Posted On Friday, 15 February 2002 03:01 Published by
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BEARING FRUIT IN ALEX River Bank, a suburb of Alexandra township just outside Johannesburg, could be a model for urban renewal in SA.

River Bank, a suburb of Alexandra township just outside Johannesburg, could be a model for urban renewal in SA. About 2 000 modest, well-spaced homes in shades of green and ochre dot the suburb. Many have the beginnings of a garden.

Carien Engelbrecht . . . managing development projects in Alexandra

A year after its launch by President Thabo Mbeki as one of eight urban and 13 rural upgrade pilot projects (Current Affairs July 6 ), the work at Alex is gradually starting to bear fruit. Over the next 12 years, R1,3bn will be pumped into the 98-year-old area. Johannesburg Metro and the Gauteng government will pitch in with an additional R700m. If the project works, it will be extended nationwide.

River Bank is a middle-income area, where the unemployment rate is lower than the township's average of 60%. The gardens speak of aspiration and hope. Most of its residents are from the area once called Beirut, where followers of Inkatha and the ANC engaged in a bloody turf war in the early Nineties. An air of peace has replaced the foreboding.

'The trees are starting to grow above roof height,' says Alexandra Renewal Project programme manager Carien Engelbrecht. At the end of the month, gardening experts Keith Kirsten and Sam Mchunu will judge the best garden.

In essence, the Alex renewal project uses the skills of about 24 development specialists in a 12-year project that includes improved housing, town planning, welfare, education, health and security.

Each has a programme manager like Engelbrecht, who brings the strands together to achieve a development model that is not only about building houses, fitting taps and connecting electricity, but delivers a cohesive set of services by considering the social and economic peculiarities of an area.

On a tour of the area, Engelbrecht stops first on the banks of the Jukskei River, where children slide down the grassy banks and goats graze on the recently planted kikuyu. In the rainy season, the Jukskei floods, and shacks erected on its banks were perennially washed away. One of the project's first, politically sensitive tasks was to remove the shacks.

'There have been no attempts to re-occupy (the river bank),' says project spokesman and resident Mike Maile. 'And the grass we planted has created a green lung. Alex can breathe again.' Along the river's tributaries that snake through the township, people have built shacks on the culverts. These will be cleared.

Ironically, the area, named after one Alexandra Papenfus, and given to the city by her farmer husband as a white township, was rejected because it was too far from the city. Now the area, designed to accommodate 75 000, is bursting with 350 000 residents because of its proximity to the city. Studies show that almost half of Alex residents are transients, who come to look for work and leave when they find it.

Shelter in Alex is a mix of 4 000 small and middle-class houses, three large hostels and 34 000 shacks.

Housing and planning are the Alex Project's first challenge and, in addition to the suburban development at River Bank, 20 000 units are being built in different parts of the old township. Most of these will be rental accommodation, to cater for its transient population.

Another node that's ringing the changes is the retail area, called Pan-Africa, which is a bustle of taxis, hawkers and a row of formal shops that are always fully let. Pavements that used to be blocked to shoppers by hawkers' stalls have been cleared and the walkway extended. An old church is being refurbished as the official gateway to Alex, where tourists will stop off. A new justice precinct features a court house and refurbished police station.

With high unemployment, Alex has a correspondingly high crime rate. A second police station is due to open in the middle of old Alex at the end of the month.

The shadow, crime economy of Alex has led to a flight of firms from Kew, a commercial hub on Alex's flank, resulting in the loss of about 6 000 jobs. On London Road, between Kew and Alex, 'to let' signs hang from the shells of factories.

A business forum linked to the renewal project is trying to entice companies back to Kew. Hijackings are down and there is a plan to install closed circuit TV cameras in the commercial area.

Bringing them back will take some doing, but confidence is not completely lost. Workers are putting the finishing touches to a shopping centre near River Bank, which Maile says is already fully let.

The local economy is also being helped by a procurement policy that promotes local employment. This, says Engelbrecht, is expected to create 10 000 days of employment.

Publisher: Financial Mail
Source: Ferial Haffajee

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