Long road through Alex


Children playing in the dusty streets ran after the car shouting "Mhlungu! Mhlungu!" I turned to wave and grins broke out across their faces. It’s not often that I’m conscious of my whiteness, but it’s hard not to stand out in Alexandra.

Driving into Alex from Pretoria Main Road is akin to hopping across an astral plane. It’s hard to believe that this is still the Johannesburg I grew up in.

Street names are few and far between. A set of traffic lights does not work and many of the roads are wide enough for the passage of a single vehicle, made narrower because Alex drivers stop in the course of their journey to chat, shop or pick up more passengers.

Speed bumps slow down the traffic, although the bumps are unnecessary, as Alex residents seem to meet in the streets to exchange gossip and news, which makes sure that you cannot drive faster than 10km/h anyway.

African melting pot
A sprawling township built along the banks of the Jukskei river a short distance away from Johannesburg’s wealthiest suburbs, 'Alex' is a melting pot of people. The houses themselves are a window to the lives of the millions of South Africans who live there.

Houses are built almost on top of each other; out of tin and whatever other material comes to hand. Taverns abound; each road seems to have at least two taverns, signs brazenly displayed on the outside.

Negotiating a path around Alex requires dexterity, and politeness. Taxi drivers will let you in, and children playing soccer in the streets will move out of your way as long as you are polite about it.

Crossing over the Jukskei opens up another side to Alexandra, the houses are larger and built out of brick and not tin. One or two have satellite dishes and the houses have gardens. There is more space here, room to live and breath away from the claustrophobic streets we drove through.

We stop on the side of the road, without pulling over, to ask directions from residents, navigating is made all the more harder because there are no street names on this side of the river at all. Streets in the map book are named, but I long ago gave up trying to work out the correlation between the map and the town.

Compared to Alex the place, the map is dull, flat and lifeless. So much more fun to navigate without the useless map. After an hour of stopping, questioning, turning around and getting lost we find our destination. Along the way, we drive past a woman carrying a headless chicken, several street-side stalls selling everything from haircuts to sleep and many people ambling in the streets.

The surface of the roads differs, some are dirt, some tar and some are even cobbled. Many of the roads are passages that lead nowhere and roads are not laid out in a grid format. Alex residents make up for this; they will tell you how to get out of a complicated ‘cul-de-sac’ or how to get where you need to be without batting an eyelid.

Driving back out of Alex, we get caught up in a traffic jam caused by the end of an evening service. Cars hoot at each other and impatient drivers form another lane. The road is barely wide enough for two lanes, let alone three with the crush of people standing on the pavements congesting the road more.

An afternoon in Alex would not be complete without dinner at a local tavern, we do an illegal u-turn and park on the side of the road outside ‘Joe’s Butchery’. Once inside we buy some fresh boerewors and a beer each from a man standing behind a heavily secured counter.

Patrons have the option of cooking meat themselves, or having it cooked for them. The beers are pricy but the meat is good value for money. There are no plates, eating is done standing up or at a table picking meat up off a polystyrene container without knives, or forks. Jazz is playing softly from inside and the patrons are all relaxed, and seem to know each other.

It’s dark when we step out of the tavern, there are no streetlights in Alex and I blindly follow all the other vehicles in the hope that one of them is heading back up the main road. The roads twist and turn and after turning back a few times we make it out.

Leaving the vibrancy behind to go home was a deflating experience. Days afterwards I was still reminiscing about Alex and the people and the words “Mhlungu! Mhlungu!” still ring in my head and I long to spend more time there getting to know more of the colourful locals.

  • When it comes to safety aspects in Alex, drive carefully. Residents do not take lightly to being hit by a car.
  • I’ve been told to not drive with a seatbelt on, in case of a hi-jacking attempt and make sure you travel with someone who speaks Zulu. Directions are impossible unless you speak the language.
  • Also, unlike me, make sure you leave while it is light.
  • For more information on Alexandra township, visit the Alexandra renewal project.