#TotalShutdownAlex: Politics, protest and power
Alexandra residents took to the streets more than six months ago to protest against poor service delivery and overcrowding. As investigations continue into living conditions and alleged corruption in the township, Daily Maverick returns to dissect the diverging interests in Alex and the painful by-products of protests.
Leonard Hlongwane stood in the yard that wrapped around his property, and looked at his home on the Marlboro Gardens edge of Alexandra. He moved there 20 years ago with his mother and family from the township’s Second Avenue.
The 51-year-old had dignity at the new property. He installed a toilet, the roof didn’t leak, his family had privacy and his kids could play in the yard. For the first time, he had his own bedroom.
Looking over the skeleton of his burnt home, where his children and some of his grandchildren had lived, Hlongwane shook his head. He was homeless, he had let his family down.
Hlongwane didn’t participate in the #TotalShutdownAlex protests in April and June 2019, but he was caught up in them.
The cycle of struggle and protest continued in Alexandra long after apartheid ended. People come to the township from all over South Africa and abroad, some yesterday and others 100 years ago. It’s a melting pot of different and sometimes conflicting aspirations in an environment of government neglect.
When they lived on Second Avenue in the 1970s and 1980s, Hlongwane’s family shared a bucket toilet with neighbours and up to 10 people slept in a room. “It was very bad because a neighbour would be so close to you, with just a sheet dividing another family and another family,” he said.
Thousands of housing opportunities have been built by the government in the democratic era as the township has expanded. Some infrastructure such as roads, clinics and social and economic centres have been built or upgraded, but much of Alex still suffers from poor service delivery and some long-time residents complain that they continue to live in dilapidated and cramped conditions while outsiders have received new houses.
“As the Total Shutdown movement we started based as the concerned residents who were facing some severe challenges,” said #TotalShutdownAlex convenor Sandile Mavundla.
“It was the issue of illegal structures. It was the issue of lack of service delivery. It was the lack of development within the greater Alexandra community. As you can see when you go inside, it’s squalor and then there are still unresolved disputes regarding who’s owning what in Alexandra.”
Sewage runs in some of Alex’s oldest streets, which are poorly maintained and scattered with potholes. The severe lack of housing has led to the proliferation of backyard rooms and informal settlements.
A recent study found the area’s infrastructure could not support Alex’s estimated population of 250,000 to 300,000 residents. Unlike many other townships, Alex began as a freehold town and is located close to work opportunities in Sandton and Johannesburg’s northern suburbs. The population continues to increase, with infrastructure unable to keep pace.
In November 2018, Mavundla and his comrades called a public meeting to discuss their grievances. They met with the councillor of Ward 105, which runs alongside the N3 highway, but felt the City of Johannesburg wasn’t taking their issues seriously. In February, they submitted a memorandum giving the municipality 21 days to respond. When it lapsed, they decided to plan a march.
“It’s then we said, ‘Guys, there’s only one solution. When you want to be here in South Africa, you go to mass struggle,’” said Mavundla.
Early on the morning of 3 April 2019, protestors blocked roads and burnt tyres. There were skirmishes with the police, who fired rubber bullets and teargas and arrested multiple people. The province’s education boss said students missed eight school days in the week-long protest.
#TotalShutdownAlex became an elections issue. Protestors demanded then-mayor Herman Mashaba visit and address their concerns. He refused. A number of local ANC leaders were part of the protest and Mashaba said it was orchestrated by the ANC to embarrass his party, the DA, ahead of the 8 May general elections.
The ANC supported the protest, but denied it was an elections ploy. When President Cyril Ramaphosa addressed residents from a truck at Alexandra Stadium on 11 April, he said he was “disturbed” by the filth, waste and sewage in the streets and urged the local government to act. He wanted to come sooner, he said, but wanted to give Mashaba a chance to visit.
That was the first round.
Enforcing by-laws and demolishing informal or illegal structures (the terminology depends on who’s talking) was one of the protestors’ key demands. Ramaphosa said “houses built in the wrong places must be demolished”. Premier David Makhura said unlawfully-built structures would be demolished. For Mashaba, the alleged sale of “illegally occupied stands” was concerning, but he linked the problem to the ANC.
On 31 May, the JMPD and eviction company, Red Ants demolished over 80 houses built near the bank of the Jukskei. Monday Nyathi, 45, built his own house there two years prior.
“There was a vacancy. We saw the land and we see that we were struggling with a place to stay. There was no such thing as privacy. You sleep with an old man and old women while you are old as well,” he said, sitting in the rubble while a Gautrain passed over a nearby bridge.
“When we saw this opportunity, we grabbed it so that we could have our own structures. Actually, we were looking for privacy.”
JMPD officers and the Red Ants arrived in the morning without warning. Nyathi said the officers didn’t have time to present an eviction order. They broke the locks of houses with crowbars and didn’t give residents time to remove their belongings. Monday’s family had to split up and stay with friends and relatives.
“My wife is on the other side, myself, I am on the other side. We don’t have more accommodation here so that is why it is very hard for us to cope with this situation. Really, it’s very hard. We don’t know what to do,” said Nyathi, who said the local and provincial governments haven’t fulfilled promises to help those evicted.
Some evicted residents retaliated. One jumped Hlongwane’s fence and told his wife to leave – they were going to burn his house, which sits next to the settlement. Hlongwane did not know why he was targeted, but said the area had worsened since Nyathi and others built next door.
“Unfortunately, people started building houses illegally and all that, you know, starting connecting electricity illegally. Even our bills started going high,” said Hlongwane, his family was also staying with friends and relatives.
“I want to be honest with you, I would say f**k South Africa, go somewhere else. Because this made me feel like I’m not a South African. You know, I was born here. My life has been here. And at the end of the day, I’m a victim of such a situation.”
#TotalShutdownAlex returned to the streets in June 2019. While the municipality was enforcing a court order to evict residents like Nyathi and regularly evicted residents across the city, images of distress and destruction dominated the press and Mashaba’s administration was criticised for being callous. The mayor denied knowing about the demolition and promised to rebuild the houses.
Mavundla said protestors had celebrated the eviction and enforcement of by-laws. They returned to the street to oppose rebuilding the houses, especially while their grievances hadn’t been addressed, and because little had been achieved since their previous protest, despite promises from all levels of government.
Everyone blames the government and the politicians. The politicians blame each other. Politics, governance and development in Alex, like many other areas, are defined by a mix of self and party interest in an area that, according to Gauteng MEC for Human Settlements and Cooperative Governance Lebogang Maile, is an unsustainable legacy of apartheid.
Take the Alexandra Renewal Project, which former president Thabo Mbeki introduced in 2001, which was meant to upgrade living conditions and opportunities in Alex by addressing housing, social, economic and infrastructure issues.
With an estimated budget that started at R1.3-billion, thousands of houses were built, some infrastructure was upgraded, and thousands of families were relocated to other areas to reduce crowding.
The DA has accused the ANC of looting the funds. ANC members said the project’s budget was in the hundreds-of-millions rather than over a billion and had not been looted. (Mashaba has questioned whether both Maile and protest leader Mavundla had corruptly benefited, which they denied.)
The story, as always, gets more complicated.
The offices of the Alexandra Land and Property Owners’ Association sits next to the Alexandra Health Committee building, which was established in 1916 and formerly served as the administrative home of the township. The Owners’ Association’s Mothibi J Segopa sits in the organisation’s office, with news clippings and decade’s old photos of members on the walls.
“I was born and bred here in Alexandra. I’m the third generation of my family who came to Alex in 1925 and subsequent to that, they managed to start purchasing property in 1928 and we have settled in Alex for the rest of our lives,” he said.
White governments before and during apartheid carried out multiple studies on Alex’s viability and resolved to relocate the township, one of the few places black people had been able to buy property. Alex continued to grow, but from 1963, the apartheid government started expropriating property from 2,553 black owners, whose families have been fighting to regain control ever since.
Segopa explained the long history of dispossession and the fight for justice and redress. Owners submitted land claims, which came to little. With the Alexandra Renewal Project set to make vast changes to the township’s landscape, the Owners’ Association went to court and won an interdict to “prevent further destruction”, according to Segopa.
While the government at times violated the interdict, the interdict hampered its ability to implement the renewal project and develop the oldest parts of Alex.
He said housing developments on the other side of the Jukskei have not reduced Alex’s overcrowding and “illegal buildings or erection of shacks or illegal buildings has mushroomed”, which has increased crime. The historic owners believe they will be able to restore order once they get title deeds of their properties, on which many more people now live.
Mavundla admits #TotalShutdownAlex is yet to achieve much, although the council installed some speed bumps to prevent reckless driving.
“Both of them, the ANC, the DA, they are both useless if we still don’t see the service delivery on the ground why are we supposed to babysit politicians? This thing of being partisan, it’s always gonna kill the dignity of us as the people on the ground,” said Mavundla.
Nyathi, who is trying to rebuild his property, but is uncertain about the future, said: “Actually, like this, it will be a war, black against black, and we don’t need that. It’s been so long fighting each other. But if the government can interfere in the right way, things will be alright.”
Following the protests, the SA Human Rights Commission and Public Protector launched an inquiry into socio-economic conditions in Alex, their impact on residents’ rights, and whether officials are implicated in maladministration, abuse of power or corruption.
Concerned residents and politicians responsible for improving Alex have testified at the inquiry, which will reconvene in February before report writing will begin in April.
Government also established an inter-ministerial task team, including officials from all spheres of government, which has met with protestors and instructed the City of Johannesburg, which the DA recently lost to the ANC, to immediately deal with sewage spillage, illegal water and electricity connections and refuse removal.
Supporters of #TotalShutdownAlex are waiting for the SA Human Rights Commission to finish its work and to meet with the inter-ministerial task team in January 2020. Then, they will decide whether to return to the streets. DM
Additional reporting by Bheki Simelane