On 14 January 2012 I joined in the photowalk in Alexandra which was held by the Johannesburg Photowalkers. There were 2 major concerns: safety being one, and weather being the other. Originally we were going to meet in Wynburg and then convoy through to the Alexandra Heritage Center and walk from there, but as usual plans get changed and we ended up walking from our parking in 4th Street into Alex itself. I had last been in this area when I worked at Jensens in 1998 and Wynburg was familiar territory, but not the way I remembered it. I am not in a position to explore the history of Alex, because I do not know it, Alex is one of those places that is heard about, but never visited. My first real excursion was when I visited the West Bank Cemetery last year, and that was enough to tickle my interest.
The first major landmark is the bridge over “Pretoria Main Road” which is one of the major crossing points into the area. It’s a confusing intersection at best, but it’s made even worse by hordes of hooters with taxis attached.
From there its a short walk to the Pan Africa Shopping Centre where the sheer size of our party became evident as we seem to loose parts of it at the centre. No doubt purchases were made. This is also a major intersection for taxis and we spent quite a bit of time with the locals who were amazed at this crowd of camera bearing people who had descended on their lives. The noise level was high, with hooters, a taxi marshal and hordes of people all having their say together. It was the sort of frenetic buzz I had last heard in Hong Kong in 2010.
Our next destination was the Catholic Church which was on the corner of 1st Ave and Reverend Sam Buti Streets. Its a small haven of peace on this crazy corner. The first church was erected at that site in 1919, and there is a founders stone dated September 1930 on the church.
From there we headed South on 2nd Ave which had a distinct residential and tavernish feel about it. Concrete pylons were evidence of electricity in the area, and the streets, while pavements were run down and sometimes very littered, but people did not withdraw from us, rather they stared at amazement and seemed to enjoy the attention that had suddenly descended on them. Children were always amongst the first to come forward and the photographers were having a lot of fun. Our destination here was Holy Cross School which, like the Church, is an Alexandra Heritage Site.
It’s difficult to describe the building, it is old, it has a distinctly cheaply built look about it, but it exudes charm and history. It’s the sort of place that would do well in a Spaghetti Western, although it is in reality a centre of learning. It also houses the Alex FM 89.1 Radio Station.
I was able to see into quite a few classrooms, and I was left curious about what attending a class in this place was like, or, giving even teaching class at this school.
Our next port of call was the “Alexandra Health Community Committee” building at 95 2nd Ave. It is an Alexandra Heritage Site, and carries the date 1916 on the facade.
The building is next to an open area that was abuzz with activity too. And we spent some time here, just watching the people pass by. A passing goat also attracted much attention as did hordes of toddlers who posed for pics.
Also in 2nd Ave is the yet another Alex Heritage Site; The Alexandra Beer Hall, and we could imagine the goings on here at night!
It was around about here that I really gave up on trying to work out where I was in this labyrinth of streets as we turned down one street and headed into another.
I will be honest, I did not know what to expect when I came on this tour originally, but it was a fascinating place, with established houses, shacks, tiny yards, narrow streets, cars, people and everything in between. I saw more people in one block than I see in a week where I live. I don’t know how much privacy there is in a community like this, but I do know one thing, smiles abounded.
Kings Cinema on the corner of 2nd Ave, was established in the 1950’s and reminded me a lot of the old movie houses of my youth in Mayfair.
At this point it felt like we changed gear. The weather had already started turning, and we had a long way to go as we were about to head east, down towards the Women’s Hostel and deeper into Alex. As was explained, the problem is that when a woman has a son, he is only allowed to stay with his mother till he is 13 and then he has to leave, invariably joining in the mass of shacks that have grown up around this soulless building.
The shack area is huge, as is the hostel, and the surrounding environment is very run down and in serious need of a cleanup. I have no idea how people are able to navigate this maze of shacks, but evidently they do.
Clearing the hostel area we were then in a residential area, but heading towards the Alexandra Heritage Centre. I would hate to be lost here because finding your way out would be very difficult, but, I am sure that if you asked, somebody would help.
Close to the Heritage Centre is the place that would play an important part in Nelson Mandela’s past. The Anglican Church is where he ended up when he left home, living in the rectory for a time.
And, next to the church is where he lived in a room in the yard of Mr Xhoma.
The weather by now was ready to turn really nasty and we all headed off to the Heritage Centre where we prepared to be taxied away to our vehicles in Wynburg. We had covered a small part of Alex, had seen only a few of the many Heritage Sites, and had a small glimpse into the lives of the vast amount of people that make up our country. I suspect they only see tourists, because it is rare that those who live in the rarefied air of Sandton ever venture this far. I hope though that another tour will happen in Alex, I am reserving my seat that’s for sure.