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alexandra township

Alexandra Township cycling group in front of the Alexandra Heritage Centre

Not Cycling Through Alexandra Township

I recently found myself not cycling on a cycle ride through Alexandra Township.

It was a hard job riding around Alex in a comfortable car, photographing the cyclists as they toiled in the hot sun. But someone had to do it.

I was supposed to cycle, but there weren’t enough bikes and it was blazing hot and when someone suggested I ride in the Jeep that was escorting the riders and take photos through the open top, I gladly accepted.

The bike ride was hosted by Art Affair, a tiny art gallery and studio in Alex’s East Bank that also serves as an events venue/community gathering place. Artist and cycling enthusiast Mxolisi Mbonjwa owns the gallery and organized the ride together with Bicycle Stokvel.

Inside the Art Affair gallery.
A cyclist named Frank inside Art Affair. Mxolisi, I’m sorry I never took a photo of you for some reason.

I’ve visited and blogged about Alex many times. (You can browse all of my Alex posts here.) I don’t want to belabor this point. But if you live in Joburg and have never been to Alex, please go.

Alex is a five-minute drive from Sandton but many Joburgers are afraid to even drive past it due to Alex’s reputation for poverty and crime.

In fact, Alex is quite easy and safe to visit as long as you go with someone who knows their way around. And it’s one of the most important parts of Joburg historically, being the first township in Joburg and the first place Nelson Mandela lived when he moved to the city in 1941.

My friend Asanda, a tour guide in Alex, outside Art Affair. Asanda is born and raised in Alex and knows everything about this place. You can book a tour with her through Tour 2.0.

Also, Alex is fun. With the exception of me and my friends Crystal and Dom, who are new to Joburg and were visiting Alex for the first time, and a group of hard-core cyclists from the East Rand, I think the majority of the people on this bike ride were from Alex. They were super nice and welcoming and just plain fun to hang out with. We all had a great time being tourists in our own city together.

End of lecture. Here are some photos from the ride.

Following the Cyclists Through Alex

Our Jeep brought up the rear of the cycle ride so I have lots of photos of people’s, er…bums. But I like the pictures anyway.

Cycling through Alex
And they’re off.
Winners never quit!
Cyclists riding up a hill in Alexandra Township.
Yoh, I was happy not to be peddling up this hill.
Kids watching the cycle ride in Alex
These kids were chanting “Num-Ber-One! Num-Ber-One!” as the cyclists rode past.
Narrow street in Alexandra Township
Getting photographed while I photograph.
Classic sign-painting on a shop wall in Alexandra Township
Quick drive-by photo of some classic African sign-painting.
Riding through Alexandra's East Bank.
Riding through the East Bank, the newest section of Alexandra Township, at the end of the ride.
Cyclist in front of a funeral home in Alexandra Township
Just a photo I like.

Sight-seeing in Alexandra Township

This ride was mostly cycling for cycling’s sake. But we did make a couple of stops at interesting sites along the way.

Kings Cinema

Kings Cinema is the oldest movie theatre in Alex and a notable community gathering place — it was bombed by apartheid forces in 1984. I visited Kings Cinema once before a few years ago and was happy to see it’s had a new paint job since then.

Kings Cinema in Alexandra Township
Kings Cinema.

Alexandra Heritage Centre

This was the most exciting discovery of the ride. The Alexandra Heritage Centre, which was built about a decade ago but remained closed for many years due to various political/logistical/financial difficulties, is finally open and it is spectacular.

Outside the Alexandra Heritage Centre
Outside the Alexandra Heritage Centre.
Stained glass windows inside the Alexandra Heritage Centre.
Beautiful stained glass windows inside the centre.
Music section in the Alexandra Heritage Centre.
This section of the museum is all about the history of music in Alex. These guys are recording the music on their phones.

We only had about 10 or 15 minutes to walk through the centre, but from what I saw the exhibits are fantastic. It’s my kind of museum — great design, great light, and engaging, interactive displays without too much heavy text to read. I will be back.

Wall of heroes in the Alexandra Heritage Centre.
A family poses in front of a wall of heroes in the Alexandra Heritage Centre.
View from a balcony in the Alexandra Heritage Centre
View from one of many beautifully designed balconies in the centre.

There is almost no information online about the Alexandra Heritage Centre but it’s at 4694 Hofmeyr Street, on what is called “Heritage Corner”. The centre is one street over from the historic Mandela house at 46 7th Avenue.

At the end of the ride there was a party set up in the yard surrounding Art Affair, with DJs and good food and beer. Crystal and Dom and I left after an hour or two but I suspect the party ran well into the night. It was a great way to spend a Saturday.

Follow Art Affair on Facebook for announcements about future events. Or contact one of these companies — all locally run — to book a tour in Alex.

Tour 2.0
The Hub Presents
Buvhi Tours (Alexandra Bicycle Tours)

Alexandra Township cycling group in front of the Alexandra Heritage Centre
The cycling group in front of the centre.
Moving Feast meal in Alexandra Township

Discovering South African Food in Alexandra Township

If you browse through the food-related posts on this blog, you’ll notice that most of them are written about food from places other than South Africa: French, American, Mexican, Indian, German, Chinese. But what about South African food?

Traditional South African food can be hard to find if you don’t know where to look. Colonialism and apartheid are to blame for this. I think even most South Africans would struggle to describe South African food, just as I do when people ask me about it. My usual answer is, “…South Africans love meat.”

(Cape Malay cuisine, mostly found in Cape Town, is an exception to this rule. Read about Cape Malay food here and here.)

Anyway, my perceptions of South African food widened last Friday when I participated in the Alex Culinary Tour by Tour2.0. We ate our way through Alexandra Township, starting with the humblest street food and working our way up to serious fine dining.

Takeaway shop in Alexandra TownshipA takeaway shop in Alexandra Township, otherwise known as Alex.

Our first stop was Mbopha’s Café, a takeaway joint on 3rd Avenue in Alex.

Eating a Sly Vat-Vat

“Sly” is a slang term for a slice of bread. “What-what”, or “vat-vat”, are filler words to replace something that is too much trouble to describe. Put these two together and you get “sly vat-vat” — a monster of a sandwich that exists only in Alex.

Heather eating a sly vat vatEating a sly vat vat. (Photo: Kate Els)

A sly vat-vat contains two or three slices of bread, filled with chips (french fries), tomato, meat, atchar (a South African pickle made from unripe mangos), cheese, and various other vat-vat. Mine had all of the above, including fried polony (similar to baloney but fluorescent pink), and another kind of processed meat that I couldn’t identify. I could have added a fried egg if I’d wanted, and I slathered on some ketchup. The sly vat vat cost R16.50, or just over a dollar.

South African food: the sly vat vatInside a sly vat-vat.

Meruschka eating a sly vat vatMeruschka attacks her sly vat-vat.

Asanda, our guide, pleaded with us to eat only a few bites of the sly vat-vat. This was only the first of four feeding stops, Asanda said, and we would fill up fast. I stopped short of half but it was difficult. That sly vat-vat was freaking delicious.

Shisa Nyama at Joe’s Butchery

As I said before, South Africans love meat. No South African food tour would be complete without good old-fashioned shisa nyama, which means “burn meat” in Zulu.

Joe's Butchery in AlexandraJoe’s Butchery, the place to go for shisa nyama in Alex.

Joe’s Butchery is a classic South African bring-and-braai. (Braai means “grill” or “barbecue” in South Africa.) You go inside, choose your uncooked meat, then the braai master braais the meat for you and you eat it.

Wilbert the Joe's Butchery braai masterWilbert, the Joe’s Butchery braai master, cooks up our meat — steak and a popular South African sausage called boerewors Interestingly this braai is powered with gas, not charcoal, which is generally frowned upon in South Africa. But I guess a busy place like this needs to be efficient.

Meat at Joe's ButcheyThe finished product — meat grilled with spicy seasoning — which we ate with pap (stiff corn porridge) and a chunky tomato sauce.

I was starting to feel full. On we went to the next stop.

Fine Food at Moving Feast

We crossed the Jukskei River to Alex’s East Bank, the wealthier side of the township, and pulled up in front of a beautiful suburban house. Happiness Makhalemele, Alex’s queen of tripe, was waiting.

Happiness of Moving FeastHappiness in her restaurant, which is just next to her home.

Happiness started her cooking career selling vetkoek (yummy fried balls of bread) on the street at a nearby taxi rank. Today she is one of the most sought-after cooks in Alex. Her company, Moving Feast, caters for big companies and her home restaurant is packed throughout the week, especially on Monday nights. Happiness is known especially for the way she makes mogudu, or tripe.

Tripe, which is the lining of a cow’s stomach, is considered a delicacy in South Africa. Personally I’ve never gotten past its rubbery, scaly look and slightly smokey smell and taste. But Happiness makes the best and I was determined to try.

In the end I loved everything Happiness put in front of me, but I only managed three bites of mogudu. It’s just too…stomachy for me. But the meal was amazing.

Vetkoek from Moving FeastThe starter: A deconstructed vetkoek sandwich. Vetkoek, mince, parmesan, pesto, and various other bits of deliciousness. I loved it.

Moving Feast mainThe Moving Feast main: Dumpling (boiled dough), oxtail, steak with mushroom sauce, cooked veggies, and the famous mogudu. The steak was my favorite.

I’d eat at Moving Feast again in a heartbeat.

Tasty Bites and Cocktails at the Hub

A few months ago I wrote a post about an interesting place in Alex called the Hub. The Hub runs Alex tours under the name “The Hub Presents”, and also hosts events and a new Sunday market called the Shack Market.

Banks of the Jukskei in AlexGoats browse green grass on the banks of the Jukskei, right across from the Hub.

We went to the Hub to meet Theo (who happens to be Happiness’ son) and Tyson, two guys at the Hub who whip up fancy cocktails and high-end South African bites.

Cocktails from the HubTyson prepares fruity vodka cocktails at the Hub.

We were exhausted by the time we reached the Hub, and so, so full. I barely managed to eat the last thing we were offered — a small portion of ostrich fillet topped with grilled asparagus, kidney beans, and veggies. I’m so glad I did though.

Ostrich fillet at the HubGrilled ostrich fillet (a classic South African meat) with asparagus kidney beans, and veggies. This dish was so good.

If I ever do this tour again, I would fast the day before and ask that the tour be spread over two days. Either way, from now on I’ll have a much better answer when people ask me about South African food.

Follow the Hub Presents on Facebook.

Read more about the Tour2.0 Alex Culinary tour.

I participated in this tour at the invitation of Tour2.0., who paid for all of the food and expenses. Opinions expressed are my own.

Sunset in Alexandra Township

A Walk Through Alexandra Township

A couple of weeks ago I took a walk through Alexandra Township, aka Alex, as part of an event sponsored by an Alex-based tourism company called The Hub Presents and a travel networking organization called Travel Massive. I’ve been to Alex many times but I never turn down an opportunity to go back, as I believe Alex deserves more love as a tourist destination.

Child on the Jukskei River in AlexandraA child runs next to the bank of the Jukskei River, a trickling waterway that runs through Alex.

I don’t want to say too much about this walk because I’m definitely going to do a full-length tour with the Hub Presents — it seems like such a cool company and I want to experience all of its offerings before doing a full review. But here are a few photos in the meantime.

Kids playing in AlexandraKids playing in a new park built along the banks of the Jukskei. 

Thalibhan car wash in AlexInteresting car wash sign. I chatted briefly to the owners but couldn’t get a clear answer on what the sign actually means.

Alexandra sewage pipeOur guide, Sifiso, explained that this sewage pipe used to be one of the only places where pedestrians could cross the Jukskei. Fortunately there is a new pedestrian bridge now.

Child on bridge in AlexA child on the pedestrian bridge.

Alexandra tuck shopA small food shop — or spaza shop — in Alex.

Alexandra pay phoneAn Alexandra pay phone.

Pay phone guy in AlexThe owner of the pay phone.

Lady selling offal in AlexandraA “gogo”, or granny, selling animal entrails and chicken feet by the side of the road.

View of AlexLooking out over Alex from a sports field on the edge of the township.

Sunset in Alexandra TownshipAn Alexandra sunset.

Pat's Tavern in AlexandraPat’s Tavern, a popular Alex hangout.

As I’ve written in previous posts, Alex is one of Joburg’s most historic places. It’s the oldest township in Joburg (older than Soweto), and it was Nelson Mandela’s first Joburg home. Alex is home to high concentrations of immigrants from all over South Africa, and Africa. Alex is severely lacking in resources and public services and the majority of its residents live in poverty. Alex is only about three square miles in size and it houses about 200,000 people, possibly more.

Alex is directly adjacent to Sandton City, nicknamed “Africa’s richest square mile”.

Alexandra Township and SandtonAlex with Sandton City looming in the background. I shot this photo during my first tour of Alex in 2011.

If you don’t live in Alex yourself, it’s easy to forget (or perhaps to pretend) that it doesn’t exist. But Alex does exist and it’s a pretty cool place to visit. I highly recommend it.

Florence and twins

My Favorite Joburg People: Florence Ngobeni-Allen

I recently announced a storytelling project I’m working on called My Favorite Joburg People. I chose four people in Joburg, each of whom has an amazing story to tell, and interviewed them and shot their portraits. I’ll be presenting the stories and portraits at an event called Translating Joburg – Storytellers, and also publishing them on my blog. This is the third of the four stories.

These stories are longer than my normal blog posts.

Florence Ngobeni-AllenFlorence Ngobeni-Allen, May 2016.

Florence Ngobeni-Allen

I met Florence in August 2010, just a few weeks after I moved to Joburg, when I was hired to interview Florence and her family for an assignment with the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation (EGPAF). Florence was a spokesperson for EGPAF, who I had worked for in Washington D.C. before my move to South Africa. So although we’d never met, I knew about Florence through stories I’d read.

When I met Florence she was pregnant with her second son, Kulani, and I went to visit her after Kulani was born. My mother was visiting from America at the time and I have lovely pictures of Mom holding Kulani.

The following year, when my boyfriend Jon’s alcoholism ramped up and I didn’t know how to deal with it, Florence was there for me. One day, Jon came home drunk and I decided I’d had enough. I left the house in Jon’s car, bringing nothing with me but a handbag, and didn’t return for several days. Florence was the first person I called.

I remember when Jon died, and how grateful I was when Florence came to visit me the next day. I felt like she was one of the few people who understood what I was going through.

To explain why I felt that way, I need to tell Florence’s story.

Florence and twinsFlorence doing one of the things she does best: making friends.

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Florence was born in 1973 at Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto. Florence’s mother, Julia, gave birth to her at the age of 14. Florence was raised in her grandmother’s home in Alexandra Township, also known as Alex.

“Alexandra Township is a very violent township,” says Florence. “You knew that your neighbors were kind and loving, but the streets were a different place. At five o’clock you had to be home…Every weekend we knew there would be a dead body on the streets.”

It’s hard to imagine any childhood being more difficult than Florence’s. No one in the family had regular employment when Florence was small, and finding enough food was a daily challenge. “We used to eat from the dumps…There were times we didn’t have clothes or shoes to go to school.”

Florence’s grandmother played a Chinese numbers game for money. On days when her grandmother won, Florence knew they would eat meat that night. When there was no food at home, Florence went to a neighbor’s house for dinner. “My grandmother always said, ‘We’re the children of the big ancestors. So don’t worry, God will give us something.’”

There were good memories, too. “I still remember the beauty of just playing on the streets with no shoes…just playing with kids. Those were the good parts.”

Eventually Florence’s grandmother found a job as a live-in domestic worker, and Florence was sent to live with her uncles. “It was a very ugly situation. They were selling alcohol…There was a lot of abuse. I was hit. I bear a lot of scars on my body.”

No matter how dark her childhood became, Florence always saw something different for herself. “I knew this was not the life I want to lead. I don’t want to end up being a girl that drinks all the time and goes to a shebeen [informal bar].”

Florence’s grandmother brought home old copies of Reader’s Digest for the family to use as toilet paper. Florence would read the stories in the magazines, searching for characters who she could pretend to be. “I was always interested in reading. It was my way of escaping the poverty and abuse that I had at home.”

As a teenager, Florence imagined escaping her situation through a man. “The one opportunity we had was to at least find a nice boyfriend who would marry you. I always dreamt of dating someone who wasn’t a gangster, who didn’t abuse me.”

Florence’s first exposure to life outside the township did come through a man. When she was around 18, she started dating a boy who played the guitar at a church – a church outside the township, with a mostly white congregation. He invited Florence to come along.

Florence’s visit to this church was the first time she can remember leaving Alex.

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The relationship with the boy didn’t last. But the connections Florence made at church changed the direction of her life. It was the early 1990s, and Florence was only vaguely aware of the massive upheaval her country was experiencing. But Florence’s life began to change, just as South Africa was changing.

Florence was symbolically “adopted” by a family in the church, who opened a bank account in her name to help her with food and school fees. She made friends with white women who were attending university. Through a university volunteer program that she learned about through one of these friends, Florence met a boy named John. John, who was white, eventually became Florence’s boyfriend.

During her relationship with John, which coincided with Nelson Mandela’s release from prison and the birth of democracy, Florence slowly began to understand what she calls “the depths of apartheid”.

“John couldn’t come to the township…He was scared to come into the township. But he took me to meet his parents in Boksburg. When I was walking with him on the street, people started throwing eggs. We couldn’t even go into a restaurant together.”

Nonetheless, they stayed together and Florence moved in with John. She attended one of the first integrated high schools on Joburg’s East Rand. “My family didn’t care about me,” says Florence. “If I disappeared for a month, there was no one who called…I was living in these two worlds of being a girl from a township, and I knew everyone and understood everything [in the township], but then I also had a life outside the township, which was mainly church and this guy that I met.”

The clash of these two worlds was too strong, and eventually Florence and Jon split up. “John started seeing other people while I was with him. And as a result, I became very depressed and I left. I went to stay back home in Alex, and that was the beginning of the problem.”

Very soon after Florence arrived back in Alex, 21 years old, with no job prospects and no family support, she got married to a man named George. I ask Florence how she met George and what he was like. “There was not even much to say about George. I met him through friends in Alex and he was a regular guy. He was working. He worked somewhere in town as a bartender, and for me…I had someone who cared to pay my bills and make sure I had food on my table.”

George paid lobola (the traditional South African “bride price”), and thus he and Florence were married. Immediately, Florence became pregnant. Because she was so young and “knew nothing of babies”, Florence decided to leave the city to stay with her mother during the birth of her child. Julia had married and was living several hours to the north, in Limpopo Province.

Once in Limpopo, Florence sent letters to George in Alex. None of her letters were answered.

Florence gave birth to a baby girl named Nomthunzi — she was overjoyed to have a daughter. But soon after Nomthunzi was born, the baby got sick. “I thought she had whooping cough…the sound of it was not good. This cough didn’t go away.”

Nomthunzi’s cough began when she was about three months old. Two months later, Florence decided to return to Joburg with Nomthunzi. She went to a clinic and received the devastating news that her daughter was HIV-positive. Florence was HIV-positive as well.

After learning this news, Florence tried to find her husband. “The first person I looked for was [George] because he didn’t even know his daughter,” Florence says. “So when I went to his family, they told me George died last month. ‘George just died,’ they said. ‘We buried George.’”

Florence asked George’s parents why they didn’t write to tell her of George’s death. “They said, ‘We didn’t care to look for you because you killed George. You gave him AIDS.’”

Less than a month after Florence returned to Joburg with her newborn daughter, Nomthunzi died.

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“When I was given the news about Nomthunzi, I went into a very serious dip. I remember the first two years — I didn’t wash, I didn’t go out, I didn’t make an effort of anything. I was just crying, day in day out.

“The hardest thing for me was to know that as a result of my sexual behavior and my life and where I was born, a soul has left this world. An innocent soul. And I had to live with that. I had to live with knowing that I was the reason that my baby died. Of course there was blame, there was stigma. I didn’t mind. It was more like, I deserve it, you know? Whatever was happening.”

I’ve heard Florence tell this story a number of times. She can never do it without crying. “In the township, when I moved around, people would yell ‘AIDS!’ When I went to the toilet, people would come with bleach and clean up after me.

“I think the turning point, for me, was one day I was walking down the street and this boy, who was like a gangster that I’d grown up with – he approached me and said, ‘Florence, how can you just give up like that? You’re beautiful, you’re young. How can you just give up?’ And then I went home, and I starting calling the doctor that helped me with Nomthunzi – Dr. Gray – and I kept saying, I need a job, I can do anything, I can counsel women, women like me who don’t know they’re HIV-positive and they’re losing children. Because you could see, there were lots and lots of children just dying like that.

“And after endless calls, she finally gave me a job to be a counselor. And that changed my life.”

Florence got a job at Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital, the same hospital where she was born, working for Dr. (now Professor) Glenda Gray, the same pediatrician who treated Nomthunzi before she died. Professor Gray ran the hospital’s Perinatal HIV Research Unit; Florence started there as a junior counselor.

“I didn’t have my matric [high school diploma], because I had failed matric, so I decided I was going to go to night school. And I started studying again. People asked, ‘Why are you going to school? You’re going to die.’ I said, ‘I’m not dead yet.’”

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It was 1997. Florence was 24 years old. She quickly developed a knack for connecting with the clients she counseled.

“I learned more and more and more about HIV,” says Florence. “Listening to women’s stories, coming from all over Johannesburg…It was hard to follow women who were just diagnosed HIV-positive, because they would be moving all the time. I could relate to that.

“You would see a person and they were diagnosed HIV-positive and you didn’t hear from them anymore. You would see a mother and a child and…simple things, they can’t feed the child, there’s no food at home and this child is malnourished because of the disease.

“Through working at Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital, I started understanding that Johannesburg was like the hump of HIV,” Florence explains. “I would see people coming from all sorts of directions, coming to Bara, because that was the only place where they could go.”

At this time in South Africa, antiretroviral drugs (ARVs) were not available for people living with HIV. Florence didn’t expect to live long herself, but she became singularly focused on saving other women and children from her and Nomthunzi’s fate.

Florence recounts stories about the women she met at Bara, women who risked everything to save the lives of their babies. Pregnant women with no money, who jumped off moving trains to avoid the fare and make it to Soweto. Women who arrived at the clinic with their faces and bodies stained with bruises, beaten by their husbands for disclosing their HIV status.

Florence did her best to help, knowing that the treatments she could offer these women were only experimental and may not help them or their babies. “It was no longer about me,” says Florence. “I was living to save people’s lives. I saw the need to fight for women and children. I shared my story, and the fact that I was still alive and healthy – I gave them that. I wanted to die knowing that I had given somebody hope, and that was the only medication I could share.”

Despite the perpetual tragedy, this was an exciting period in Florence’s life. “Living in Johannesburg, it was also a time of unity,” Florence explains. “It was post-1994, there was HIV, there was synergy between black and white – people started coming together. We fought, as much as we could. I joined the Treatment Action Campaign…. My networks grew, from a person who was working in the hospital, to a person who was traveling, meeting incredible people.”

Florence was in a special position. Because of her upbringing and her personal experiences, she had a unique understanding of the challenges facing poor women infected with HIV. These women could hear Florence – they understood her. Florence also understood the bigger picture of the HIV epidemic, and she knew how to communicate it to the public. The rest of the world could hear her too.

Professor Gray began traveling with Florence, taking her to conferences and speaking engagements. Florence remembers speaking at a United Nations conference, debating the issue of whether or not Africans can tell time. “Scientists were saying, ‘Why should we give African women medication when they have to adhere to it and it has to be taken 12-hourly and they can’t even tell time?’. I was part of advocating, saying no, black people can tell time. I’m from a township. I know life in rural areas, I know life in urban areas, and actually black people are very smart and I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Florence worked as a consultant to UNICEF, UNAIDS, and the World Health Organization. She traveled the world, speaking to Oprah Winfrey, Bill and Hillary Clinton, Bono, and Barak Obama (!) about prevention of mother-to-child transmission of HIV.

I ask Florence what drove her. What motivated her to grow from a depressed, penniless young woman – who had lost a newborn daughter and had a death sentence looming over her own head – into a powerful champion of women and children who traveled the globe persuading world leaders to support the expansion of HIV prevention and treatment in Africa?

“I’m the person who goes for it,” Florence says. “I go where people say you can’t go. I grew up poor, and in circumstances where I could have simply given up…But I’ve always believed that you knock at the door, and if they don’t open, you come back and knock, and keep knocking and knocking and knocking. So, that’s exactly what I did. I kept persevering.”

Florence believes that Professor Gray also saw something unique in her – a conviction that Florence wanted to fight for something bigger than herself. “[Professor Gray] saw a person who was passionate about making a difference,” Florence says, “And she wanted to give it a try.”

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Florence was in a place where she never dreamed she would be – with a good job, a decent education, and her health. ARVs eventually became universally available in South Africa; people with HIV (including Florence) were living healthy lives, and transmission of HIV from a mother to her child became easily preventable. Florence couldn’t get Nomthunzi back, but she could experience the joy of other HIV-positive women giving birth to HIV-negative babies.

In many ways, Florence had it all. But in her mind there were a few things missing.

In the early 2000s, through work, Florence met a man named Rob. Rob was from the U.K., working in South Africa as a volunteer. Rob and Florence started dating.

“I’ve always disclosed my status to my sexual partners,” says Florence. “It’s either you take it or you don’t. So I started asking [Rob], ‘Do you know I’m positive?’” Rob did know Florence’s status, of course; she was all over the news at the time. Rob told Florence that he’d read her story, and in fact he was so inspired by it that he wanted to stay in South Africa and work in the field of HIV. “I felt comfortable around him. I felt that I’m in love with someone who understands me and understands the world that we live in.”

Florence and RobFlorence and Rob at a wedding in December 2011.

Rob and Florence were married, and they began to make plans for conceiving a child. Florence had already done extensive researchand knew that it was possible for her to safely give birth to an HIV-negative baby. Their first son, Alexander, was born in 2006.

“He tested negative, and we thought, ‘Oh! This can be doable.’ A few years later, we decided to have another.” Kulani was born in 2011.

Florence and Kulani
Florence and Kulani, just after Kulani was born in early 2011. (Photo: Jon Hrusa)

Florence wasn’t finished yet. “I’ve always been keen on education – it was just one thing that I wanted to do, all my life. But through odds, I couldn’t, because of the circumstances that I grew up in. So I approached the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation, to say, ‘As much as I’ve done, I’ve met leaders, I’ve worked with researchers all my life. But I still feel this sore point that I don’t have a degree, and I would like to have a degree.’ And they decided they will pay for my education. I left work and I started studying full time.”

Florence cries again, remembering the moment when she first got her student identity card and walked across the campus of Wits University. She was 40 years old. “Being a student at Wits University, was like, oh my God. It’s possible. There’s nothing impossible in this world.”

University was very difficult for Florence, who juggled international consulting work for EGPAF and raising a family while pulling all-nighters and struggling to keep up with her classes. But in December 2015, she completed her bachelor’s degree in international relations. Florence is the first person in her family to earn a university degree.

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Today Florence lives with her family in Johannesburg’s southern suburbs, but still owns a home in Alex and visits often. She’s exploring various professional opportunities, hoping to use her degree to move her career in new directions.

And for Florence, there is always another goal on the horizon. “My one other key dream, that I would like to do maybe in the next four or five years – I want to become a lawyer. I want to study law. I hope by then, my brains will be working and I’ll be healthy enough to take up that role.

“The universe is open for those who want to learn more, to do more. The more you knock, the more doors will open.”

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To me, the most remarkable thing about Florence is that she defies everything. She defies what seems to be possible. She defies categorization. She defies…belief. Florence touches upon this defiance during the last minute of our interview.

“I don’t believe there’s a stupid person, because I’ve been called stupid. I’ve been boxed, but I refuse to be boxed. I refuse to be identified as a person living with HIV. I refuse to be identified as a mother. I refused to be identified. I refuse to be categorized.

“I am Florence, and I’m human, and I’m a mother of course. I’m HIV-positive, but that’s not me. That’s not all that I can offer in life. Every one of us has more than what we are, and only when we’re given a chance to strive for more, we do.

“I believe I am a hurricane – that’s not going to bring destruction, but better life.”

Florence Bob and kids-2448The man in the photo, taken in September 2015, is Bob, not Rob. Bob is a good friend of both Florence’s and mine. (I realize this is confusing but the shot is too cute not to include.) Kulani, in red, was four at the time and Alexander, in black, was nine.

I ask Florence if there’s anything more that she wants to add.

“Thank you for being my friend,” she says.

Read all of the My Favorite Joburg People posts.

Instawalking Through Alex (With a DSLR)

On Sunday I helped organize an Instawalk through Alexandra Township, sponsored by the South African Cities Network and Mobile Media Mob.

I’ve been to Alex many times and I’ve gone on Instawalks many times, but this was my first time going on an Instawalk in Alex. In fact I’m pretty sure this was the first organized Alex Instawalk, ever.

About 20 or 25 people showed up for the walk. Despite being Joburg’s oldest township and one of the most historic parts of the city, the vast majority of Joburgers have never been to Alex, mainly due to fear. But I’ve always found Alex to be one of the most interesting neighborhoods in Joburg and one of the best places to take photos. I’m really happy that we had such a great turnout, especially because it was the first visit to Alex for most of the participants.

The theoretical purpose of an Instawalk is to walk around an area, take photos with your phone, and then post them to Instagram. But I actually didn’t take many photos on this walk. First, I was semi-responsible for the group and it was challenging to keep track of everyone in the Alex traffic. Second, I haven’t been feeling very inspired taking photos with my phone lately. The only photos from the walk that I’m even remotely happy with are the few that I shot with my Canon DSLR.

When I first became active in the Instagram community, almost all of the Instagrammers I met were “iPhone-only” — meaning they posted only iPhone (or other smartphone) photos on their Instagram feeds. With the exception of one or two film shots, all 1671 photos on my Instagram feed have also been shot with an iPhone (or an iPad, which I used early on before I had an iPhone).

Over the last year or two, more and more Instagrammers have begun to post DSLR shots on their feeds. I’ve refrained from doing so, mainly because I feel that iPhone photography and DSLR photography are two totally different art forms and I wanted to keep the mediums separate. @2Summers on Instagram was my iPhone domain and was (primarily) my DSLR domain.

I’ve been using Instagram for almost three years now, and I’m becoming bored with my iPhone photos. Shooting with a phone has many advantages and it’s really helped me to become a better photographer. But I’m ready for something new. Plus my new Canon 6D has wifi capability, so I figure why waste it?

So as of today, my Instagram account is no longer iPhone-only. This change will make absolutely no difference to about 99 percent of you but I feel the need to announce it anyway. For those who are curious, I’ll always specify in my Instagram captions whether the photo was shot with a DSLR or a phone.

In celebration of this announcement, here are my four favorite DSLR shots from the Alex Instawalk. All of these will eventually appear on my Instagram feed.


Edmore, a tailor working on the street in Alex. Alex has tons of street-side tailors.

Mom and baby

A mother and her very cute (but very suspicious) baby. I was in a hurry and didn’t get the chance to write down their names.


An unhappy rooster. The contraption he is sitting in is used to remove feathers from chickens after they have been slaughtered. I felt very sad for him although I don’t actually know if he was destined for this machine.


Diana, a dressmaker selling clothes on the street outside of a Zionist church service. I love the dress she’s wearing.

Thanks to Kabelo and Wandele at the Sartists for organizing such a fun walk in Alex. And if you’re not following me on Instagram yet, please check out my feed at

Kings Cinema: Alexandra Township’s Best-Kept Secret

I recently found myself on a tour of Alexandra Township, or Alex, with an innovative new tourism company called Tour2.0. I like Tour2.0’s online description so much that I’m just going to quote it directly:

Tour2.0 is a platform that takes you through a journey of discovery through authentic community tours and tour packages that are based on real African stories told by community members within the context of their community.

I’ve spent lots of time exploring Alex and written about it in my blog (see posts here and here), in the soon-to-be-released SandtonPlaces book, and in an upcoming issue of the Johannesburg in Your Pocket Guide. But there is much more that I’ve yet to discover there. Alex, notwithstanding the fact that 95% of South Africans are afraid to set foot there, is one of Joburg’s most historic districts. I think it’s also one of the most interesting.

On this recent tour I was introduced to a few places in Alex that I hadn’t been to before. Kings Cinema was the most spectacular.

Kings theatre outside

 Kings Cinema: 48 2nd Avenue, Alexandra.

Kings Cinema was built in the 1940s or 1950s (depending on who you ask). Other than natural ageing it’s hardly changed over the last 65 years. Kings Cinema is the oldest movie theatre in Alex and has 500 seats.

Theatre from back

The inside of the cinema.

Louise in theatre

Louise pretends to watch a movie.

Kings Cinema has been owned by the same family since it opened. The current owner, Abraham Nkomo, inherited the business from his uncle.

Abraham in control room_edited-1“I was born in the yard next door,” Abraham says. “I think I will die there too.”

I met Abraham and immediately adored him. He screened mainstream films at Kings Cinema up until three years ago. Then he had to stop because he couldn’t afford it anymore.

Film reelspsd

Old film reels in the Kings Cinema store room.

Abraham keeps the cash-flow going by renting out the theatre to churches — smart move, as there are lots of congregations in Alex and not enough space for churches. He hosts three congregations a week. A doctor also rents out part of the building as his office.

Theatre from below

View from in front of the screen.

I, along with everyone else in the tour group, wandered around with our mouths open and exclaimed that this is pretty much the coolest place ever and there must be some way to start showing movies here again. Abraham flashed his beatific smile and inclined his head. I’m not sure he cares too much. The cinema isn’t going anywhere and neither is he.

Abraham outside

Abraham at the entrance to the cinema, next to the building’s historic marker. The price of admission (R10.55, or about $1) is still on the door. Peeling movie posters plaster the walls outside.

I stood across the street, waiting for the tour van to move so I could get a clear shot of the building. Men gambled on the corner, playing a game with a large checkered board and some plastic bottle caps. Taxis screeched past. Kids waited in line to buy candy from the spaza shop. (Every building in Alex has a spaza shop — a small informal stand selling snacks and sweets.) Abraham stood calmly in the middle of it all.

Kings Cinema is dead, yet alive. This is Alex.

Women Make Art in an Alexandra Soap Shop

I went to Alexandra Township to watch a rehearsal for a play. Five women participated in the rehearsal: four actresses and the writer/director.

The rehearsal took place in a shop — selling soap, floor polish, and other household cleaners — that is about half the size of my kitchen.


Four gorgeous women, practicing their art amidst bottles and buckets of soap and floor polish. They have to pause what they’re doing when customers come in to buy things.

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Township Sunday. On a Bike.

Michelle and I arrived at the Marlboro Gautrain Station, on the edge of Alexandra Township, at 10:30 Sunday morning. Jeffrey, our guide, was waiting for us on the curb.

“Who wants to get the taxi?” Jeffrey asked. I volunteered Michelle. Michelle stepped to the edge of the street and pointed downward, as Jeffrey demonstrated.

taxi signal

Michelle hails a taxi.

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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