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PAIA, 2000 (Act 2 of 2000) 

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Two presidents and a first lady Print E-mail
22 June 2012

Some rather illustrious people have called Alexandra home over the years, among them Nelson Mandela, Kgalema Motlanthe and Zanele Mbeki.

ALEXANDRA has always been a special place; it has also been a place of special people, among them two presidents and a first lady.

The house in Alex where Nelson Mandela stayed is still in its original stateThe house in Alex where Nelson Mandela stayed is still in its original stateOne president, Kgalema Motlanthe, was born there and lived his first 10 years in the township. Former first lady Zanele Mbeki was also born there. And South Africa’s favourite and most illustrious citizen, Nelson Mandela, spent a year there when he first came to live in Johannesburg.

All three have left their significant marks on the country, and Alexandra residents take pride in having hosted them.

Nelson Mandela
South Africa’s first democratic president, Mandela united a fraught and fearful South Africa in 1994 and beyond, bringing together blacks and whites when the country was living through violent and troubled times.

His legacy is enormous, the most tangible evidence in the form of the Nelson Mandela Foundation and the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund.

Mandela’s connection with Alexandra Township dates back to 1941, when, at the age of 23, he moved from Transkei to Joburg, to further his studies to become an attorney. He stayed in a backyard room of the house of Mr Xhoma at 46 Seventh Avenue, while he worked as an articled clerk at the law firm of Witkin, Sidelsky and Eidelman.

He was completing his BA degree at Unisa, and had been recommended to the firm by Walter Sisulu, whom he met shortly after arriving in the city.

Xhoma owned his own house in Alexandra. He had six children and to make ends meet, he built “a tin-roofed room at the back of his property, no more than a shack, with a dirt floor, no heat, no electricity, no running water”, recounts Mandela in his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom.

“But it was a place of my own and I was happy to have it.”

A slum
Mandela describes the township as being a slum, neglected by the authorities despite there being some “handsome buildings”. “The roads are unpaved and dirty, and filled with hungry, undernourished children scampering around half-naked.”

Smoke filled the air, pools of stinking water collected in the roads, and because it had no electricity and was known as “Dark City”, night time could be risky. “Walking home at night was perilous, for there were no lights, the silence pierced by yells, laughter and occasional gunfire. So different from the darkness of the Transkei, which seemed to envelop one in a welcome embrace.”

Mandela describes the gangsters or tsotsis who ruled the township at night, with their guns and knives. They were colourful characters who patterned their dress code on American movie stars, wearing double-breasted suits, wide ties and fedoras.

Police raids were commonplace, and residents were harassed for pass violations, illegal liquor and failure to pay toll tax. “On almost every corner there were shebeens, illegal saloons that were shacks where home-brewed beer was served.”

But despite this, life in Alex was also “a kind of heaven”. “Alexandra was an urban Promised Land, evidence that a section of our people had broken their ties with the rural areas and become permanent city-dwellers.”

An eye opener
Life in Alex was an eye opener for Mandela – he learnt about solidarity beyond ethnic identities, he fell in love several times, and he learnt to live on a meagre salary of £2 a week. He often had only one hot meal a week, provided by Mrs Xhoma on Sundays, otherwise surviving on bread for the rest of the week. He would often walk to and from the inner city, a distance of almost 20 kilometres, to save money to buy food and candles, a necessity for his evening study.

“Alexandra occupies a treasured place in my heart. It was the first place I ever lived away from home,” Mandela reminisced. He lived in the township for about a year.

“Even though I was later to live in Orlando, a small section of Soweto, for a far longer period than I did in Alexandra, I always regarded Alexandra Township as a home where I had no specific house and Orlando as a place where I had a house but no home.”

He came back briefly to Alex in 1943, to join marchers in the bus boycott, a protest against a pence rise in bus fares. The boycott had a significant effect on Mandela.

“I found that to march with one’s people was exhilarating and inspiring. But I was also impressed by the boycott’s effectiveness: after nine days, during which the buses ran empty, the company reinstated the fare to four pence.”

Today the room where he lived and the yard are a heritage site and, directly opposite the room, the Nelson Mandela Interpretation Centre has been built.

Kgalema Motlanthe
Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe was born in Alex on 19 July 1949, the eldest of six children, reports Politicsweb in a 2008 article. His mother was a washer woman; she later worked in a clothing factory. His father worked for Anglo American.

Deputy president Kgalema MotlantheDeputy president Kgalema Motlanthe was born in AlexWhen he was 10 years old, his family moved to Meadowlands in Soweto. “The formative influence in his early years was the church,” states Politicsweb. He served as an altar boy for many years, and considered becoming a priest at one point.

He matriculated from Orlando High School and got a job with the Johannesburg city council. “They had what they called the commercial department, which was a glorified name for bottle stores and agricultural marketing in the townships. I worked for about seven years as a supervisor of the Johannesburg council bottle-stores in the townships,” he said.

Motlanthe was an excellent soccer player and played for the Spa Sporting Club in Pretoria and Rockville Hungry Lions in Soweto. At about this time he was recruited into Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), the military wing of the ANC, and “formed part of a unit tasked with recruiting comrades for military training”, according to the ANC website.

His job description was later changed to sabotage, and his unit became involved in smuggling MK cadres in and out of the country.

Robben Island
In April 1976, two months before the 16 June uprisings of that year, Motlanthe was arrested and incarcerated at the notorious John Vorster Square in downtown Joburg for 11 months. The following year he was found guilty of three charges under the Terrorism Act and sentenced to 10 years on Robben Island.

Politicsweb reports that he said of those years: “We were a community of people who ranged from the totally illiterate to people who could very easily have been professors at universities. We shared basically everything. The years out there were the most productive years in one’s life, we were able to read, we read all the material that came our way, took an interest in the lives of people even in the remotest corners of this world. To me those years gave meaning to life.”

He was released in 1987 and joined the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), where he was education officer. Five years later he was elected general secretary of the massive union.

“He was instrumental in negotiating a deal for mineworkers under which their wage increases would be pegged to productivity at a time when the gold price was low, and the industry was closing marginal mines. This deal helped to avert massive retrenchments in the sector,” reports the ANC website.

When the party was unbanned in 1990, he was made chairman of its PWV (Pretoria-Witwatersrand-Vereeniging) region but he stepped down in September 1991 to devote more time to his NUM work. Then, in 1997, he was elected secretary-general of the ANC, a position he retained in 2002.

In December 2007, he became deputy president of the party, and in July 2008 he was appointed minister in the Presidency. When then president Thabo Mbeki was recalled in September of that year, Motlanthe was sworn in as president, a position he held for some eight months. After the May 2009, elections he was sworn in as deputy president under President Jacob Zuma.

Zanele Mbeki
Zanele Mbeki, wife of the former president, was born in Alexandra in 1938, one of six girls. Her father was a Methodist priest in the township, her mother a dressmaker.

Zanele Mbeki during Alex's 90th anniversary celebrations Zanele Mbeki during celebrations of Alex's 90 years Her parents were originally from Vryheid in northern KwaZulu-Natal, and she was sent as a boarder to the Catholic Inkamana Academy in the town, for her schooling, records Mark Gevisser in Thabo Mbeki: The Dream Deferred.

Mbeki, whose maiden name is Dlamini, studied to be a social worker at Wits University. After completing her four-year degree she worked for three years for Anglo American as a caseworker in Zambia. She then moved to London where she met her husband. She worked in the British capital as a psychiatric social worker at Guy’s Hospital, and also at the Marlborough Day Hospital. She enrolled at the London School of Economics, where she obtained a diploma in social policy and administration in 1968, indicates Gevisser.

“Despite Zanele Dlamini’s clear adherence to the ideology of liberation, she was different to Thabo Mbeki in that she came into exile not, primarily to join the struggle, but to develop herself intellectually and professionally in a way that was impossible back home.”

She became increasingly involved in the ANC but was also concerned about women and their liberation. She spent time at Brandeis University in the US to complete post-graduate studies in social work, and she would “write fluently, in the ANC journals, about feminism and African liberation”.

In 1974, Zanele and Thabo Mbeki were married at Farnham Castle in Surrey in England, the home of her older sister. Soon afterwards, the couple moved to Lusaka, which was their base until they returned to South Africa in 1990, when they bought a flat in Riviera in Johannesburg.

In Lusaka, the ANC connected her with the International University Education Fund (IUEF), a Swedish-funded organisation that was involved in scholarships for black South Africans. She was asked to set up its Lusaka office.

She was elected to the ANC Women’s League structures, particularly to the editorial committee of the Voice of Women. But she continued to work for the IUEF until 1981, when it closed down. She lectured at the University of Zambia for several years.

When she returned to South Africa, Mbeki founded the Women’s Development Bank, offering microfinance for unbanked rural women.

And in 1999, when her husband became president, she became first lady of South Africa. Gevisser says she performed her role with “particular aplomb, renowned not only for her social grace and elegance, but her very sharp intellect. She could hold her own with any head of state.”

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Last Updated on 22 June 2012