Alexandra is history - the history of a people in search of meaning and dignity in the ruthless Johannesburg of the Apartheid era. Alexandra is mother – mother of children spread within and beyond. Alexandra is reality - the reality of life daily lived in the face of death. Alexandra is metaphor – a metaphor for what it meant to be simple and black in Apartheid South Africa. Alexandra is irony – the irony of beauty in the midst of squalor; the irony of poverty existing 5 minutes away from the opulent wealth of Sandton. Alexandra is a witch – she bewitches all those who have been touched by her. Alexandra is a fountain – a fountain of talent and creativity. Think of Mahlathini Nkabinde, Zakes Nkosi, Caiphus Semenya, the Dark City Sisters, Theo ‘the Black Panther’ Mthembu, Nelson Mandela, Joe Modise, Zanele Mbeki, Wally Serote. What do they have in common? Alexandra. They are all children of Alexandra! Alexandra is symbol – symbol of defiance, symbol of resilience, symbol of the triumph of the human spirit.
Alexandra is a square mile of densely-packed urban housing north of Johannesburg. It was originally outside the Johannesburg municipal area, but Johannesburg has now expanded to incorporate it. I grew up not far from Alexandra, in a place we called Sunningdale, though it is called something else today. I Lived there from the age of 7 to 13, and in other places not far away, until I was 24. We lived on a 5-acre smallholding, with cows and chickens, and I used to accompany my mother on her daily rounds as she sold eggs, cream and butter in the neighbouring Johannesburg suburbs of Sandringham and Sydenham. We had horses and I used to ride with friends over the open veld opposite Alexandra, across the Jukskei river. Today it is all built up, and the traffic-clogged N3 highway cuts the area in half.
Back then, in the 1950s, Alexandra had a reputation among those outside as an evil place, the home of gangsters. As I grew up I looked on the Jukskei River as the border between good and evil. On the east was the open veld, with the fressh air and the cry of kiewetjies nesting in the bracken. Across the river was the dark city of sin, covered with an evil-smelling pall of coal smoke, its mean streets infested with gangsters, or so we had been told.
One day, while riding on horseback with a friend, we saw a group of Zionists baptising people in the river. We stopped to watch, and the man who was preaching, an impressive looking figure with a bushy beard, whom I thought of as Jeremiah because he looked like a prophet, switched to English, seeing these white kids watching. They urged us to cross the river, which we did, and after the service they invited us back to tea. And so I entered the mean streets of Alexandra for the first time. There were dongas down the streets, which were open drains, or perhaps sewers. There was rubbish lying around, and broken-down cars with no wheels or engines, with children playing in them. The houses, mostly 40 years old, were built of clinker brick, shabby and poorly maintained. In most of the backyards there were corrugated-iron shanties with more people living in them. Then we tied up the horses outside a house and went into the spotless kitchen that looked like a furniture store catalogue. We sat down to tea at the kitchen table and talked to the leader of the group, not the bearded prophet, but a clean-shaven man called Moshe Moloto. We talked about theology, and what impressed me was that they did not talk down to us, as kids, but that they treated us like fellow human beings. I visited them again several times, alone or with my friend, and also wrote letters to Moshe Moloto.
And so I discovered that, though there may have been gangsters in Alex, the vast majority of the people living there were ordinary people, trying to live good lives, and make a living in difficult circumstances.
A few years later there was a bus boycott in Alexandra. Putco, the bus company, had raised the fares, and the people refused to pay, and preferred to walk to work in Johannesburg, 11 miles away. I had read about this in Alan Paton's novel Cry the beloved country, where he described a similar bus boycott that had taken place ten years earlier, in the 1940s. The newspapers blamed the boycott on "agitators" and "intimidation". My mother would sometimes stop and give some of the weary boycotters a lift to town, or home again. Lots of white motorists did so, and the Johannesburg traffic cops were very diligent about stopping such motorits and trying to find an excuse to give them tickets. That was the only intimidation I saw.
One day I went from my boarding school into town to go to the dentist. My mother was supposed to pick me up afterwards and take me back to school, but forgot, and I found myself walking home with the bus boycotters. So I experienced what it was like, though I had only half the distance to go, and also had not had to walk into town in the morning.
After leaving school I became involved in the Anglican parish of Orange Grove, which had a youth group affiliated to the Anglican Young People's Association (AYPA). The neighbouring parish to the north was St Michael's, Alexandra, and we helped them to form an AYPA branch there as well, and went to speak to them about it. What stuck us about it was the sense of friendship and fellowship among the Alexandra youth. The priest from there, Fr Jacob Namo, came to St Augustine's Church in Orange Grove to celebrate Midnight Mass at Christmas one year, and my mother and I took him home afterwards, through the ghostly streets with moonlight gleaming on the water in the open drains at 2 am on Christmas morning, and thought that it was in such a poor and unpretentious place that Jesus was born, and that in the friendliness of the people in the church there we could see Christ incarnate in our world today.
So reading Tinyiko's piece brought back many memories, and in what he has written, and the poem by Wally Serote that he quotes, I think he has captured soemthing of the essence of the place, at least as I experienced it. In many ways it was a horrible place, a decaying crumbling slum, with a reputation for crime. And yet it had such wonderful people, through whom the love of God shone. Gangsters there may have been, but I never met them. The people I met made me think of Christmas -- the light shone in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
And I read Tinyiko's piece and was reminded of this, and then I looked at my diary for 40 years ago today. I was about to go to Namibia, and was spending a couple of days with John Davies, the Anglican chaplain at Wits university, and his family. Perhaps it's worth reproducing in full, as it captures some things about those days I had half forgotten. By way of explanation, "Sprocas" was the Study Project on Christianity in Apartheid Society, which was set up after the Message to the People of South Africa had been published the previous year, denouncing apartheid as a false gospel, and so worse than a heresy.
Sunday, 17 August 1969
We went to Mass at St Michael's in Alexandra, driving there through thick early morning smog. It is many years since I have been to Alex. Saw Jacob Namo, the priest. He didn't remember me. John celebrated and I preached and read some parts of the service in Zulu. There were many servers and much holy smoke, and it was very lively. I felt quite at home here. It seems that one must either have elaborate ceremonial and colourful vestments or else be completely informal. The drab colourless formality of the Missions to Seamen chapel I could not stand.
Afterwards we fetched a Methodist minister from the church in Alexandra, and he went off with John to the Sprocas theological commission. Later in the morning Shirley and I took Mark and Elizabeth to the zoo, and looked around at gemsbok, and spider monkeys doing acrobatics, and such things. We rode there and back in the double-deck one-man operated Daimlers with automatic coupon-punching machines. Quite good vehicles. Later we went out to get ice cream at the Dairy Den.
John said he had great doubts about his role in the Sprocas theological commission, and said he felt at a disadvantage, being less of an academic theologian than most of the others. With people like Ben Engelbrecht, he felt that the only thing that enabled them to carry on talking to each other was the fact that they both arrived at the same conclusions, though by completely different routes. He said that at the session yesterday he had received an envelope on which was written "For John Davies. For guaranteed results. Has never been known to fail". On opening it, he found a broken comb inside. Thinking it came from Calvin Cook, he went outside and found a large screw, and put that in an envelope, and sent it to Calvin, after writing on it "on using the implement you provided, this came out of my brain. Reality is an illusion caused by a deficiency of hidden presuppositions". Then Calvin denied responsibility for the comb, and they found it had come from Ben Engelbrecht.
In the evening, another eucharist, this time in the Davies's house, with many students. It was altogether informal, sitting on the floor, with no vestments, and using the new South African liturgy - the first time I have seen it used. It is really very good - as good as the Liturgy for Africa, and very much better than the English Series II thing, though the intercessions have a similar pattern. I again made an offering of a word from the Lord, expounding about "if any man is in Christ, he is a new creation" from the Epistle, and then asked for, and got, some feedback, including actions by Peter Beukes to demonstrate a feeling of freedom. We sang with Charles Murcott accompanying on guitar, and ended up singing "When the saints go marching in" and all dancing round.