Walking through Alex with Moses Mayekiso

That was in 1986; the township was in turmoil, and Mayekiso was the man most residents looked to as their leader. Last Tuesday, Moses walked up 7th Avenue again, accompanied by a Weekly Mail reporter. This time there were none of the tell-tale signs of civil war. By contrast, huge, freshly-painted blocks of flats formed a backdrop to the shanties. They were not there in June 1986 when Mayekiso and four of his colleagues were arrested and eventually tried – unsuccessfully – for treason, subversion and sedition. The high-rise blocks symbolise the physical changes in Alex over the three intervening years. 

At the same time, the triumphant re-emergence of Mayekiso shows an underlying political continuum. Alex was identified by the government in 1986 as key example of an urban black “oilspot”; a township which could erupt into rebellion at anytime. It became a testing-ground for the state’s two-pronged response to this threat: the removal of “trouble-makers” like Mayekiso, and their replacement by town councillors, coupled with upgrading, to alleviate the material hardships of the community. (See accompanying story.) 

The detention of leading activists and a massive security force clampdown had a devastating effect on the powerful community organisations – from “yard committees” to youth congresses – which had mushroomed in the township, and security strategists hoped Alex would forever be pacified. They would have been disappointed to see residents’ responses to Mayekiso’s tour of the township last week. After brief seconds of non-recognition – he had been away for a long time – passers-by, young and old, broke into broad grins and shouted to catch his attention. One elderly man ran after him down the dusty street bellowing: “Hey! Moss! Hey!” Mayekiso stopped. “Sidinga ukukubona njalo lapha, Moss,” he said. (We need to see you here more often, Moss.) At other points during the walkabout, matriarchs emerged from leantos to embrace him. The symbolism of the trade unionist-cum-community leader had lost none of its power. 

Although he never tires of stressing that he is just one of countless antiapartheid activists, Mayekiso is in many ways the embodiment of the political transformation Alex has undergone. As an under-educated Transkeian youth of 25 he arrived in the township in 1973 to look for work. He had fled the mines in Welkom, and lived illegally in Alex’s hated single mens’ hostels. He remembers thinking on first seeing Alex – ironically it was Selbourne Street, later to become the fulcrum of Alex’s “Six Day War” – that it was the worst place he had ever come across. He spent two years doing piecework on construction sites before finally securing a steady job as a worker in the Toyota factory in nearby Wynberg. Already the living conditions in Alex – he and his extended family never had more than a one-roomed shack to live in – had affected his political perceptions profoundly, and labour disputes at Toyota would result in his dismissal and emergence as one of South Africa’s most respected trade unionists. It was in this capacity that he could argue, in 1984, for worker participation in community issues. 

Two years later, with Alex in revolt, Mayekiso was elected chairperson of the Alexandra Action Committee, which spearheaded attempts to solve the crisis and give direction to the nascent popular organisation which had developed. He was active in the AAC until his arrest on June 28, two weeks after the nationwide State of Emergency was declared, and the experience has stayed with him and the residents of the township. Standing in the yard of the house he used to live in- it has now been sold off – he argued that the government’s upgrading programme had done nothing to change the lives of the people of Alex, and that powerful political grievances remained. The tiny rooms leading off the yard were home to no less than 13 families, each with five or six children. There was no electricity and no sewerage. There was one tap and three portable toilets. Graffiti painted on corrugated iron on the roadside proclaimed “Viva Mayekiso”. 


The surrounding area is still known as the “Mayekiso Section” of Alex. The homecoming scenes were more than just touching. “Organisation is beginning to be rebuilt in Alex,” said Mayekiso. “The political transformation that took place has not been destroyed by either the State of Emergency or this upgrading.” Activists had absorbed the lessons of changed conditions, he said, and were once again rallying the commnunity: “We have had so many people coming to us and saying they needed an organisational voice again … it’s deep.”

Alex: Testing ground for the new state strategy 

Alexandra is a top-priority testing ground for the state’s strategic response to the urban township rebellion of 1984-1986. This response, according to Planact researcher Andrew Boraine, have been devised through the structures of the National Security Management System – in this case, the mini-Joint Management Centre responsible for Alex – and includes repressive and non-repressive measures. Boraine sees the central aim of cur· rent state strategies a being ”the creation and/or maintenance of a variety of social, geographical and political divisions”. Essentially, it has been accepted that the people of Alex cannot be wished away -so they must be pacified. 

In addition to security action, this aim is pursued via “differentiated strategies in areas such a land allocation, black housing, the provision of township services and facilities, urban management and financing, black unemployment, health and social welfare, and access to resources”. Alex is a prime example of the policy, which releases considerable funds for township upgrading – relying largely on contributions from the controversial Regional Services Councils. Nobody denies the need for the improvement of the physical environment; the question is what effect it has. Boraine points to the ”creation of divisions within existing black town ships (between middle-class homeowners in new elite suburbs, and working-class people in council housing and backyard shacks)….”

In Alex, such contrasts are becoming stark: the new ”Eastbank” suburb would not be out of place in many white towns of the East Rand, while conditions in “Old Alex” grow more dreadful by the day. Many existing houses are being sold off to local landlords, who ill remove the burden of rent-collection from the authorities. Given the longstanding, almost endemic rent boycott, this is a significant shift. The improvements in Alex are being imposed from the top down. Not even JMC members would contend that the sitting councillors are representative of the community – all were “elected” unopposed, most have sullied reputations. The township is run by its energetic, white, appointed administrator, Steve Burger. Along with his colleagues, he plays a key role in identifying upgrading needs. There is ample opportunity for the sowing of division under the guise of assistance. After struggling for decades as a township of “have-nots”, Alex now boasts a small group of ”haves”. 

The schism angers many long established working-class residents, who complain of more affluent ”outsiders” being brought in to make the township look more-acceptable Moses Mayekiso has had direct experience of the new divisions. “When I was acquitted, the people of Eastbank were warned: ‘Mayekiso is out. You are now in trouble, because he will attack you with his comrades.’ They locked their doors; these people were fearful, and it takes time to reassure them.” Alex: house prices start from R46 200, which, according to the Black Sash, would require a household income of R1 450 a month to sustain monthly mortgage repayments of R435 under the subsidised first time homeowners’ scheme. Even modest, unrestored houses in Old Alex are well beyond the means of the township’s residents. 

Government upgrading policy, they believe, is not aimed at them. They are deeply alienated- perhaps even more than they were in 1986. Some statistics about Alex are revealing. Unemployment levels are at least SO percent. The population density is 300 people per hectare, against eight in neighbouring Sandton. There are shack settlements on almost every one of Alex’s 22 streets. As much as 80 percent of the township’s population is believed to consist of squatters. Eighty-eight percent of inhabitants have no water-borne sewerage or electricity. Only 10 percent f the ”dark city’s” main are lit. Coupled with dear signs of a resurgence of resistance organisation – and a refusal by officials to negotiate with extra-parliamentary structures¬ these factors lend support to Boraine’s conclusion that ”whatever (strategic) choices the JMC’s make, it is clear that their ability to control the black townships for an indefinite period … is increasingly limited”.

This article originally appeared in the Weekly Mail.

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Shaun Johnson
Guest Author

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