Alexandra Renewal Project improving residents' lives

busy streets of AlexThe busy streets of Alex

New leisure facilities, sturdier schools and a more dependable electricity supply are just a few of the changes in Alexandra Township since the implementation of the Alexandra Renewal Project.

Since the Alexandra Renewal Project was implemented in 2001, the township has scored some successes, however, challenges, which the urban regeneration project is still grappling with, remain.

The once-dusty streets of the township have been replaced by tarred roads, and new houses have sprung up to replace shacks. The air of order in the area is a welcome one, making the 102-year old township a better place to live.

The Alexandra Renewal Project (ARP) was launched in February 2001 during then-President Thabo Mbeki's State of the Nation Address. The initial budget, R1.3-billion, was to be used over seven years to embark on an integrated development programme that would address housing, roads, water supply, sanitation and other infrastructure in the township. But the project continues, as Alexandra's population grows, and has required more investment.

Private sector investment has spearheaded developments such as Pan Africa and the Alex Plaza, which employ many Alexandra residents. Current projects include the Alex Mental Clinic, Botlhabela Village Phase 2, the River Park Housing Project and the M2 Phase 3 Development.

Despite these improvements, some residents (especially those that haven't benefitted from the upgrade) feel they haven't gained anything from the millions of rands that have been poured into developing the township.

Many residents who live in shacks still feel forgotten, left out from new developments sprouting up around them. Of contention is the issue of allocation of RDP houses mostly in the new housing developments in Extension 7, Extension 8 and River Park.

To exacerbate the situation, corruption and mismanagement charges have been levelled against some of the top managers on the project, leading to it suffering irreparable damage to its reputation.

About Alexandra

Alexandra Township, or Alex, is in Region E in the north-east of Johannesburg, close to wealthy Sandton.

Established in 1912 as a "native township", the area was one of very few in which black people could own land under a freehold title; this is because it was declared before the 1913 Land Act, which barred blacks from owning land. In 1912, some 30 000 people lived in the township.

Today the population in the township varies between 350 000 and 500 000 – far too many for the small space it occupies.

The first efforts to de-densify Alexandra began in 2001, tackling the almost 90 000 housing structures in Greater Alexandra, including Old Alexandra and relatively new areas such as the East Bank, the far East Bank, Marlboro Industrial, Wynberg, Kew and Marlboro Gardens.

Of these structures, 6000 were old bonded houses, 500 were new houses, 52 000 were backyard structures, 1800 were hostel rooms, 1490 were flats, 19 000 were public space shacks,

5000 were factory sub-divisions, and 4000 were formal units on the East Bank.

The ARP estimated that the township has a gross density of 450 structures per hectare and a net density of 770 structures per hectare.

Gross density refers to the number of households in areas zoned for housing and public space, while net density is what remains after all public space is discounted.

In the project's first phase in 2001, 11 000 residents were moved from the flood-prone banks of the Jukskei River to Bramfischerville, in Soweto, and to Diepsloot, north of Randburg.

During this phase, which ended in 2004, several housing projects were completed, including building 880 houses in River Park, 181 houses in Extension 8, 1400 units in Extension 7, 520 rented rooms on the East Bank, 52 RDP flats in Marlboro, 350 social housing units in Old Alexandra and 298 hostel rooms converted in Old Alexandra.

From 2005, the project built 9500 RDP houses, 5700 affordable rental houses, 2500 upgraded hostels, 2850 social housing units and 950 bonded and credit-linked houses to meet the original target of relocating 25 000 households from Old Alexandra.

From 2001 to 2008, the project pumped R1 965-million into developing Alex.

Julian Baskin, director of the Alexandra Renewal Project in 2006, had noted that the original estimate of R1.3-billion for the project was not feasible. He had pointed out that a simple RDP (reconstruction and development programme) house costs more than R90 000 and there were more than 22 000 households in need of decent accommodation.

"Calculations will tell you the total cost of building RDP houses amounts to well over R1.9 billion and the project is not only about providing housing, but is holistic and multi-disciplinary. A total overhaul of Alexandra will not take seven to 10 years. Alexandra is a long journey; a lifetime project of the City - and the ARP can only do what is possible within the stipulated seven years," he said.

While the project is still ongoing, it has been successful. By 2010, 11 250 housing units, including RDP, mixed rental, and social housing, had been built and handed over to beneficiaries. Roads, parks, schools and clinics had also been improved and the water supply stabilised. The sewer system had been upgraded and a new reservoir built in Linbro Park, a move that has stabilised water supply in Alex.

Alexandra residents now have access to decent recreational facilities; the Alexandra Stadium has been refurbished and the KwaBhekilanga athletic/rugby facility and the Altrek sports facility have been upgraded. Renovations have been made to a number of schools including Ekukhanyisweni Primary School, which had been built using asbestos walls around classrooms. Most of these schools now have multi-purpose netball, volleyball and basketball courts.

However, the difference between opulent Sandton, just a stone's throw away, and the daily reality of Alex residents' lives, is glaring. While Sandton residents enjoy flush toilets, regular waste pick-up and sturdy accommodation, in old Alex most households still use portable toilets, dirty water flows freely in the streets, and the uncollected garbage has led to a huge rat problem, which the local authority is trying to tackle by deploying owls in the township.

It will definitely take more than just a few short years to improve Alexandra Township to offer its residents a far better standard of living.