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Mandela's 1st township home shows lack of progress

Saturday - 12/7/2013, 3:30pm  ET

A man with ANC shirt walks in front of the entrance of former South African president Nelson Mandela's first township home in Alexandra in Johannesburg, Saturday, Dec. 7, 2013. Mandela moves to the house at Alexandra in 1941. South Africa is readying itself for the arrival of a flood of world leaders for the memorial service and funeral of Nelson Mandela as thousands of mourners continued to flock to sites around the country Saturday to pay homage to the freedom struggle icon. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)

Associated Press

JOHANNESBURG (AP) -- A silver and blue plaque with the words "Mandela's Place" mounted on the brick wall of a small, dilapidated row house is the only recognition of the world-famous statesman who lived there when he was in his early 20s: Nelson Mandela.

There aren't even any signs in the sprawling Alexandra township to help visitors find their way along trash-strewn streets to get to the house. But the dusty and dangerous slum itself serves as a bleak reminder that nearly 20 years after Mandela became president, many of South Africa's black communities remain mired in poverty.

A trickle of poor Alexandra residents and their children showed up on Saturday to pay their respects to the anti-apartheid champion at a makeshift shrine with a few dozen candles stuck in the ground, two bundles of wilting flowers nearby and three posters of Mandela.

Some signed a book of condolences set atop a card table by Nomalizo Xhoma, the great-granddaughter of the man who owned the house and took in borders, including Mandela.

"I'm so sad because he was our father and did so many things for us, fighting for us when people beat us during apartheid," said Pheello Mahlaba, 11. "I'm proud to be from the same neighborhood where he lived."

The promise of a better life has largely evaded the square-mile Alexandra township. The shabby area is in dramatic contrast to the wealthy, mostly white, Sandton suburb of Johannesburg, whose high-rise towers glisten just across a highway.

Alexandra's hundreds of thousands of residents occupy an area meant for less than 100,000 and get by with scarce electricity, toilets that serve more than a dozen families, high unemployment, crime and rampant drug use. A project aimed at showcasing the neighborhood's rich anti-apartheid history was abandoned years after its construction.

This is not the dynamic South Africa celebrated by tourists and world leaders. Residents say Mandela would be disappointed by the lack of progress since the end of apartheid.

"He won't be satisfied because the place, I can say, it's now a disaster," says Emmanuel Mangena, a community development worker at an alcohol and drug counseling center in Alexandra.

Mandela moved to Alexandra in 1941 when he was 23 and the township's residents were challenging white-minority rule. Mandela participated in bus boycotts here.

He stayed in Alexandra until 1943, describing the house in his autobiography as "no more than a shack, with a dirt floor, no heat, no electricity, no running water. But it was a place of my own and I was happy to have it ...

"Alexandra occupies a treasured place in my heart," Mandela said in the book, "Long Walk to Freedom." ''It was the first place I ever lived away from home. 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."

The area surrounding Mandela's other home in Soweto, Johannesburg's most famous township, is a bustling tourist attraction. Thousands of foreign tourists flock to see the bed where Mandela once slept and the Soweto museum is surrounded by vendors, artists and dancers.

That activity is conspicuously absent in Alexandra, where many people live in shacks and restaurants often consist of vendors cooking meat on ramshackle portable grills set up on crumbling sidewalks.

"There are few townships, including Soweto, that have such a rich history of the struggle for freedom. If one looks at the key moments in the struggle against white majority rule, Alexandra was in the forefront," says Noor Nieftagodien, who co-authored a book on the history of Alexandra and teaches at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. "There's a sense among (Alexandra residents) that they played such an important role. And people there will say they gave birth to Mandela the radical politician. It completely transformed him."

"The lack of development of the old Alexandra is an indictment of the new South Africa," Nieftagodien said.

South Africa has come a long way since overcoming apartheid, but it has a long way to go. The country still has a faltering education system and an uneven record on providing basic services, along with allegations of corruption and cronyism. The gulf remains wide between the wealthy white minority and millions of blacks mired in poverty.

Alexandra is typical of townships across South Africa where unemployment is even higher than the national average of 25.2 percent. The rate in Alex, as it is called, is nearly 40 percent, estimates Nieftagodien.

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