The other day I was doing some research on Alexandra Township in Johannesburg, and came across a TripAdvisor review site. Some of the comments read:
“There is no reason to go to Alex. You can drive through it on London Road…”
“I do not even know why this would show on trip advisor. Do not go there this is one of the worst part of towns, and there is nothing to see”
“Lots of litter, waste water, goats, chickens & rats & shanty houses encroach onto street, along a through way road from N1 highway to Sandton. Creating a sad visual first time impression of Alex for tourists that pass that way from the airport.”
“Before going to Johannesburg, I got tons of warnings which all said different variations of ‘whatever you do, don’t go to Alexandra’. Supposedly it was the most dangerous place in the supposedly dangerous city of Johannesburg, and if going there I would for sure get killed, or if I was lucky I would get away with just being robbed – that was the common opinion.”
I also heard many variations on this same message during my time here in South Africa. Warnings abound all over the country, especially in Johannesburg, specifically in connection with areas where Black people live and congregate. Comments like these always strike me as narrow-minded and unimaginative, even if they carry a kernel of truth. After all, people—real people with real lives, who move through the day just like any of us—live in these communities. Individuals with distinct identities, talents, struggles and hopes. These blanket statements immediately erase any possibility that anything good or transformative could exist within the walls of such blighted communities.
South African townships, or “locations” as they are sometimes referred to by locals, were created by the leaders and drivers of apartheid in South Africa. During the apartheid era, these areas housed all non-white residents (namely Black and Indian), keeping them separate and apart from the White race. Blacks were forcibly removed from areas deemed to be “Whites only,” and made to settle in these townships, often established on the periphery of major towns and cities.
Nearly three decades after the dismantling of the apartheid system, segregation by race and class still continues to define South Africa’s social and economic landscape. More than half of the country’s 53 million residents, almost all of whom are Black, still live in townships. And in the span of these three decades, townships continue to suffer neglect, leading to high levels of poverty and unemployment, crime, crumbling infrastructure, and a lack of basic services.
Hence the warnings.
But on the flip side of that reality are the thousands of people who get up everyday to go to work, sometimes commuting up to two hours each way; mothers who, despite the sub-standard education they received during the apartheid era, now push their children to study every night after supper; families and neighbors that gather every week or every month to socialize and strengthen bonds, and offer support to one another; eldest siblings who take their earnings, no matter how meager, to buy food for their entire family and help pay for a younger sibling’s school books or their parents’ medical bills; a young man busy hustling on the corner, selling candy or cigarettes, to drum up money for transportation to school in the city; students who wake up at 4:00am Monday to Friday to prepare for a full 8-hour day of studying and working at Maharishi Institute (where I volunteer), and then come back on Saturdays and Sundays to spend the entire day in a financial markets course, because they have a vision for the future.
Townships are not nameless and faceless black holes, no matter how they may appear from the outside.
People like Paul Maluleke, featured in our first video, prove that hope and creativity and innovation are alive and well in Alexandra Township. He and his community partners embody a spirit of sheer determination and resilience you’d be hard pressed to find in any leafy suburb. Marcia Mofokeng from Katlehong Township, featured in our next video, battles some pretty fierce headwinds as she works to carve out a future for herself, her family, and her employees through her township business.
And township entrepreneurship is growing, as Wendy Mothata points out in her article this month. Driven mostly by necessity—unemployment is ridiculously high—people are increasingly tapping into their creative resources to find ways to make ends meet and build a better future.
Instead of dismissing these communities out of hand and regarding them with contempt and fear, why don’t we stop and take a closer look, and then find ways to join in the efforts already underway?
We invite you to contact us if you would like to learn more about these township initiatives, or to find out how to get involved. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.