even in the case of the project's apparent successes, however, matters are often more complicated than they initially appear. Take, for instance, the Extension 9 project where Gumbi and Moses live, consisting of slightly under 3,000 rental and housing units. The design of the project mimicked the informal model of housing that already exists across Alex, whereby residents rent out cramped space in their houses or backyards, often to several different families.

In Extension 9, those who qualified for government housing were given one of the 1,200 two-story houses. One or two rental units were attached to each of these houses and given to residents who didn't qualify for government housing, but were still too poor to be able to rent at market rates. (Low-income non-qualifiers in South Africa make up a vast, worrying gap market.)

Renters had to sign a five-year lease before moving in, as well as attend workshops explaining their rights as either tenants or landlords. "Nobody can say that they weren't informed, because they were required to sign an agreement," said Nils Letter, the current director of the ARP. "And we asked our lawyers to make the language as simple as possible."

But Kgadifele Mabasa says she never attended the city's workshop, and that few of her neighbors did either. Mabasa lives in a two-room rental house with her husband, Banto, and their three children; all five of them sleep in the same room (a nuisance for their 12-year-old son). She says that when they received the house in 2010, it was in a poor condition—they had to fix the wiring themselves, and the roof and toilet both still leak. Her husband used to work as a security guard for a private company, until the company's contract expired. She says that even at a reduced rate, her family can't afford rent: "We are unemployed. How can we pay the rent in this economy?"

In fact, almost none of the tenants in Extension 9 pay rent. A local tenant says it's because few understand the basis upon which houses were allocated to some people and not to others, especially when the two groups came from the same area. Letter echoes her point: "The argument is that we were neighbors when we lived in the informal settlement. We both lived in shacks. He gets the nice house while I get the room. He gets it for free while I have to pay. It's those things that creates the tension."

The problems run in the reverse direction, too. In 2010, the government set the rent at 350 rand per month. That's about half the market rate, which spurred some landlords to try and get their tenants evicted, then rent the space at a higher price. The result is that relationships between tenants and landlords are balkanized, determined property-by-property, creating tension within the community. One tenant recollects how, when a landlord's house caught on fire recently, no tenants, including his own, came to help him. Instead, other landlords had to help him extinguish the flames.

Both a group of tenants and a group of landlords have filed complaints to the provincial rental tribunal about their respective rights; a decision is expected in the near future. But residents say they're disappointed by the level of community engagement from the government. Even though Moses signed a lease agreement, he says he was pressured into doing so by ARP officials "fast-fast," and so didn't get a chance to read it.

But Letter says that, moving forward, community participation will shape the latest master plan for all of Alex, which was released in its earliest draft stages this spring. For example, the question of how dense Alex will be—long a contentious issue—is going to be left up to the community. If few people want to move out of the township, the plan is to build multi-story apartment buildings.

Still, the municipal government will have to overcome the sense, among some of Alex's residents, that projects like the ARP have thus far failed to account for residents' needs.

Gumbi, for instance, says he doesn't understand why his landlord has a bigger house than he does, when he only has two children to Gumbi's six, who are scattered across Alex—some with his grandparents, one in a house Gumbi rents out for her. He also says he wants to help build up a small Rastafarian community in Alex, a place with a church where tourists can come and learn about the religion: "Some Rastas there are already beginning to build a structure. To live there would be a dream." Later, stepping down from his doorstep to lock his gate, he declares: "I'm moving back to the Jungle."



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