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Alexandra and I

 article about Johannesburg
Johannesburg is a strange city. A friend of mine, who comes from
another South African city, often remarks on the way that Joburg seems
to be made up of a strange patchwork of urban and suburban areas that
makes no sense in terms of town planning. An industrial area may be
surrounded by either residential or commercial areas. Business and
commercial areas appear out of nowhere and, every now and then, an
affluent residential area sort of sneaks up and roosts in the middle of
it all.

One of Johannesburgs stranger occurrences is the
township. These were segregated areas where black residents of the city
were allowed to live back in the days of Apartheid and, to this day,
they are still the province of the countrys majority. No whites (or at
least incredibly few) call a township home, and these places have
become bastions of a bastardized Afro-European culture that has become
the norm for large sections of the black population. African custom and
European culture clashes here, gets all mixed up in the big boiling pot
of humanity and (with a large seasoning of American culture for
flavour) is brewed into the lifestyle of the average black South
African. They are, to many white citizens of the country, alien places.


I said that no whites call townships their home but, once upon a time,
I came close. It was a long time ago, in a place called Alexandra.


Nestled hard up against the affluent commercial and residential zones
of the Sandton area of Johannesburg in the eastern part of the mammoth
city, Alexandra is, to some, a blot on the landscape. Old, decrepit
housing and corrugated iron shacks line the filthy Jukskei river on the
western bank, while government sponsored low cost housing lines the
Eastern bank. On one side, away from Sandton, a busy highway stretches
through quasi-industrial and undeveloped areas. A vast number of people
call this river valley their home and their place of work. And many
people fear its reputation.

Alexandra has always been
considered a violent place by whites and blacks alike. A case recently
decided in Johannesburgs magistrate court sent a man to jail for life
for the brutal rape of a six year old girl, for example, but Alexandra
has calmed down to some degree. In years past it was a political hot
spot, with opposing parties meeting in often violent demonstrations of
their misunderstanding of South Africas fledgling democracy. Thats
where I come into the picture.

The year was 1991. The ANC and
IFP, two strongly opposed political parties with black leadership, were
gearing up for the inevitable changes that would come about in 1994
(with the election of Nelson Mandela as president.) All over
Johannesburg, township violence flared as ANC and IFP supporters voiced
their political views. The situation was getting incredibly tense and,
in an effort to try and subdue some of the violence, the South African
Defence Force was sent into the townships. Their role was largely a
peace keeping one the military took a back seat, offering support to
the police and assisting in bringing stability to the townships.
Theoretically, their mere presence should have been enough to calm the
situation down. In Alexandra, this actually worked to a large degree.
Unlike places like Thokoza, the military was well received in
Alexandra, and their presence helped bring an uneasy calm to the
township. This is not to say that violent episodes did not take place
because they did, but they were far fewer than before.

I had
finished my secondary schooling in 1990 and, as was the case with many
young men back then, I went from school straight into military service.
This was not my choice, mind you. Every white male (barring mental
illness or physical disability) that had completed schooling was
expected to perform military service. Just the year before the period
of service had been reduced from two years to one but the jail time for
refusing to perform military service was still six years. Not wishing
to add an extended stay in a penitentiary to my list of life
experiences, military service it was. I was drafted as a medic, and
after completing basic training, was sent to the Witwatersrand Medical
Command, the unit that covered Johannesburg and surrounding areas.

I
was a good soldier. I excelled. I got awards and decorations and
commendations. The result was, of course, that I ended up with the
worst of duties. When the military was sent into Alexandra and the
other townships, there I was, at the top of the list of candidates for
duty in these areas. Yes, there I was a scared eighteen year old boy
with three months training and a couple of civilian first aid and
paramedic certificates under my belt, being sent into a place that I
knew almost nothing about. See, white folks just didnt go to Alexandra.
It was, as I said before, a violent place and animosity towards whites
was rife. Add to that the bucket loads of gossip and rumours spread
about the place, and you will see my fear was well justified. I had no
idea what to expect and, judging by the first few nights I spent there,
I didnt think I was going to make it out alive. I barely slept those
first few nights. All around the sound of gunfire reverberated through
the night as politics were discussed and I could only comfort myself in
the knowledge that I was sleeping in an armour plated vehicle, and that
my assault rifle was nearby.

I am not going to regale you with
tons of thirteen year old army stories. Nothing could be more boring.
Lets just say that there were a great many interesting times. But I did
learn one thing about Alexandra in the time that I resided there inside
that sixteen ton armour plated military ambulance. Its a town full of
people ordinary people who were facing an extraordinary change in their
lives. While Alexandra was and is still a dangerous place, it is not a
den of thieves. There are elements in every society that are dangerous,
particularly when circumstances are against them. The thing that made
the greatest impression on me, though, was how many people treated me,
a white boy with a gun wearing the military uniform of a government
they had struggled against for so long, as a friend.

Alexandra, just the other day

The
other day I passed Alexandra in my travels. I stopped at the side of
the road, and took a photograph. I am not sure why. I cannot say that I
fell in love with Alexandra, because I didnt. I cannot say that I miss
it, because I dont. I cannot say that I long to return there, because I
never will. I guess it just comes down to one fact; I went into that
place, into the filth and squalor, into the poverty and hardship, a
terrified boy and I came out a little more of a man. I will always owe
that to Alexandra it taught me more about myself and other human beings
than any affluent suburb ever could.


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