Voices of the past echo into the present
August 15th, 2012
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I look out the window as the bus drives down 7th avenue. Most of the small houses - built snug against each other - are only wobbly structures of loose bricks, corrugated iron, cardboard and wood. Less common are bigger houses built from bricks, most with patches of plastering crumbling from the walls. Windowpanes squeak on rusty limp hinges, the glass broken and curtains bubble through the holes. There are no gardens, just rocks and gravel scattered from the front doors all the way into the dusty street. Wire fences that enclose these structures are only about a metre in height, draped with tarnished clothing and linen. A sad heaviness roots in my chest as I wonder how these people could live like this. But when I notice the smiling faces of the elderly and the playful and laughing children on the street corners, I realise that all is not lost and the beauty of this place is to be found in its residents.
“Past and present are integrated in Alexandria Township,” explains Anton Shaw, our tour guide. “It has a multi-ethnic African urban buzz. It’s not just a place, but an experience of its people where you can plug in and play, where anything can happen. A more prominent rags and riches contrast you won’t find anywhere in Gauteng. Alex might be grimy, noisy and rife with gangsterism but she has a proud anti-Apartheid history and a jazzy atmosphere that no amount of neon can emulate”.
I look at the brochure in my hands, and read the inscriptions: Alexandria was proclaimed as a township in 1905 and soon blossomed into a bustling community. In the 1960's it was one of the few places where black people could own property, and eventually the Apartheid government decided to exert greater control over it, considered the area ‘a hot bed’ of resistance. The government decided to remove the residents and replace their houses with hostels for migrant workers. After years of protest by residents, the decision was reversed and Alexandria (unlike Sophiatown) has survived.
Shaw continues, “This is where the struggling artists, writers and revolutionaries came from. These dusty backyards are where they drank and loved and plotted and fought and hid from the security police in the Apartheid days. In the streets you’ll feel the pulse of Africa and although it’s so close to Sandton with its first world control, none of it is found here.”
Shaw looks at the tourists, smiling with a twinkle in his eyes, “Today we will visit various heritage sites which carry memories of struggle, but the main attractions lie in the encounters with the people who live here. In the past, the arts flourished and gave rise to musicians like Boet Gashe, Zulu Boy Cele and his Jazz Maniacs, Zakes Nkosi, Ntemi Piliso, African Jazz Pioneers, and Dark City Sisters, Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masakela.”
I page through the brochure again: Writers and poets used their work to further the struggle. Mongane ‘Wally’ Serote’s words on how this form of resistance became an integral part of the struggle for liberation noted: “The marching footsteps of the workers, students and masses, were echoed through the poetry read at meetings, rallies, demonstrations and cultural functions.”
Jazz melodies come flowing from inside the building. From the pavement in front of a shebeen, poetry is recited by a 12-year old, wishing to follow in the footsteps of the pioneers. The scrawny boy, dressed in a Bafana-Bafana t-shirt, stands proud, reciting a poem by Ben Mhlongo, an Alexandria resident, poet and cultural activist that was published in ‘Down Memory Lane is Chandies’.
I get up, walk to the boy and stuff a R20 note into his fist. He smiles, “Thanks sister”, I return his smile, nod my head, and walk into the shebeen.
Shaw sits at a shaky steel table with some of the tourists drinking Black Label, listening to Shaw, “Jazz has come alive in the whole of Jozi. Every week tens of thousands flock to various parks, bars, restaurants, shebeens and community halls to enjoy this art form that was until recently considered old-fashioned. In the heart of the city’s entertainment Mecca, Newtown, is Kippies Jazz Club, named after the late saxophonist Kippie Morolong Moeketsi. Kippies has hosted a huge number of international and local jazz artists over the years.”
In Alexandra the past is forgotten and there is much more hope for the future. Even still amongst dire adversity, Alex’s people are smiling, laughing, and living a life filled with art, poetry, music, humour and the profound joy of simply being alive.
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