#AlexTotalShutdown Protests Should Open Up Deeper Conversations About Townships

By Katlego Mereko

“The discerning eye will have no problem seeing how the Heaven that Sandton is maintains the Hell that is Alex and vice versa,” one thinker once mused. 

At the heart of the #AlexTotalShutdown protests is this nuanced analysis of the Sandton-Alexandra juxtaposition, but it continues to be largely eschewed in public discourse.

Earlier last week, demonstrations broke out just off the N3 highway, it was Alexandra residents. The residents were fed up with service delivery shortcomings and empty promises, they organised themselves into the protest, demanding DA’s Herman Mashaba, as the mayor since DA took office in 2016, to address their grievances. Dramatically, Mashaba is reported to have refused to visit the township, citing how he is too busy to visit the township.

Alexandra’s frustrations, though, goes well beyond DA’s helm in the city’s office, and they mirror conditions in other South African townships. The post-94 project failed at the fundamental stage of reflection – a thorough and honest reflection exhaustive of what colonialism, its systems, structures, institutions (physical or otherwise) and their aggravating expression, found in Apartheid, meant for the lives of the indigenous, and how to reverse ill birthed by that era of racialised oppression in the new dispensation. One of these structures are townships, historically erected a few kilometres from the cities to harness black labour. These hastily structured and cunningly engineered areas are largely overpopulated and in the face of job scarcity and government corruption, they become fertile ground for poverty, crime and health risks – common features in all townships. This means the idea of the indigenous people as subhuman is maintained, with townships posing as both historically black areas and colonial legacies.

Alexandra residents during the #AlexTotalShutdown protest

This contribution does not argue for the destruction of townships, but for a complete re-imagination of how urban areas are to be organised in a liberated South Africa. Instead, we have built and continue to build upon apartheid logic, making Steve Biko’s thoughts when he said “Township life alone makes it a miracle for anyone to live up to adulthood” relevant today as it was in the ‘70s. When asked in the 1976 BPC/SASO Trial what he meant by that statement, Biko related thus: 

“This refers to the degree of violence that one gets in townships, which tends to introduce a certain measure of uncertainty about what tomorrow will bring… When you are in a township it is dangerous to cross often from one street to the next, and yet as you grow up it is essential that kids must be sent on errands in and around the township. They meet up with these problems; rape and murder are very common aspects of our lives in the townships.”

Alex’s situation is exacerbated by the sickening opulence of the richest square mile in Africa, Sandton, which hovers haughtily and unashamedly over the squalor that is Alex, which is virtually a stone’s throw away. Sandton maintains the squalor of Alex through the exploitation of labour and Alex residents, more than just maintaining, sustain the opulence of Sandton by further enriching an already wealthy class of elite businesswoman/men who have little concern of the stark inequalities exhibited in their own backyard. It is even more disheartening when an entire mayor of Johannesburg can only “sympathise” with Alex residents. This is correctly seen as an insult, as Mashaba is seen as a person in the right position to make a difference. This has hitherto proven to be an obfuscation as residents await Mashaba’s fulfilment of their demands.

At a deeper level, the #AlexTotalShutdown protests are predicated on the land question. Clearly, the government lacks the kind of imagination that can effectively treat the restoration of land to its indigenous peoples in the best way possible. Hopefully, as residents continue to protest, a dialogue can spark that will theoretically exhaust the fundamental struggles in South Africa, using the right and opposite tools such as decolonial models and indigenous knowledge systems.


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