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Alexandria, South Africa

Obed Bapela


Obed Bapela, city leader

Obed Bapela was a hero during the anti-apartheid movement. Today his mission is to help rebuild the city.

"Alexandria has a number of challenges," says Bapela "and the immediate challenges is to deal with overcrowding in our area and also develop the houses that are as old as 50 years old and to build new houses so that people can live in habitable places."

"The pride that people want is to live in a better place. The pride of the people is to see themselves living in houses, that they can say, 'It's ours,' they own them — so that it could be a community at peace with itself."

Thembisile Makgalemele


Thembisile Makgalemele, Alexandria resident

Thembisile Makgalemele is a successful journalist. Like most of her neighbors, she cannot imagine living anywhere else.

"It's not something that is tangible," says Makgalemele "but when I'm in Alex, I feel that I'm at home. I may go to other places, but there is something that brings me back. You know, it's a feeling of being home."

South Africa is a country dominated by the timeless rhythms of nature and the diversity of life found in the rolling hills of endless green. South Africa is also a tired woman selling corn by the side of the road, an immigrant father struggling to provide for his family, tribal celebrations in urban settlements and young children finding pleasures in small things. South Africa is anguish; South Africa is joy despite its pain. But above all else, South Africa is defined by the legacy of apartheid.

Rural village in South Africa

Rural village in South Africa

It meant fifty years of bloodshed and violent protests against an official government policy of racism. For blacks — who make up 75 percent of the nation's population — apartheid meant years of sorrow and the tearing apart of families. Men were forced to live in overcrowded work camps near large urban industrial centers. Women and children were relocated to rural settlements on environmentally marginal land where life was hard and brutally cruel. In 1994, the long struggle was finally won and blacks took control of a newly elected democratic government.

Despite the victory of independence, little change has come to rural South Africa.

Apartheid left hundreds of villages like eSizameleni without significant commerce or job opportunities. A local lumber mill employs 52 people — there hasn't been a job opening for nearly a year.

A few lucky ones find work in an open pit magnesium mine. A team of bulldozers slowly expose the remains of a mineral-rich slag heap, then workers move in, competing with each other to collect the largest bits of ore. Paid by the ounce, the most agile barely earn 30 cents an hour. The work is extremely dangerous. But what choice do these people have? Nearly a decade after the fall of apartheid, they remain victims of a racist policy that located heavy industries near black townships with other few opportunities, in effect creating indentured work camps.

Workers in magnesium pit

Workers in magnesium pit

Today, the work camps have been replaced by urban centers like Alexandria. Less than a square mile in area, this is a vibrant city of nearly half a million people. Not long ago blacks couldn't own shops, and no one could enter or leave the city without written permission. But, Alexandria has become a success story — a place that makes the most of post apartheid freedom.

But the city is not without problems — its sewage and water infrastructure was designed for 40,000, not the 500,000 who now live here. Trash removal is sporadic. Very little is left of nature.

Each year tens of thousands of migrants from the impoverished countryside pour into Alexandria, ringing the city with illegal shanties. For years the local river was heavily polluted and the neighborhood was rampant with disease, particularly cholera. Recently the city decided to do something about the problem, and the shanties were torn down as part of a 180 million dollar government initiative to build new homes, schools and health facilities.

Sunday church service

Sunday church service

Sunday mornings in the township of Alexandra, families gather together and slowly make their way towards neighboring houses of worship. This is a time when people join together to give thanks that their lives are slowly improving.



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