Pushing ahead with Alex Heritage Centre

alex heritage centre1 640The JDA is preparing to complete the stalled Alexandra Heritage Centre building

The JDA has got behind the Alexandra Heritage Centre, and will complete the building and set up an operational plan for the museum and small business hub.

Mandela's YardMandela's Yard: Nelson Mandela lived here in 1941-42Alexandra, the small, teeming township in Joburg's north-east, occupies an important place in the history of the city of gold. Established in 1912, it has witnessed a lot of life over the years, from the bus boycotts of the 1950s to the first home of Nelson Mandela in Gauteng.

Over a hundred heritage sites have been identified in Alexandra, which was once colloquially known as Dark City because it had no electricity. These sites acknowledge individuals, groups and historic events in the 102-year-old township - it is home to over 400 000 people, among whom was jazz maestro Hugh Masekela. But perhaps the most significant site is Mandela's Yard, which contains a single back room in a house at 46 Seventh Avenue, owned by the Xhoma family. Mandela lived here for a short while in 1941 and 1942, when he moved to the city from his home in rural Transkei. A blue heritage plaque marks the spot.

Across the road from Mandela's Yard is the Alexandra Heritage Centre (AHC), a space for learning more about the history and culture of the township specifically, and Joburg in general. Together, they form an important historical triangle. The Johannesburg Development Agency has been appointed by the national Department of Tourism to manage the project to complete the building works of the centre; it will also help the department drawn up an operational plan.

The project was initiated in 2003, but building was stalled by various challenges and has not been completed, according to Tanduxolo Ntoyi, the development manager at the JDA. Now the agency is preparing to complete the building, and will do the finishes. "The centre was started some years ago, but was not completed. We plan to complete the project and have got the go-ahead following a structural investigation that the building is sound and construction work can continue," said Ntoyi.

"Once finished, most of the activity will be on the ground floor, where there will be space for small businesses and traders in artworks and other items. Upstairs, there will be a museum focusing on the history of Alexandra and a small conference centre."

The JDA wants the public to have 100% ownership of the centre, starting with contracting local construction groups and workers to see the building to completion.

At the AHC, it seeks to capture the rich and diverse history of Alex - as the township is fondly known - showcasing it to locals and tourists. Among plans for the facility are mini workshops for local small, medium and micro enterprises in the arts and culture industry, an exhibition area and facilities for training and development.

At the Mandela's Room and Yard site, there is a natural flow across the intersection of Seventh and Richard Baloyi streets, to the AHC diagonally opposite. The Mandela's Yard Pavilion and the entrance to and the exit from the centre form a triangle that makes the intersection a place of importance.

Mandela quotes, lazer cut in steel plate and each of four metres long, are attached to the entrance columns of the Mandela's Yard Pavilion and can be read at eye level:

  • "The people of Alexandra played no small part in the brave struggle for a democratic, non-sexist, non-racial society. Among other things, you will forever be remembered for that marathon 'Azikhwelwa' bus boycott of the late fifties."
  • "Life in Alexandra was exhilarating and precarious. Its atmosphere was alive, its spirit adventurous, its people resourceful."
  • "Alexandra occupies a treasure place in my heart. It was the first place I ever lived away from home."

At the AHC, ramps accessed from the street draw people to the upper level exhibition space, from where the dense urban roofscape can be seen. The designers, Peter Rich Architects, explain: "From here one can look down into two new public spaces created on both sides of the street, contained by wings housing entrepreneurial activity and training facilities. These multi-functional spaces are designed to be the sites of political and social events. Just as the 'spaces between' the yards are active, so there is no residual space in the centre. Uses overlap and interact: a fifth dimension is created under the building; space becomes street and street is reconfigured as space."

About Mandela’s Yard, Ntoyi added that negotiations were under way with the residents to boost its heritage potential; however, the focus for now was on the centre.

To mark Alex's centenary two years ago, a decision was taken to grow the township as a tourism destination. The AHC and Mandela's Yard were among the prominent places earmarked for redevelopment in this drive. The City of Joburg describes the heritage centre as something of an architectural masterpiece and a potential tourist attraction that will create a substantial amount of jobs if used properly.