A project is reinvigorating the poverty-stricken township, one street at a time
If you want a stark illustration of why SA remains the most unequal country in the world, just travel the few kilometres from the heart of Sandton to the heart of Alexandra. Plush, first-world malls and skyscrapers in Sandton are in uncomfortable contrast to the poverty-stricken, litter-strewn streets of our third-world township.
South Africans might wish to turn a blind eye to this social disgrace, but we now have a workable strategy for tapping into the wealth and goodwill of Sandton to help catalyse the revival of impoverished Alex. Undaunted by the sheer scale of the challenge, we foresee a makeover through a brick-by-brick approach that we call: “Adopt a Block; Adopt a Street”.
A lot is being done, and there has been no shortage of false starts, but the results so far are inadequate. It’s not now as bad as it ever was; it’s worse. Alex remains a poor, overcrowded township with many social issues — largely stemming from growing and endemic unemployment. This poor area is almost part of Sandton — you can look down on us from the rooftop restaurants and plush penthouses. And some do, because we are worlds apart from Sandton.
Of course, this is not the first attempt to make a difference; others have tried but the sheer scale of what is needed means it is a drop in the proverbial bucket. However, we believe we have a strategy that can work, and is working. Earlier initiatives, such as the Alex Renewal Project, were driven by politics and so they failed, as have the numerous corporate social investment initiatives from caring corporates, which are certainly well-meaning but are not touching sides.
Despite all the desperate poverty, hunger and overcrowding there is a vibrant internal dynamic to Alex, into which we can tap, bringing hope and dignity to my fellow residents. But we will need help to help ourselves. The problems stem not only from the density in which people are crowded together in Alex, but by the lack of infrastructure to cope with this population density.
While there is a vibrancy in terms of the internal township economy Alex as a whole appears to be unfixable. But we are South Africans, and we have the drive and will to succeed. So we are aiming to do something tangible, impactful and meaningful — hence our Adopt a Block; Adopt a Street concept.
We foresee a partnership between the caring businesses of Sandton (and other nearby neighbourhoods) and the poor of Alex. The businesses in Sandton all employ people who come from Alex; it’s where these workers live. Alex is also a source of consumer demand for businesses in Sandton. So how do we start to make a real impact?
The idea of our Adopt a Block plan is not to fix all of Alex in one go — an impossible task — but to invite Sandton corporates to take on small, manageable, bite-size chunks. Why not find out where your most deserving workers live, and start there? The idea is not to solve Alex’s problems in their entirety, just a bit at a time. These pockets of excellence will be joined-up as we progress, and eventually more and more pieces of the jigsaw will be in place.
Start small and grow enormous. We have seen this strategy of starting with small pockets of improvement work in Braamfontein and the Johannesburg CBD. Where it has been applied with vision, determination and effort, it has succeeded. It has worked there and it can work in a township too.
The cumulative effect of scores of Sandton businesses stepping in and each doing something within their capability and capacity to improve small areas inside Alex will be an inspiration and spread to other sites of decay in other townships. In terms of look and feel and security, each component of the initiative will make a discernible difference, and eventually this should lead to improved economic opportunities.
In effect, we want the Sandton business community to provide catalytic leadership to an initiative that has as its departure point an engagement and supportive pact with the residents of a street, or a block, or even a single building. Of course, they will need to be aided and assisted by those community leaders within Alex that have thrown their weight behind our initiative. In practical terms we will be fixing, repairing, restoring and upgrading paving, perimeter walls, lighting and security, upgrading each neighbourhood through a dramatic improvement, making it safer for residents and a better place to do business.
All of this goes together with the second leg of our revival strategy — the Alexandra Investment Fund, which aims to offer investment support and the provision of direct channels through which the Alex business community can access capital to combine the physical rejuvenation of the township with economic upliftment and improved opportunities. The fund will assist with the upgrading and expansion of existing businesses, and with the provision of seed capital for start-up businesses. Any improvement to a neighbourhood improves business operating conditions and the prospect of commercial success of those businesses.
Our search for backing will also extend to surrounding areas, such as Rosebank, Melrose Arch, Wynberg industrial, Kew industrial, Marlboro, Modderfontein and Greenstone Park. As with Sandton, all of these business districts draw on Alexandra for staff. Even those that draw their domestic workers from Alex are invited to participate, however small their investment. Every little contribution really, really helps.
We are also bringing in the churches and other community associations within Alexandra to help us move towards our common goal, and we hope for improved support and resources from local and national governments. But we are apolitical — we have been let down too often by the empty promises of politicians.
The social pressures in Alex have reached crisis proportions as our residents have borne the brunt of Covid cutbacks, with small businesses and low-paid workers being the hardest hit. We started lockdown with hideously high unemployment, and now it is stratospheric. There is an urgent need for meaningful intervention to bring hope and opportunity, to stop township businesses from fleeing and opening elsewhere.
To get things moving we are planning an investment summit on May 11. The discussions will feature sustainable impactful projects, like redeveloping the Jukskei River.
Historians talk of Alexander the Great. It is time for 21st century South Africans to work together and make our Alex as great as we know it can be.
• Ruele is vice-president and vice-chair of the We Love Alexandra community makeover project.