Alex: Joburg’s Other Township

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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25 Comments

  • Reply Howlin' Mad Heather October 3, 2011 at 11:53 pm

    Very cool…your photos really bring to life the local flavor and mix of new and old. If I ever make it to Joburg I’d love to retrace some of your steps. (Oh, and the food looks lekker.)

    • Reply 2summers October 4, 2011 at 8:37 am

      Thanks, Heather. Glad you liked the post.

  • Reply Tilly Bud October 4, 2011 at 10:35 am

    Great post. I lived three kms from Alex, on Louis Botha Ave, and never went near it. We used to lie awake at night listening to the AK47s and explosions. Glad things have changed a bit 🙂

    • Reply 2summers October 4, 2011 at 2:45 pm

      Most definitely. Alex is a place worth visiting. Although I suspect that most Joburgers, even now, are the same way you were when you lived here in the 80s and have never set foot there. Hence, this post! Glad you liked it.

  • Reply thirdeyemom October 4, 2011 at 2:39 pm

    Wonderful post Heather! Thanks for sharing Joburg with us!

    • Reply 2summers October 4, 2011 at 2:45 pm

      Thanks Nicole. Glad you liked it!

  • Reply Kathryn McCullough October 4, 2011 at 3:46 pm

    Sounds like a great tour. Your description reminds me of being in India and having to drive in a big bus into one of Delhi slums. We caused quite a stir.
    Thanks for sharing the tour with us. Great fun, Heather!
    Kathy

    • Reply 2summers October 4, 2011 at 7:07 pm

      Riding a tour bus through a Delhi slum…For some reason that actually sounds like fun. Would have made for an interesting photograph 🙂

  • Reply Joburg Expat October 4, 2011 at 8:46 pm

    Awesome, Heather! Agh, I really should have come with you that day, now I can’t even remember what kept me so busy. I loved seeing all the pictures of the things I never stop to take pictures of because i’m all by myself and don’t want to just wander around or linger. I saw the exact same guy with his sewing machine as I was unloading baseball equipment!

    • Reply 2summers October 5, 2011 at 6:47 am

      Ha! We saw the sewing machine guys all over the place. It was a really fun day – next time!

      • Reply Joburg Expat October 5, 2011 at 7:31 am

        Oh, so maybe it wasn’t the exact same one. I guess it makes sense to set up shop on the pavement where people can see you. Maybe next time I should bring my kitchen knives and look for the knife sharpener guy!

  • Reply Jaco October 6, 2011 at 2:09 pm

    Hi Heather! I think it is about time that you get your official invite to Killarney!

    • Reply 2summers October 6, 2011 at 2:51 pm

      Yeah! When should we be there and what should we bring? Send me an email through the ‘Contact’ page 🙂

  • Reply Phillip October 6, 2011 at 2:13 pm

    Great display of the Tour in Alexandra Heather! Remember there is still much to visit and explore in Alexandra in a smaller vehicle like a minibus, great work and i love your pictures which says it all. If anyone is interested to visit Alexandra please contact me on pbokaba@motsethabo.co.za

    • Reply 2summers October 6, 2011 at 2:53 pm

      Thanks for reading and commenting, Phillip. We had a great time on the tour last week. I’d definitely like to come do a tour with you in a smaller vehicle. I’ll stay in touch. Cheers, Heather

  • Reply martinaloeb October 6, 2011 at 11:17 pm

    I love this – will definitley have to check out Alex. Rob had a cool taxi driver that lives in Soweto the other day and he has invited us, so looking forward to checking that out too. I love the picture of Joe with the food – it’s how I would look if that yummy food was in front of me!

    • Reply 2summers October 7, 2011 at 9:19 am

      Thanks Martina! If you’re interested in doing a tour of Alex, there is a comment two or three down from yours from a guy named Phillip. He’s the one who did our tour last week and he has his own company that does tours of Alex and other places. His email address is there if you want to contact him. There is also a company that does Alex bicycle tours, which I’d like to check out. http://alexandratours.co.za/

      Was your Soweto taxi driver named Edward, by any chance? I also have a great taxi driver who lives in Soweto and does tours there.

  • Reply joshimukard October 14, 2011 at 8:10 am

    your photos have amazing picture quality about it. What camera and lens do you use?

    • Reply 2summers October 14, 2011 at 8:32 am

      Thanks Joshi, that’s a very nice compliment. I use a Canon 60D body and two different lenses — a Canon 10-22mm and a Canon 28-135mm. I just got the 28-135 on my recent trip back to the U.S. and I absolutely love it.

  • Reply Kabelo March 9, 2012 at 11:07 am

    Hi Heather perhaps you can also sort of explore the youth of Alexandra…I mean all you hear about us is quite often the negative side of things such as lack of ambition, hijackers and so forth. I promise you, Alexandra has a lot of young individuals, such as myself, that are trying to make a difference…if you find yourself in Alex anytime soon, just try bask with a few of us and you’ll be amazed…

    • Reply 2summers March 9, 2012 at 1:50 pm

      Hi Kabelo, thanks so much for the comment. From everything I’ve experienced, I agree with you completely. I’m hoping to get back to Alex soon and do some more writing about it. Cheers, Heather

  • Reply Ratanang August 4, 2014 at 3:51 pm

    Thank you Heather for sharing with us, your images are lively and explendid and the food made me hungry I’m holding you accountable. LOL…..good work indeed

    • Reply 2summers August 9, 2014 at 2:41 pm

      Thanks so much Ratanang, I appreciate the comment.

  • Reply Women’s Festival – Community theatre in Alexandra | Mzansi Girl June 2, 2015 at 11:33 pm

    […] like to be I jumped at the opportunity. For the non locals, Alexandra – also known as Alex – is one of Joburg’s most notorious townships, bordering  the city’s richest […]

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