Nokukhanya Mntambo23 April 2024 | 10:15

30 years of democracy | Alex residents say living conditions 'a hellish nightmare of suffering and devastation'

Eyewitness News visited the township as part of our special coverage, shining a light on 30 years of democracy, and spoke to residents on poverty, unemployment, rampant crime, poor infrastructure, a housing shortage and a lack of resources.

30 years of democracy | Alex residents say living conditions 'a hellish nightmare of suffering and devastation'

Alexandra township and Sandton, juxtaposed by crippling levels of inequality. Picture: Eyewitness News

JOHANNESBURG - The fury of Alexandra residents north of Johannesburg is again in the spotlight as living conditions in one of the country’s oldest townships are on a downward spiral.

Poverty, unemployment, rampant crime, poor infrastructure, a housing shortage, and a lack of resources are among the toughest challenges faced by residents in the area.

The township’s degeneration makes South Africa’s wealth disparity even more obvious as neighboring Sandton continues to thrive.

Eyewitness News visited the township as part of our special coverage, shining a light on 30 years of democracy.

A simple drive from affluent Sandton to neighboring Alexandra township tells a story of the stark divide of wealth in the country.

The high-rise buildings, lush trees, fancy cars, suits, and ties you see in the richest square mile in Africa are entirely absent in Alex – where you’re immediately met with a strong stench of sewage, shacks, and crumbling roads.

The stretch of London Road from opulence to poverty is a bitter reminder of a neverending long walk to freedom for residents living in squalor. More than 100 years old, Alexandra makes no secret of its past as a casualty of spatial planning. And 30 years into democracy, Alex residents describe their living conditions as a hellish nightmare of suffering and devastation.

“Every time when I go out of the house, I have tears in my eyes. I see red, I see war. I’m very angry,” one resident said. "It’s so painful. It hurts to see a place like this,” said another, while a sickly woman said: “We live in harsh conditions.”

With the upcoming general elections, these residents say they refuse to be used as political pawns as parties revisit the area with promises of a better life.


Some residents in Alex are demanding answers from the City of Johannesburg about vacant containers as a housing crisis persists in the area.

Hundreds of government container homes were built as COVID-19 temporary shelters in 2020. The half-a-billion-rand project was earmarked for hostel residents during the pandemic. Four years on, and the structures remain idle.

The housing crisis and overcrowding in Alex are hard to ignore. There’s so little room that it’s difficult to tell where one home starts and where the other ends. The houses eat into the pavement – so much so that some front doors open onto the busy streets strewn with litter, tires, corrugated iron, and car parts.

Sewage follows you wherever you go – occasionally stuck in the bumps of the road and even filling up the potholes. Speeding cars on the skimpy roads have no sympathy as one competes with rats and neighbors for the little pavement that’s left. It almost feels claustrophobic.

Community leader, Thabo Mopasi, says the situation has become untenable.

“You go outside, there’s rotten water. People cooking there, throwing chicken feet there on the floor there, or the rats running inside the courts. The state is disastrous there.”

While tensions stew over the unbearable living conditions, questions remain about the housing containers that stick out like a sore thumb on your way in and out of Alex. Residents in need of some reprieve have found themselves at war with each other – fighting over the allocation of space at the container houses.

Attempts to occupy the vacant houses have been unsuccessful, often leading to violent clashes with police. Many are now homeless after being evicted again and left to brave the blistering cold with their belongings in hand.

“It’s been five years that these houses have been unoccupied, but we are forced to live in crowded homes. What’s happening here is shocking,” one homeless man told Eyewitness News. Residents say attempts to get answers from the city have been unsuccessful, leaving them with a decade-long unresolved crisis.


The failed Alexandra Renewal Project (ARP) is expected to haunt the African National Congress (ANC) in the upcoming general elections as residents bear the brunt of a lack of development in the area.

The project, which was announced by then-President Thabo Mbeki in 2001, was meant to address urbanisation and housing challenges in the township in the north of Johannesburg. But it has since been marred by controversy, with claims that over R1 billion earmarked for the ARP served as a slush fund for the ANC-led government.

The governing party has previously denied these claims.

In 2019, the socioeconomic challenges in Alex came to a head when the overcrowding and the mushrooming of illegal structures became unbearable for residents. Violent protests that rocked the area sent the City of Joburg into a tailspin. In the aftermath, an inquiry was launched.

The South African Human Rights Commission and the Office of the Public Protector found that there had been persistent failures on the part of the Gauteng provincial government and the City of Joburg in the implementation of the ARP. They ultimately recommended a probe by the Special Investigating Unit into allegations of corruption in the R1.3 billion project.

And yet, the infrastructure initially built to house about 70,000 people is still under immense pressure as it carries a load of almost half a million people. Mopasi says he doesn't believe help is coming.

"The issue of housing in Alexandra makes me very emotional because when it’s raining, their houses also rain, the mice go into the houses. It's a generational backlog - seven generations don't have houses, but they still go out there and vote for the incompetent government of the ANC into power."

While officials in government believe some strides have been made to improve on service delivery, Mopasi says there's little to show for 30 years of democracy.

“I see people betrayed, big time. South Africa has a lot of money, trillions spent here, but not for communities.”

Mopasi warned that Alex would spill over into parts of Sandton as the township continues to expand beyond its own means.


Director of the Southern Centre for Inequality at Wits University, Imraan Valodia, says policies to redress the country’s high levels of inequality need to target the lowest end of the income distribution spectrum.

The comments come amid renewed concerns that inequality in South Africa is the highest in the world and has showed little to no signs of abating. This despite progress made during 30 years of democracy.

Valodia says there are a number of factors driving up inequality, including stubborn unemployment, which currently sits at 32.1%.

“People of the lower incomes haven’t done that well so that jobs thing is part of the story, but I also think if we look at the levels of income for those who have jobs, especially those who work in the informal economy, they report really low incomes. I think there’s a multifaceted explanation for why inequality hasn’t gone down in the post-democratic period."

He believes interventions to address inequality need to include redistribution policies that will raise incomes at the bottom end of income distribution and more aggressive job creation.

“We need the growth process, but we also need to address inequality, so that we have the growth process. I think that kind of relationship, we need to think how it works both ways. That’s going to require the political system to address that issue, so I think we need leadership on that.”

Thirty years after apartheid, South Africa is still graded as the most unequal society on a list of 167 countries. Unemployment, very low wages, and a big gap in the income distribution are believed to be among the top three drivers behind the country’s widening inequality.

The disparities are evident in a number of areas, including Alexandra and neighboring Sandton in the north of Joburg, and in parts of Cape Town and Durban. In South Africa, the evidence suggests that income inequality has risen in the post-apartheid period.

Over the years, the country’s Gini coefficient has shot up to point 0.67. The Gini coefficient is a global measure of income distribution in a population, where 0 is perfect equality, and 1 is perfect inequality.

A 2022 report by the World Bank found that race played a determining factor in a society where 10% of the population owned more than 80% of the wealth.

Valodia says the high levels of inequality are in part a product of the unequal distribution of social and market power.

“I think it’s a real tragedy of post-apartheid South Africa that those patterns of inequality continue to be the case.”

Despite factors that reinforced inequality, Valodia said government had made headway in implementing interventions to address the crisis, including bolstering the social welfare system.

“South Africa would be a lot more unequal without that social transfer system. But the difficulty is that there’s only so much that one can do, and there’s a limit in how much one can fix the problem in that way – especially in countries from the global south, where you don’t have a large tax-to-GDP ratio.”

He said more policy interventions were needed to benefit those at the bottom end of the scale.

Struggle veteran and former ANC member, Trevor Manuel, again chastised the governing party for failing to address the country’s worsening socioeconomic challenges. But the triple threat of poverty, inequality, and unemployment continues to offset gains made in the past 30 years.

Manuel said he believed the ANC would be a hard sell at the 29 May polls, with poor judgment, inefficient policies, and corruption casting the party in a bad light.

“I agree with the view that it’s become exceedingly difficult for the ANC. It’s a challenge of incumbency, it’s a challenge of wasted opportunities. I agree with those that say that many opportunities have been wasted. And you add to that the difficulties of unemployment, inequality, poverty, and the fact that there’s so little communication with the people who need answers.”

Manuel’s honest account of the ANC previously landed him in hot water before cutting ties with the party.

In his latest rebuke, Manuel said the upcoming elections would be a telling moment for the country.

 “I think all of those things aggregate to a situation that makes that an unbelievably difficult election.”