I recently visited Alexandra Township for the first time since moving to Joburg, to attend a kids’ baseball tournament. At the end of my post about the tournament, I said I was looking forward to spending more time in Alex in the near future. Turns out my next visit was nearer than I thought — two days later I received an invitation to attend a tour of Alex, sponsored by Joburg Tourism and the Alex Tourism Route-Open Africa Cooperative (ATROAC).

Alex needs more love. It’s just as interesting historically as Soweto, where 99% of tourists go when they want to visit a Joburg township. Alex has its own Gautrain station (Marlboro) and is across the road from Sandton, where most of Joburg’s visitors and business travelers stay. But Alex hasn’t been discovered by the big tour companies yet. Go now, before that changes.

A view of the sprawling Alexandra Township with the Sandton skyline looming behind.Alex in the foreground. Sandton in the background. [Joe deserves special credit for editing this photo. It didn’t look half this good when I shot it.]

Our day in Alex began at the AlexSan Kapano Community Centre, recently renamed the Alexandra Resources Centre. We checked out the brightly colored library and business centre, then boarded a bus for a three-hour tour, led by a local company called Motsethabo Tours.

A giant tour bus is not the ideal way to experience Alex (or anywhere, for that matter). The township is just eight square kilometers and home to nearly half a million people. The streets are crowded and often too narrow for a bus. But this event was intended to introduce a large number of people to the possibilities of tourism in Alex. So a tour bus was the best way to go, I guess. We tried to make the most of it.

A street in Alexandra TownshipA general view of Alex, snatched from my seat on the bus. Joe and I constantly jostled each other for window space.

A Bus Tour Through Alex

The first stop on our tour was the Alexandra Heritage Centre. It’s a beautiful building, but unfortunately the centre never opened due to lack of funds. Next year marks the 100th anniversary of the ANC, as well as the 100th anniversary of Alex. Hopefully these impending celebrations will help get the Heritage Centre back on track.

We were only allowed ten minutes at this stop, so Joe and I skipped the Heritage Centre and went across the street to see Nelson Mandela’s first house in Joburg, where he lived in 1941.

Nelson Mandela's former house in Alexandra TownshipMandela’s house. I love the armchair.

We couldn’t go inside the house because a family lives there. Unlike Mandela’s Soweto house, which is now a fancy museum, you wouldn’t know what an important historic site the Alex house is if it weren’t for the small historic marker on the wall. It was really cool to see.

A tailor in AlexThis tailor was nice enough to let me take his picture before I was rushed back onto the bus. I didn’t get a good shot but luckily Joe did. (46664 was Mandela’s prison ID number.)

We spent the next two hours on the bus, seeing as many Alex sights as possible. Rachel, our guide, fed us countless interesting bits of information but I had trouble juggling my camera, two lenses, notebook, and pen all at once. The camera usually won out.

When faced with the choice of writing notes or shooting a photo like this, I chose the photo.

I did manage to learn that on 16 June 1976, the day of the historic student marches that led to the Soweto Uprising, there was a concurrent student march in Alex. A man who participated in that march was on the bus and got up to talk about it. He pointed out some red painted lines on the sidewalk. The red paint is meant to show the route that the marchers took on 16 June 1976. Unfortunately the people who painted the lines put them in the wrong place. Cool concept nonetheless.

I loved riding through Alex’s main market area, although my feet were itching to get out and walk. The streets are packed with Indian-owned general dealer shops, muti kiosks, cages filled with chickens, etc. Then we came upon a shiny new mall.

Alexandra Township's Pan Africa shopping mallInteresting contrast.

There was another strange juxtaposition when we crossed the Jukskei River, which runs through Alex. Along one bank of the river lies the Setjwetla squatter camp.

A shanty town in Alexandra, along the Jukskei RiverAs in other townships around Joburg, people pour into Alex from all over Africa. In a township covering such a small surface area, there simply isn’t enough space.

Just across the road from the squatter camp is Alex’s East Bank, the newest section of the township. Part of the East Bank was developed as an ‘Athletes Village’ to house competitors in the 1999 All Africa Games.

Alexandra Township's East BankThe East Bank now houses middle-class Alex residents and people moved from poorer areas through housing waiting lists. It’s not luxurious, but a world away from the shacks across the river.

After a long time on the bus, we were freed onto a grassy park along the river. Joe and I wandered into a tavern in search of Cokes. Instead we found the owner, Willie, and his son Junior.

We didn’t find Coke at Willie’s Tavern. But chatting with Willie and Junior was more fun than drinking Coke.

Township Lunch

Our final stop was lunch at the trendy Executive Pub, which (in another striking contrast) is across the street from the infamous hostel blocks nicknamed ‘Beirut’. We watched talented teenage African dancers and feasted on traditional Alex fare — pap (stiff corn porridge) with chakalaka (spicy tomato relish), grilled meat, and vegetables.

Lunch in Alexandra TownshipYum.

Joe was hungry.

After lunch, Joe and I wandered across the road to see the hostels. The story of these hostels is long and complex. But basically, the hostels were built in the 1960s and 70s to house single people who served as a migrant labor pool for white Johannesburg. Not surprisingly, this plan didn’t work out very well, and the hostels remain a problem today. Read more about the hostels’ history here.

An Alexandra Township hostelOne of two male hostels, now occupied by a mix of tenants and squatters. The apartheid government initially planned to demolish all family housing in Alex and replace it with 25 hostels. Only three were built. One has been remodeled into family units, but two, including this one, remain in their original state.

The last thing I’ll say about Alex is that there are lots of goats there. Which is awesome.

A goat in Alexandra TownshipThis goat cruised down the median strip of a busy road and sauntered into the yard of the hostel.

I can’t wait to return to Alex and take a tour in a smaller vehicle (or on foot). Or maybe even stay overnight at a B&B or homestay. For more information on tourism in Alex, contact Rachel Phasha at rphasha@khavho.co.za.

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