The story of Alexandra and Sandton is a story of the most stark divide of wealth in South Africa.
Sandton, as all South Africans know, is a name synonymous with wealth, opulence, finance, and white flight. The Johannesburg Stock Exchange is located here, as is Sandton City shopping centre, Sandton Convention Centre, headquarters of various companies, a polo club, and a residential heart that purports “Manhattan-style living”.
Sandton benefited from the urban decay of central Johannesburg during the 1990s. It became an alternative, attractive, and safe area for business to operate, and is now considered the financial centre of South Africa, and therefore, one of the major financial centres of Africa.
Less than a kilometer away, across the M1 highway, sits the former township of Alexandra, an icon of apartheid-era urban planning, and former home to several famous struggle heroes including Nelson Mandela.
From an aerial view, Alex appears as if carved from stone. It’s almost treeless, contrasting sharply with the leafy parks and avenues of Sandton. The streets are laid out in a perfect grid, but within those grids, shacks fill every gap, every contour. Huge hostel complexes, once proposed to house all of Alexandra’s inhabitants, now loom like megaliths within the urban structure. The township itself is almost a perfect square, blatantly visible from any map view you choose.
That’s the most surprising thing to me about Alex. The impression of order, even precision, in an urban structure which encompasses, in part, disorder.
The City of Johannesburg is actively trying to redress the spatial separation caused by apartheid urban planning. One of those projects is the Corridors of Freedom project (http://www.corridorsoffreedom.co.za).
The bridge in the photograph is one of two being built, which will carry bus rapid transit and pedestrians from Alexandra to Sandton. Thousands of commuters make this trip each day, on thoroughfares not designed to carry heavy pedestrian traffic. Bridges such as these, in theory, will ease the access and improve the safety of commuters to Sandton.
But the problem of inequality will persist without major structural changes to an economic and architectural environment that favors wealthy and previously privileged individuals and companies. Above, a small informal settlement exists in the middle of Innisfree Park, overlooking the wealthiest part of Sandton City.