Times Live 14 April 2019
Residents say they hardly recognise the place they once knew
Joy Nkuna’s childhood home still stands in Alexandra, but the house where she grew up is now choked by shacks and illegal buildings that encircle it.
“I know this place as well as my family but it has changed drastically for the worse. All these shacks were not here before.
“All we have here is foreigners now. The corners are full, and you find places where more than 20 people are living in yards. When they see a space they build, no questions asked. We are surrounded here.”
The Johannesburg township has been gripped by protest action that saw the area shut down last week, the civil unrest seeping into the streets of Sandton as discontent escalated.
Protest action, in the shadow of general elections next month, has also flared in Tshwane, Bekkersdal, west of Johannesburg, and Soweto.
While politicians bluster about which party is to blame for Alexandra’s descent into squalor, longstanding residents are waging a war against “invaders” for the soul of the township. Vacant land is a commodity in the area – thought to be home to nearly 200,000 – that cannot swell any more.
Space on verges, pavements and even on roads is snaffled up – providing a foundation for a cramped labyrinth of shacks and illegal structures. The township has become a reception area for migrants, the drastic influx – along with what residents said is government neglect – strangling the capacity of state infrastructure.
Moreover, a deep-seated resentment of the “foreigner” has been fostered.
“This burning was always going to happen but it will be a waste of time. The politicians will come with their promises because they want our votes, but after that they will disappear,” Nkuna said.
Johannesburg mayor Herman Mashaba has refused to meet protesters, publicly saying the mess was inherited from the previous ANC city administration and announcing a forensic investigation into the failed R1.3bn Alexandra Renewal Project (ARP).
“The ARP, which was launched in 2001, served as a slush fund for the ANC, the City of Johannesburg under previous governments and the provincial government,” he said in a statement this week.
The project, which was funded by the national government, envisaged a renewed Alex with improved housing, health and sanitation infrastructure.
The DA won control of Johannesburg in 2016 in partnership with the EFF, unseating the ANC, which had run the city since 1994.
Gauteng premier David Makhura denied money had been misspent and on Thursday during a visit to the township, President Cyril Ramaphosa accused Mashaba of fearing the people of Alexandra.
Start cleaning up Alex, he said, with a veiled threat to deploy the army. Mashaba hit back in a statement, accusing Ramaphosa of offering people more broken promises.
Grandmother Sarah Tshabalala said the soul of the township has been lost.
“The people who do this are not from here. They are not good people, they are not the people from SA, they are not from Alex,” she said.
“People will come and build a house on the verge and I can’t say anything, I must keep quiet. That is the way things work here now. If you are not careful, your home will stop being your home,” she said.
Protest organiser Sandile Mavundla said service delivery and a dearth of public infrastructure were at the heart of the protest.
“This is not about xenophobia. We love our brothers from Maputo,” he said. Mavundla is the man behind a macabre display of tyres at a public meeting, which was widely seen as a threat against Mashaba.
But Mavundla said: “The tyres were there because we were telling our people not to burn them in the streets anymore. They were not for Mashaba.”
The display prompted a tweet by ANC national executive committee member Tony Yengeni saying residents wanted to see Mashaba and warning that there are “clean and nicely polished” tyres waiting for the mayor – alluding to murder by necklacing. The tweet was later deleted.
Speaking to the undercurrent of anti-foreigner sentiment, Loren Landau of the African Centre for Migration and Society said: “These sentiments are self-evidently dangerous. However, sentiments alone don’t kill. Rather, it is the politics that leads to violent mobilisation. This danger is for migrants and their neighbours but also for democracy as it draws attention away from real issues.”
Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor in Wits University’s School of Architecture and Planning, said: “Alex plays a very important role of ‘reception’ area, and for many people survival depends on this. The burden of this should not be carried by those who have had a home in Alex for decades.”