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Nelson Mandela's Alexandra Township

Photographer: Kim Ludbrook


Alexandra township, in Johannesburg, South Africa, or 'Alex' as it is known to dwellers in the urban living area - is one of the main townships on the edges of the capital and was built in the early 1900's to house nonwhite residents. Townships like Alex, Diepsloot and the more widely known Soweto (an English syllabic abbreviation for South Western Townships) were built outside the main white areas as a cornerstone of the country’s controversial Apartheid policy.


These townships were often the venues for many violent uprisings against the government as black South Africans fought for equal opportunities – the right to vote being one of them.


Despite being one of the poorest urban areas in the country 'Alex' today is a vibrant, colorful township with a livelier inter-active community than the most expensive real estate in Africa, Sandton City – just a stone's throw away. Its major connectivity to fame goes back to 1943 when Nelson Mandela stayed for a short time while studying at the University of South Africa. After having moved from his rural home of Qunu in the Eastern Cape, Mandela rented a room in the house of the Xhoma family before changing townships and moving to Soweto.


Clearly Alex has come a long way since the dark days of apartheid with satellite dishes as commonplace as motor cars, tarmacadam roads and while affluence is a long way off the spirit of ‘Ubuntu’ – or togetherness – still lives on. In contrast to the walled complexes and houses that are the hall mark of middle class Johannesburg, Alex boasts a colorful environment, both figuratively and literally speaking. The dwellers enjoy an open society; children playing games, adults enjoying dice and card games and a wide array of small businesses from fruit sellers to car washes and bars, etc. This in great contrast to the middle class walled estate with its barbed wire fences and private security guards.


The colors of Alex provide a reflection of the township’s vibrancy, generated by the painted walls of shops with their hand crafted advertising, and the colorful clothing worn by its dwellers.