Alex shutdown reopens old divisions and old wounds

The notion of ‘insiders’ versus ‘outsiders’ has shaped the politics in Joburg’s Alexandra township for generations. Now, in the lead-up to elections, it is being rekindled and repurposed.

A “total shutdown” of Alexandra yesterday ended in a face-off between hundreds of residents and a heavy police presence under the Gautrain bridge near Marlboro station in northern Johannesburg.

The smouldering carcasses of burned tyres lined John Brand Street and other areas of the township that had been shut down since the early hours of the morning. In the stretches between these ashy heaps, makeshift soccer teams of young boys – missing school for the day – used any surviving tyres as goal posts.

Protesters voiced a wide range of frustrations that included unattended crime, crumbling infrastructure, inadequate services, a lack of housing, overcrowding and an alleged concentration of migrants living in Alex. There appeared to be a common frustration among the protesters at township “outsiders” benefiting from government developments at the expense of “insiders”.

For Hendrick Khumalo, 45, the division was largely between people who, like him, were born in Alex and those who were not. Khumalo told New Frame that “we need Alexandra to come back, like it was”. He recalled a time when it was safe to walk the township’s streets at night. In the 1980s, Alex was “a very nice and a clean place”, said Khumalo. “It was not full like this,” he said, gesturing to Alex’s density.

Johnny Sibiya, 43, said that “we are fighting to restore Alexandra back”. Like Khumalo, Sibiya felt neglected considering that he was born in the township. “Alexandrians are the bona fides of Alex,” he said. “There are people who are born in Alex … People like myself. I was born in Alex.”

3 April 2019: Alexandra residents carry a mock machine gun while protesting near the Gautrain’s Marlboro station.

Bona fide residents

The idea of a bona fide Alex resident has a long history, which began in early 20th-century legislation that distinguished Africans who qualified for residence in South Africa’s cities from those consigned to migrancy.

In his contribution to Exorcising the Demons Within, a book responding to the xenophobic violence that ripped through South Africa in May 2008, Noor Nieftagodien, who heads the History Workshop at the University of the Witwatersrand, suggested that the idea of a bona fide resident had been endlessly reappropriated, at times mobilised opportunistically towards “a politics of exclusion” and violence in the township.

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Alex has been a preferred destination since the early 20th century for migrants from within and beyond South Africa’s borders looking for a foothold in Johannesburg. At the same time, the spectre of xenophobia has haunted the township. While the horrific violence of 2008 is well documented, anti-migrant incidents were recorded in Alex as early as January 1995.

Elements of yesterday’s shutdown focused less on Alex bona fides and held more explicit views against migrants in the township from from outside of South African. Protesters like Happy Buthelezi, 30, were frustrated less with residents not born in Alex and more with residents not born in South Africa.

He was taking part in the shutdown because he “wants a job and a house, because this is my country”. Buthelezi, who makes a living from piece jobs, alleged that “foreigners” in Alex accept lower wages than South Africans.

The City responds

Joburg mayor Herman Mashaba, occupied with “executive commitments”, did not arrive to address the Alex protesters. He did, however, find time for a Power FM interview earlier in the day. The mayor said he sympathised with many of their concerns, despite them apparently being “driven by the ANC”.

Part of the solution, said Mashaba, is tighter border control. “We cannot allow a situation where our borders are porous,” he said. Echoing statements made by President Cyril Ramaphosa in Durban last week, Mashaba claimed that “everybody comes to this country because they know South Africa is a red cross”.

Protesters were as incensed by Mashaba’s absence as they were by the eventual arrival of the most senior City of Joburg official to address the shutdown, member of the mayoral committee for public safety Yao-Heng Michael Sun. As a Gautrain zoomed overhead, some protesters quipped that the only reason any politician had come to address them was because they had managed to shut down operations at the train’s Marlboro station.

Sun’s address, from on top of a police nyala armoured car, was quickly drowned out by a crudely racist chorus from one group among the protesters.

3 April 2019: Johnny Sibiya holds the casings of two rubber bullets fired at protesters by the police earlier in the day.

An inconvenient political marriage

Sources in the municipality have told New Frame that the DA component of Joburg’s governing coalition has been hamstrung by its need to secure EFF council votes. It was a view with which the local ANC structures, which endorsed the shutdown, agreed. ANC zonal secretary Banele Sangcozi said the EFF “has the DA by the balls” in council.

Sun told New Frame that “[Joburg is] a very difficult council we have to run … We are dependent [on the support of other parties] on some of the issues.” Sun highlighted the difference between the “values and principles” of the DA and the “values and position of the EFF”.

Like Mashaba, however, Sun said the protester’s concerns were fuelled in the main by decades of ANC governance.

The cleavages in party politics playing out in Joburg’s city council, and among high-ranking officials, were not as obvious among the protesters.

Sibiya, for instance, scoffed at the idea that the protest was party political. It was addressed at “everybody in government”, he said. Both Joburg’s current DA-led and former ANC administration “have forgotten about Alex”, said Sibiya. “It’s just like a dumping [site] … We need desperately [for them] to improve the lives of Alexandrians.”

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