Township Life: Meet Alexandra, South Africa

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“We have a few options for lunch today,” our guide Robin told us.  “We could eat in the museum cafe.  We could go to a restaurant.  Or — and this is an interesting option — we could eat in Alexandra Township.  I warn you that it’s very basic.  But it’s an experience.”

“Definitely use the bathroom before we go,” David added.

After an introduction like that, how could we go anywhere but Alexandra?!

I knew I couldn’t go to South Africa without experiencing a township.  During apartheid, townships were constructed on the edge of cities as places for nonwhites to live.  Nonwhites were forced out of their homes in the cities and moved to townships, while the cities remained populated by whites.  The townships were segregated by race — black, colored, or Indian — and poorly constructed.  To this day, townships exist in South Africa, in both urban and rural areas.

And everyone knows about them.  (“Don’t go into those ghettos when you go to South Africa,” my mom warned me before I left.  “There’s no way I’m not going to a township,” I told her, “but I’ll go with a guide.”)

Alexandra — commonly referred to as Alex — is one of the roughest townships in South Africa.  Remember how I mentioned the taxi hand signals in Johannesburg?  You signal Alex by making your hand into a gun.  “Alex is where people from Soweto go when they want a township experience,” Robin told us.

Our first glimpse of Alexandra?  Away from the shiny buildings and skyscrapers of Johannesburg, we were suddenly surrounded by color, life, and vitality.

My heart thudded as we got out of the car.  Was everybody carrying guns?  Should I hide my expensive phone?  Would the wrong move get me in trouble?  Would someone be shot in front of us?!

Turns out Alex was like nothing I had imagined.

Townships have very poor living conditions, but they are not bastions of crime in the way that many people think they are.  There is crime, and there is violence, but this is also a place where people live and want to stay safe.  People don’t try to rob the tourists walking down the street.  You won’t get stabbed for visiting a township.

One thing that Robin pointed out was that you tend not to see begging on the streets in townships because people maintain a level of responsibility for each other.  That’s one thing that makes the townships so different from other urban areas of the world.

Townships have their problems, especially when it comes to violence, substance abuse, pollution, rape, and HIV/AIDS, but you shouldn’t let that stop you from visiting.

Lunch, it turns out, was an adventure.  We headed to Joe’s Butchery, a barbecue restaurant in the heart of Alex.  It’s one of the most popular places in town, not only because the barbecue was fabulous.  We feasted on boerewors (sausages), lamb and chicken, as well as mealie pap (a starchy concoction like a cross between couscous and mashed potatoes) and condiments.

Loving the meat!

The atmosphere was festive — football games blared on large flat-screen TVs, the whole restaurant jumping up and cheering when a goal was made.  (An interesting South Africa fact: football and rugby are the two most popular sports, but football is more popular with blacks and rugby is more popular with whites.)

And above all, my favorite genre of music in the world played loudly off a giant sound system — 90s R&B!  How random is that?!  I was thrilled.

After the fun of our lunch, we explored more of the township and were confronted with sobering statistics about township life.  One neighborhood within Alex is one of the most densely populated places in the world.  There are so many births that the local maternity clinic allows women to stay two hours after giving birth — and then they need to leave.  After that, it’s time for the next one.

Of the women giving birth who elect to be tested, 85% are HIV-positive, and most of them pass the disease on to their babies.

It was devastating hearing this while seeing the smiles of children in this place, knowing that so many of them will succumb to an early death.

After Alexandra, we headed to the most famous township of all: Soweto.  Soweto is enormous — it has a population of 1.3 million and 80% of the city’s taxis.  It’s also one of the townships that has changed enormously over the years, and even has some middle-income neighborhoods nowadays.

Soweto is also home to the one street in the world in the world home to multiple Nobel Prize winners: both Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu have lived on Vilakazi Street.

The single best aspect of our time in Johannesburg was having the excellent Robin Binckes as our tour guide.  Now 71 years old, Robin grew up in an era of tension between Afrikaners and English-speaking whites.  He spent time in the military and became a supporter of apartheid.

A supporter?  Yes.  A supporter.  And this is a huge part of his story.

At Nelson Mandela’s inauguration in 1994, Robin and his family fully expected civil war to break out.  Mandela had been jailed for decades, and they expected his inaugural speech to be a fiery call for revenge.  And what did Mandela say?

“The time for the healing of the wounds has come.”

It was over.  It was all over.  It was time for South Africa to rebuild.

Can you imagine learning how to heal after decades of violence and injustice?

Today, Robin does a lot of work in Alexandra.  In fact, he told us that for one of his birthdays, he told 120 of his white friends to show up at a posh destination…where there were buses waiting to take them to Alex!  Those guests got the surprise of their lives.

My day in the townships only scratched the surface of their story — there is so much more to cover, and when I return to South Africa, I hope to delve into them more.

Essential Info: Don’t visit a township without a guide.  Robin offers several tours of Alexandra and Soweto through Spear of the Nation.  Prices are available upon request.

Many thanks to Visit South Africa for hosting my stay in Johannesburg.  All opinions, as always, are my own.

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24 thoughts on “Township Life: Meet Alexandra, South Africa”

  1. It seems that wherever people live, no matter where in the world it might be, that place is worth a visit.

    Just because some areas seem to come stamped with a warning, they are still full of people like the rest of us, just trying to get on with things and trying to take pride in their surroundings, no matter what those surroundings might be.

    South Africa clearly has a lot to teach us.

    I’m really enjoying the posts about your visit.

  2. Kate

    Township and Settlement are two different things.

    In my 15 trips to South Africa from 1998 until this just past October I have been in several townships scattered around the entire country from east to west and north to south.

    This year while in Namibia a group of us were driven through established settlements, the stage or two before the actual formation of a true Township. Some day my plan is go into some with locals on foot not as a tourist.

    I have walked around in a mix of townships while traveling. To me they were small towns, poor yes, yet still actually towns with governments and super structures of utilities, schools, hospitals, etc.

    The creativity conferences I have been involved with since 1998 have teachers from settlement schools attend with scholarships from companies or individuals. We just did our 7th conference just for educators and administrators. There were over 250 attendees. All the teachers from the settlement schools were sponsored. NedBank sponsored over 100 teachers alone.

    Settlements are usually what were once instantly created shanty towns that are made of scrap materials, anything and everything. After a shanty village has been set for a period of time, electricity is provided by the government. Then water. Then schools. Eventually the shanty structures are replaced by clay brick homes, neighborhoods.

    Under Mabeki’s term thousands of such homes were built.

    Many of the people living in South Africa are illegals who come across from Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe or Mozambique.

    Also SOWETO originally was the nickname for several townships. Southwestern Townships.

    A South African friend took another American and I to Soweto to the section where the Mandela’s house prior to his imprisonment occurred is located and down the street from Rev Tutu’s home and not far from Winnie Mandela’s home was then about 5 years ago.

    At least this is based upon what I have been told or read about South Africa’s history since the 1940s to today.

    1. Townships can be very dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing. A guide knows which neighborhoods are safe to visits and which ones should be avoided. That’s the biggest reason why.

  3. I live in Johannesburg, and honestly, I would love to go do this, but am truly scared to death.
    But will probably go do it with a guide too.
    It’s just safer, you know they know where to go and what to not listen too.
    You have an amazing life Kate!

  4. So glad to see you had a chance to do this! I visited a township outside of Cape Town a few years back, and it was one of the most eye-opening things I’ve ever done on a trip. Thanks for sharing!

  5. I think you don’t really get to experience a country and its culture until you have seen all sides of it and that includes poverty and how locals live. I went to a favela in Rio and loved the experience, the friendly and curious people, and the gorgeous food. I agree you should go with a guide, but definitely an opportunity not to be missed.

  6. Thanks for this honest post Kate. South Africa has always fascinated me but I think it must be a place to go when you have experience of travelling and are more streetwise.
    I am going on a year long trip to Asia and Oceania next month and I chose the places because they are mainly safe. I feel like I would be too busy worrying about my safety somewhere like South Africa to fully enjoy it.
    It’s a place I will go when I’, a more experienced traveller and preferably with someone else!

    1. Hi Stephanie, I am South African. I would encourage you to visit. South Africa is a great place for beginner visitors to Africa as it’s very easy to get around and there’s a little bit of everything. There is a high crime rate but the crime tends to be contained to areas where there is gang activity – which is really awful for everyone living there and a continuing problem for South Africans to sort out – but luckily for you does not affect tourists. Cape Town is an interesting example of this. It’s a tourist paradise and there are also some quite popular township tours which are quite safe but the Cape Flats are gang-ridden. This, however, is true of many of the world’s destinations, e.g. New York, Argentina, etc. You would be selling yourself short by missing out on the exquisite scenery, safaris, beautiful beaches, great music, amazing local art & cuisine and quite cheap travel. Also, we’re really pretty friendly. When I travel I’m always quite amazed at how unfriendly everyone else seems compared to home 🙂
      Other African countries that are wonderful to visit include Namibia and Madagascar.

      1. Also – one other thing Kate – I am not sure how many of the people you met but something that I often find is that some foreigners have a misconception that people in (South) Africa are somehow living in another world but I have visited friends in Langa, Cape Town, who may live in a 3m x 3m corrugated iron shack but have a satellite dish, etc. It’s all down to your perspective. And here’s a stat that will blow your mind – at one stage South Africa had a cellphone penetration of over 100% – i.e. more than one cellphone per person – because many people have several phones, one on each network, so that they can make cheaper calls network to network, depending on who they are calling. That stat is a bit different now, I think our cellphone penetration is around 80% now but it’s still kind of interesting! We love gadgets around here..

  7. Hi Kate

    Well written article on Alexandra, I live in the township and I must say that we are a vibrant community with huge potential for growth and opportunity.

    I would like to connect and share more stories of alex

  8. What an incredible article! You’re such an inspiration to so many people out there. We shouldn’t live life because we listen to what we hear. We must live life to the fullest and experience all that life has to offer! Even though South Africa may not be the safest place in the world, it shouldn’t prevent you from visiting such a culturally diverse and beautiful nation! Visit townships in a safe manner and experience something you can’t take in until you’re actually a part of it.

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