Alex today

Operation Alex Upgrade, a R95-million urban renewal project, began with the construction of a brand-new highway, Selbourne Road. That was a month ago. The surface is already cracking and potholes are appearing. It's not only the tarred road that's showing cracks. So is the upgrade scheme as a whole, which despite its promise of improvements for all, has been greeted with deep suspicion by those it is intended to benefit.

Operation "Alex Upgrade" was officially announced by the township's white administrator, Steve Burger, at a meeting held in the town council's chambers in May. Town Clerk Piet Genis told Weekly Mail this week that besides the R95-million government donation, hundreds of millions of rands will be poured into the township, which houses nearly 20 000 people.

According to Genis, the upgrading will involve the installation of western interceptor sewer connections which will be linked to the Johannesburg bulk sewer outfall. "We are doing away with the ancient bucket system," he said, "replacing it with a modem sewerage system connected to inside and outside toilets." Other major projects, he said, will include the building of new roads, the upgrading and tarring of existing ones and the installation of a storm water drainage system; many Alexandra roads are impassable after heavy rains. "Existing houses which are strong enough will be retained and upgraded, while all mud houses and shacks will definitely be demolished," he said. 

Township residents argue the scheme is aimed at undercutting government opponents, under the guise of social welfare. "R90-million rand is nothing. The idea is to drive a wedge into the middle of our peoples" said Mike Beea, chairman of the Alexandra Civic Association. Beea has spent eight months of the past year in solitary confinement under the Emergency regulations. "We are trying to tell the government that until the people of Alex can elect their own representatives, we will not be out of this mess."

Alexandra Civic Association vice chairman, Mack Lekota, says the exercise is intended to lull residents, in the hope "they will forget about politics and their rightful demands". Lekota, uncle of UDF national publicity secretary, Patrick "Terror" Lekota – whose treason trial resumes next week was this week taken from his home by security police and questioned for a day at the Sandton police station.

He said there was a simmering of discontent because people's demands had not been met in terms of housing, security and comfort. And he said residents were not consulted. "All we hear is that Alex is being redeveloped. "Another bait the authorities are using is telling people they will be allowed to buy back their properties. But it has never been clearly spell out by the administrator publicly, even though certain residents are eager to buy back their properties. "Surely this is tantamount to raping the people's minds."

Lekota said most of the properties had been bought by the authorities for "next to nothing". "Lots of people keep coming to us. We are going to arrange for a meeting with Mr Burger," he said. The township suspicion that a major goal of the project is to give the army a key role in running Alex is given substance by the role played by the Joint Management Centre.

According to Wits University political scientist Mark Swilling, the upgrading plan is part of the Joint Management Centres' "hearts and minds" strategy which emphasises the need for socio-economic upgrading of black townships. "This strategy has arisen out of the SADF's view that the cause of the unrest was partly socioeconomic, and therefore the solution lies in upgrading."

Swilling said the government was making a "fatal error ', refusing to accept that no solution is possible until the question of political rights had been resolved. He noted that Alex leaders were detained and charged with treason before the government proceeded with the upgrading. "This is proof that the government continues to refuse to negotiate with the real leaders," Swilling emphasised that "socio-economic upgrading is no solution without negotiation".

Instead of the block, street and zone committees which had established a homegrown administration in Alexandra before last year's Emergency was declared, a government-appointed Joint Management Centre has combined the military and police forces, municipal police and some civic bodies to try to make the "redevelopment" a reality. The JMC' s committees are ultimately answerable to the State Security Council.

Genis refused to comment when pressed about the JMCs. "My appointment is not a political one," he said. "I am merely an official here. Perhaps Steve Burger can help you." For more than a year, the township has been sealed off by military road-block from the Alexandra Clinic, to white homes and the factories that surround it. Soldiers lean their rifles on half-metro-high walls of sand-bags.

Lekota said the SADF troops who have occupied the township for the past year and a half were an "eyesore  – but the people can do nothing about their presence". Outbursts against the security forces have become a regular feature of Alexandra. Yet Genis boasted this week he could walk the dirt tracks of Alexandra "any time, day or night, without a revolver". Genis said crime in the township has been cut to a bare minimum.

But Elina Serote, mother of the exiled author Wally Serote, sees a township without a sense of peace. "Life is not normal here. There is an underlying fear," she said, noting that young children had been "traumatised by detention". The project of redevelopment was long overdue, but she questioned its timing. "I sincerely hope that we shall be able to buy our plots as they are."

Government strategists have likened Alexandra to a drop of oil dispersing over the surface of water; its shining new image is expected, in the same way, to spread to other riot-torn townships. Alexandra is cited repeatedly by the government as a model for ensuring peace in volatile black areas. "People must know that the government is good," one official was recently quoted in The Star, explaining the Alexandra programme. It was, he said, one of the "prerequisites for successful counter-revolution". Alex is one of the most highly- politicised and democratically-organised townships in the country. The township has been a major focus of government attention.

Since the late 1950s – when the Alex community mobilised for three months under the Alex People's Transport committees to fight bus fare hikes – the government has tried to break the township. In 1959 the authorities began moving families to Soweto and Tembisa, planning to flatten the township and replace it with a huge complex of single-sex workers' hostels. Tens of thousands of people were moved but the plan never succeeded. And in 1982, Cooperation and Development Minister Piet Koornhof acknowledged Alex's right to exist. But by then a new force was moving through the dilapidated old houses.

With Mayor Sam Buti committed to following Koornhof's policy of independent town councils, and with residents under increasing pressure from a collapsing economy, the people of Alex looked elsewhere for leadership in their struggle for a better life. They found it in the high proportion of trade unionists among the township and community leaders, like the township's charismatic leader Moses Mayekiso, head of the country's powerful, National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa and currently on trial for treason.

Mayekiso's Alexandra Action Committee adopted the street committee structures started in Cradock in early 1984 by slain community leader Matthew Goniwe. As the AAC took increasing control of the township, police and troops flooded in. On Saturday, February 14, last year, as some 13 000 mourners were returning to their homes after burying 19-year-old Michael Birding, they were attacked by police. When youths retaliated, police and troops invaded Alex in force – starting Alex's "six day war". For the next five days, the entire township stayed away from work, with the death toll rising every hour. There were continous street skirmishes involving security forces.

By the end of the week, the official death toll stood at close to two down. At least 300 people had been injured in the clashes, and hundreds more detained. In a pre-dawn raid on June 12 last year – the day the national State of Emergency was declared – hundreds of heavily armed police and troops invaded Alex, detaining hundreds of residents, among them almost the entire leadership of the Alexandra Action Committee and the Alexandra Residents' Association. Alex was sealed off by a wall of troops, and soldiers were moved in to occupy strategic sites. They are still there.  

On trial for treason: Alexandra thirteen

The treason trial of Moses Mayekiso, Alexandra community leader and head of the 130 O00-strong National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa, begins in the Rand Supreme Court on Monday. Mayekiso is one of 13 Alexandra activists who are currently facing treason charges. He is to appear with four others, all prominent in the militant Alexandra Action Committee.

With Mayekiso in the dock are his brother Mzwanele, 22, Obed Bapela 28, Paul Tshabalala 38, and Richard Mdakane, 29. The trial is likely to be postponed to a later date. According to the charge sheet the five are alleged to have tried to "overthrow, usurp or endanger the authority of the state, with seditious intent to defy or subvert the authority of the state".

They are being accused of running people's courts, street block and area committees, and of forming an action committee. They are also being accused of plotting to seize control of Alexandra or to render the area "ungovernable" by the state. In another treason trial, eight young Alexandra men, including a 17-year-old youth, are also due to appear in the Rand Supreme Court.

The eight – Ashwin Zwane, 20, Vusi Ngwenya, 20, brothers Andrew and David Mafutha, 19, Arthur Vilikazi, 24, Albert Sehola, 21, Piet Mogano, 28 and a 17-year-old youth who may not be named. The eight originally faced charges of sedition, but early in May their charge sheet was upgraded to treason. The eight are alleged to have conspired with the ANC, the UDF and Cosatu to initiate "organs of people's power" to take over the functions of the government and township authorities in Alex. Besides the 13 men, there are also hundreds of Alex activists who are inside under the Emergency regulations – Mono Badela.

A warm hello from the Joint Management subcommittee

Alexandra township's white administrator smiles at his flock from the front page of a Newsletter to the People of Alexandra compiled by a Bureau for Information employee and printed by Perskor. "Greetings to all of you," Steve Burger writes. "I am sure you have seen all the development taking place around you. Remember the Council promised you there would be a massive urban renewal scheme … These trenchings are for the laying of pipes so necessary for the outfall sewer connections.

Remember, I said that eventually Alexandra will have a waterborne sewerage which win replace the bucket system." Burger, the man fulfilling his promises, is also chairman of the Mini Joint Management Centre (JMC) sub-committee dealing with constitutional, economic and social matters. It is one of three subcommittees – the others deal with security and information – under the overall chairmanship of a police colonel stationed in Alexandra.

The JMCs, which fall under the State Security Council-controlled National Security Management System, were exposed by Weekly Mail last year as part of a "silent coup" which had prised power from elected bodies and entrusted it to a secret operation run by the security forces. Headed by army and police officials the secret committees strategised ways of breaking the back of spiralling black resistance at a local level. One scheme was to redress grievances about township living conditions which had kindled the nation-wide unrest. 

Burger disagrees with this view. To his mind, the JMCs provide a forum where he can get government representatives together around a table and cut the bureaucratic red tape which delays an idea becoming reality. After 20 years working in black local authorities, he speaks warmly of "the sense of urgency" the mini JMC's twice-weekly meetings create about Alexandra and how government employees now "have a loyalty about what happens in Alexandra".

He reports there is "virtually no un-rest in Alexandra", which he attributes to three factors; to the upgrading of living conditions; "secondly, in all honesty it must be said the Emergency has definitely managed to create a climate of peace and security"; and thirdly to an improvement in employment opportunities – partly because "the peaceful situation tends to stimulate industry in surrounding areas" and partly because he has encouraged the private sector to employ more residents of Alexandra.

The three reasons he advances are all developed as he expands on the work of the mini JMC's involvement in speeding up the upgrading of the township: how as a result of the security sub-committee the crime rate has been diminished by half and how members of the private and quasi-government sectors are invited to JMC meetings on an ad hoc basis. But Burger denies claims that the JMCs are unelected power-wielders. He says the mini JMC "is not in a position to take any decisions. It only assists in this whole upgrading project".

It is the Alexandra Town Council, which he was appointed to administer last June – following the resignation of Mayor Sam Buti and his councillors in April 1986 – which makes the decisions, not the mini JMC which was established in August last year, he says. But at the same time Burger is anxious to point out that he and his JMC subcommittee are not acting unilaterally. They are, he says, in constant contact with what he calls "established groups" in Alexandra who represent business, education, religious and political interests and include some of the former community councillors.

Burger says militant political groups attended some of the first meetings to discuss plans for up grading Alex, but have stayed away recently. Refuting allegations that the JMCs were addressing grievances about living conditions in order to deflect the groundswell of support for United democratic Front-affiliated civic associations, or civics, Burger said: "I believe Alexandrans have justifiable grievances which we must eradicate. The mini JMC creates an opportunity for us to speed up this process. It has not been detrimental in any way to the residents of Alexandra. The opposite is true. "I am not trying to influence the blacks to become government supporters," he added. "What we're trying to do is create a climate for evolution as opposed to revolution."

But a closer look at the June/July issue of the Newsletter to the people of Alexandra indicates a clear pro-state bias. Reporting on the funeral of 14 Alexandra High School children (killed in a bus crash while on a Department of Education and Training trip, although the latter fact was not mentioned) the writer notes under the headline "Mass funeral brings unity in Alexandra": "Even the friendship offered by the SADF did not go unnoticed. When it was announced at the funeral service that the army helicopter airlifted the most critically injured children to expert medical attention I overheard one boxom (sic) auntie say, as she wiped the-tears off (sic) her eyes: "They are not so had as we are made to believe they are."

Coming to his own project Burger describes it as "blending of the redevelopment programme with an urban renewal project". It will, he says, allow the council to develop new facilities on vacant land while also enabling it to install sewerage, water and electrical services throughout Alexandra. The project, which was approved in November, has been allocated R75-million by the National Housing Commission. He estimates about 2 000 houses are structurally sound, and 3 000 can be made structurally sound – 55 to 60 percent of the total dwellings.

These, Burger says, will be made available to residents "on a home ownership basis at affordable prices". For the rest, there will he "minimum relocation within Alexandra". Burger said the home ownership scheme would begin once "the total area has been surveyed and we have made good progress". The first option on structurally sound properties would go, to the ex-owner, who owned the house before it expropriated in 1963, to the ex-owner's family, or to the longest-residing tenant.

The council has also made provision for sub-division in the scheme. Sub-divided sites would be made available for development and would be allocated according to the council's waiting list. "Of course, the poor we will always have with us. The council will have to accept that responsibility. In the last nine months we have constructed about 600 shell houses." Continuing his chronology of developments, Burger proudly points out that the first outfall sewer was completed at the end of June. Other plans include play parks, an open air recreation centre, three new schools and a new residential area on the East Bank of Alexandra.

"In general the community has accepted the installations and inevitable inconveniences in a very good spirit," Burger says. "The community in Alexandra is a fantastic community, they look forward and have the vision to assist the community leaders in creating a new town in Alexandra, a town they can all be proud of within the next four years." – Jo-Ann Bekker


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