Alexandra is one of the oldest townships in the country but has failed dismally to shake off its reputation as the ultimate face of urban poverty and squalor.
The 107-year-old northern Johannesburg township has become one half of the most disturbing popular narrative of the country’s unequal society.
The other half is Sandton, which is across the highway and boasts the best of the financial muscle the country has to offer.
City Press recently met up with Greater Alexandra Chamber of Commerce and Industry president Mpho Motsumi at the organisation’s offices in Wynberg, for a conversation about business in the famous township.
The 50-year-old organisation, which has 400 members and was founded by property owners, is now the custodian of the community’s business interests and even has interests in some of the businesses, including one of the malls.
“We are the biggest recipient of rural migration and that is because Sandton is the economic hub.
When people come to Gauteng, they opt for Alex because it’s close to the opportunities in Sandton. The economic disparity here is the worst in the country and that is partly because, since 1994, only Sandton was developed,” Motsumi said.
The neglect of the township is reflected not only in the historical planning but also in the current government’s own attitude towards the township, he said.
“We are the only black community along the Gautrain line. Gautrain’s Marlboro station is in Alexandra but it’s called Marlboro. It is also the only station that is not named after its location, as well as the only one without a feeder bus.
“This might not mean much to government, but to Alex it means a lot because there would also be economic spin-offs we could access and it would put us on the map too,” he said, adding that such issues are perpetuating the legacy of apartheid.
Motsumi said one of the more recent examples of neglect by government was the multimillion-rand Grayston bridge which spans the highway and connects the two areas.
“That money could have been used to develop Alex to be an economic attraction, like Soweto which has infrastructure. We need to have an amphitheatre and conference centre; we need to attract investment and see these Sandton corporates coming to host events here.”
Pointing out that Sandton was developed with labour from Alexandra, Motsumi said that big businesses in Sandton were not doing justice to the situation as they kept on overlooking opportunities to bring development to Alexandra and were also not giving opportunities to Alexandra businesses.
“Not even a single Alexandra business is responsible for facilities management in Sandton. It’s all white companies that are doing that.
“Sandton is what it is because of the community of Alex, from its establishment in around 1974. We have been consumers and all our money is spent in Sandton. They have been importing labour from Alex for a long time,” he said.
Motsumi said the infrastructure problem besetting the township was unique in that the inner township is underdeveloped but the outskirts have a lot of industrial properties, some of which have become white elephants.
“If the response does not come quickly from the corporate sector in Sandton, I foresee a challenge like the Arab Spring. We are sitting on a ticking time bomb because we have so many unemployed graduates, and for everybody in Alex seeing Sandton develop like that and yet we are excluded, it is not good,” he lamented.
Motsumi said that, among the biggest problems the small businesses of Alexandra face is the lack of access to opportunities, both in Sandton as well as in the shopping centres that have mushroomed in the township.
“Besides not even procuring from locals, another challenge with the malls is that our people can’t afford the rent in the malls so you need to accommodate them through stalls,” Motsumi said.
He emphasised that, unlike some of the townships in the province, Alexandra’s biggest challenge is not foreign-owned shops or malls, but it’s the government’s lack of appetite to develop the area, hence the recent shutdown protest.
“The foreigners trade and sleep at their shops and don’t even employ locals, but the problem should be addressed by government not us because it has the potential to cause tension. The private sector is equally important in finding solutions to that because the illicit products hurt their businesses.
“We can’t fight their battle for them while they benefit. We are all taxpayers but most of the foreigners trading here don’t pay tax,” he said, adding that the recent shutdown protest, which the chamber was part of, would also benefit the foreign nationals trading in the township.
He explained that the rich history of the township makes it ideal to develop as a tourism attraction. “We would be doing an injustice to the history of Alex if we didn’t tap into tourism.”
While his organisation already has plans to have a one-stop small business centre to develop small businesses in the area, he was disappointed at the rate at which government was cooperating.
On improving the township’s horrible residential spatial problems, Motsumi said government should acquire Frankenwald land, which is on the eastern end of the township and owned by Wits University, and use it for residential developments.
“We can’t be living in such conditions when Wits is sitting on a huge vacant area right here. We need to use it to de-densify.”
In line with its objective to revive the economy, the organisation has commissioned research into a green skills hub which would be developing small businesses operating in the green economy as well as a digital hub.
The research, which was conducted by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, indicates that the proposed Alexandra Green Sector Incubation Hub would be able to support and develop various sectors such as recycling and waste management, renewable energy, and automotive, as well as the alternative building material sector.