The father of Alexandra: ‘I was born to serve, it’s my calling’

​Linda Twala buries people and creates safe spaces for learning, helping to make him an invaluable part of the community. (Hiram Alejandro Durán/M&G)

​Linda Twala buries people and creates safe spaces for learning, helping to make him an invaluable part of the community. (Hiram Alejandro Durán/M&G)

Linda Twala, 75, was born to one of the original residents of Alexandra, which has come to represent South Africa’s inequality, with wealthy Sandton across the road. He buries people and creates safe spaces for young and older people, making him an invaluable member of the impoverished township. Twala spent a day last week with Mashadi Kekana for the Good News Edition.
This is his story

The only time Linda Twala gets to be alone with his thoughts is when he is cruising in his silver Chrysler. But, even then, the people on the streets of Alexandra township drift in, demanding his attention. “Yebo baba”, “Ntate Twala” and “hola madala” are respectfully shouted from nearly every street corner, and he hoots or opens his window to wave and greet back in acknowledgement. People bend down to take a peek at the man with the silver hair, brushed back in his trademark hairstyle. What could be exhausting or even an intrusion seems only to give Twala a sense of feeling right at home.

(Hiram Alejandro Durán/M&G)

To say Twala is a people’s person is like saying we need food for sustenance; it’s not something you need to even mention. He says it’s a gift he inherited from his mother, Annie.

She was one of the first black people to settle in Alexandra, in a mud house, when the township was formed in 1912. Annie’s father worked as a chef for Herbert Papenfus, a farmer who owned the land that would eventually become the township. Alexandra was named after Papenfus’s wife.

Twala says it was his mother who taught him about the importance of sharing what little you have with others. “My mother was a domestic worker and she taught us discipline, respect and how to live with people. Even though she didn’t have much, she always gave food to the hungry and the homeless.”

Twala was born in the township 75 years ago and is known as the father of Alex, a title he takes very seriously if his home is anything to go by. The house, on 2nd Avenue, about 5kms uphill from the Jukskei River, can only be described as the home of many. The gate to the compound is always open, encouraging a constant stream of visitors. Inside, stacks of boxes are filled with food parcels and on the tables are books and stationery for the children’s reading and writing clubs he hosts in his home.

Twala speaks in a voice that, although soft, demands attention. He has a wealth of knowledge that he does not mind sharing; he is a walking history book of the township.

His face lights up the moment he gets to chat to older people. During a drive through the township, Twala stops on 4th Avenue at 97-year-old Elizabeth Mataboge’s house. Twala recently built a toilet inside her home because she was struggling to get to the one outside. It’s clear that he has a soft spot for her — his face becomes more animated when he asks after her wellbeing and puts his arm around her shoulders. At the end of the conversation, he asks her what she’d like him to get her. He leaves with the promise that he’ll get her chips and meat, and a hug for the road.

(Hiram Alejandro Durán/M&G)

The beginning

Twala says his generosity started when a woman who was always visiting his mother died in 1967. He was 23. “The first person I buried was Rosie Tshabalala. When I was growing up, she would point at me with her walking stick and say, ‘You are going to bury me.’ The night she died, I couldn’t sleep the whole night. In the morning, people came to my mother and told her that the old lady had passed away. When I told my parents that I’d like to bury her, my father said, ‘Don’t be crazy. What do you know about burying people?’

“My mother stood by me and I said that although I didn’t have the money, I am good in carpentry and can make a coffin.”

Twala started the process of finding people who could help him with the funeral. A pastor at the St Hubert Catholic Church offered to bury Tshabalala, even though she hadn’t been a member of the church. Taxi owners helped with transport and a local undertaker handled the burial.

“On the day of the funeral, I was sitting in the church and my father came straight to me. I was scared, thinking he’s going to hit me, but he shook my hand and said: ‘Well done, son, you’re a man now.’ I was so happy. I started walking tall. This is where the passion for taking care of the elderly and the vulnerable started.”

Soon after Tshabalala’s funeral, Twala formed the Alexandra Society for the Care and Welfare of the Aged and Disabled Persons. “It was then that I started serving God’s children,” Twala says, clasping his hands together on the table of his home.

In Alex, Twala is still known as the man who buries people. He runs the Twala-Ama-Afrika funeral parlour but when someone dies who doesn’t have relatives, or a family can’t afford a funeral, he steps in and buries people for free.

But he is much more than an undertaker. When there is an emergency in Alexandra, he is the first respondent.

None of this seems to contribute to any heightened ego — Twala speaks more about the importance of the effect that he has, rather than on what it says about him. “I don’t regard myself as a leader or as someone who is high up. I always regard myself as a servant of God’s children. I was born to serve. When there are fire or flood victims, I am there. It’s my calling.”

Tough path to legendary status

Twala was involved with the ANC in the 1970s and 1980s, and used to hold political meetings, which were illegal then, in his house. These meetings would be attended by the likes of Paul Mashatile, a student activist and co-founder of the Alexandra Youth Congress during apartheid and now ANC treasurer-general, and Obed Bapela, who played an active role in the struggle and is now a Cabinet member. Unfortunately, these meetings were also attended by government informants.

“There were government informers among us that we didn’t know about. These informers told the police that during the day Twala gives out food and blankets to those in need, but at night he holds these meetings,” he says with a chuckle.

In 1986, his house was bombed by apartheid security forces. “I remember we were getting ready to unveil a few tombstones and there was an air of excitement. My children were in the house and they were happy. I left my house to go to 2nd Avenue [his mother’s then house] and on the way, I saw the police. After a short while, I got a call saying I must get out of Alex immediately because I am being looked for high and low and when I asked what was happening, I was told that my house was up in flames.”

Twala’s three daughters were able to escape the burning house and hide. “Everything was burnt in the house but the only thing that mattered to me is that my children were safe,” Twala says.

He decided that instead of rebuilding his house, he would build a “centre of excellence” and call it Phuthaditjhaba, which means gathering and taking caring of nations. 

Phuthaditjhaba, which Linda Twala built, houses a library, a gym, a music centre, a clinic and a feeding scheme. (Oupa Nkosi/M&G)

The result is an expansive double-storey building, which stands tall right in the middle of houses and shacks. With school holidays under way, the hallways are packed with children wearing a variety of coats and beanies against the morning chill.

Feeding stomachs and minds

The centre houses a feeding scheme for the elderly and children, a computer lab, a gym, library, music rooms with instruments like marimbas and drums, health services and early childhood development classes.

(Hiram Alejandro Durán/M&G)

The back wall of the main hall is peppered with photographs of Twala with prominent figures, including struggle icons Nelson Mandela, Adelaide Tambo and George Bizos as well as former United States president Bill Clinton. Clearly taking pride in the wall, he stops and gives a thorough explanation of each photograph — why the person was there and what happened that day.

Twala is involved in the day-to-day running of the centre, but people always crowd around him as soon as he steps out of his car. He takes this in his stride. On this Tuesday morning, he manages to order R30-worth of amagwinya for the centre’s staff from the woman making them outside, while also greeting and hugging a group of children who are pulling on his jacket.

When the bitter winter cold hit this week, Linda Twala and his grandchildren distributed food and blankets to people in Alexandra township. (Oupa Nkosi/M&G)

It’s evident that he has a sharp memory; when he talks to a group of abomama, older women, knitting in the main hall of the centre, he remembers each person’s name. Twala asks how they are recovering from various ailments. He also asks after their grandchildren, who are stressing them so much that they say their blood pressure is increasing.

It’s not just older people who have Twala’s heart; the young ones do too. He describes them as “our future leaders”.

“This centre came about when I said I’d rather live at my mother’s home and build a centre of excellence so that 10 years down the line, we are able to decrease crime in the community by meeting our children’s demands head on,” he explains.

Waving at a group of 12 children sitting in a circle in a classroom, he says: “Some of these children are going to end up in Parliament.”

(Hiram Alejandro Durán/M&G)

Aside from the Phuthaditjhaba Centre, Twala was involved in building the Alexandra Technical College, now a campus of the Johannesburg Central College. He also played a role in founding another centre called Thusong, which trains and develops the skills of young people.

Caring for the carer

“Do you know what my children did a while ago? I was so cross at them. They organised a surprise party for me when I was turning 70. When I got to the venue, there were placards saying happy birthday and I was so shocked.  Do you know how much they spent? R35 000! And I was worried thinking if they had given me that money, I would have spent it amongst our senior citizens and make sure they each get a food parcel to take home but I appreciate what they did because they recognised the work that I do.”

“Later again, my children organised a trip to Brits and told me that there is a meeting that I need to attend. I was there for three days. The first day, hao, they wanted to do a massage on me. I went in for the massage but I kept looking at my watch but the staff there were already told that I can be impatient so they knew how to deal with me. The second day, it was another massage again and I asked, ‘what is happening, when are we leaving?’”

“On the third day I discovered that these children bang’tholile, they really got me.  They just wanted me out of Alex, to be alone and get massages.”

Twala shakes his head and starts laughing. It is clear that he won’t forget these events.

Those are the extremes you have to go to for a man who is never truly alone.

The politics of today

As someone who has lived in Alex through the times of no electricity, the bucket system and when there was still a communal well, Twala has seen the township transform before his eyes and he doesn’t like how it stands.

“I’m not at all happy with the state of Alex right now,” Twala says as he points out the window at a view of shacks piled up on each other.

Alexandra has been in the spotlight since protests in April and June over the socio-economic conditions in the township, especially around issues such as housing, service provision and illegal occupation of land in the area. The protests have been championed by the #AlexTotalShutdown movement, which is made up of residents who say they have had enough.

Although he is hesitant to go in-depth about his thoughts on the movement and the recent spate of protests, Twala says his main issue is that there are people who are new to Alex who want to get housing and services before people who have been there for decades.

“When I was growing up, there were buses in Alex and when you were going somewhere, you stood at the back of the line and didn’t just go to the front. You lined up until it was your time to go on. It’s no longer like that. Everyone wants to be at the front and that is wrong because in Alex, there are people who got here first, a long time ago.

“Alexandra is the mother of all the townships but what’s happening right now is heartbreaking,” Twala says before taking a long pause. “This is not what we and our elders fought for.”

(Hiram Alejandro Durán/M&G)
Mashadi Kekana