In 1940, a 22-year old recently politicized Nelson Mandela found himself expelled from Fort Hare University for his involvement in a student strike. On the cusp of an unwanted arranged marriage, he escaped his home in the Eastern Cape for the promise of Johannesburg. Mandela ended up in Alexandra (or Alex), a sprawling township known as ‘Dark City’ because of its lack of electricity.
“Alexandra occupies a treasured place in my heart,” Mandela wrote in his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom.
“Life in Alexandra was exhilarating and precarious. Its atmosphere was alive, its spirit adventurous, its people resourceful. In spite of the hellish aspects of life in Alexandra, the township was also a kind of heaven.”
As the struggle continued, Mandela found himself in other neighbourhoods, including Orlando in Soweto. Later he was moved across the country where he spent 27 years in prison. After South Africa’s transition to democracy, and following his single term as president, Mandela moved back to Johannesburg, to what would be his final home in Houghton, a wealthy and opulent suburb north-east of the city centre.
Today, Alex is still steeped in crime and poverty. Steel shacks echo across the township, while refuse and rubbish litters many streets and alleyways.
Although Alex is just a 15-minute drive away from Houghton, Mandela’s first and last homes are, in many ways, still a world apart.