Kya Sands and Bloubosrand.

Johannesburg's history is deeply intertwined with the gold rush of the late 19th century, which transformed a small mining camp into South Africa's bustling economic hub. Black laborers were mistreated and unwelcome in the city, leading to a system of exclusion and spatial apartheid that is a forerunner to the more notorious policies of the 1950s. You could say the DNA of the racial divides of the city, and the country, began here, amongst the tailings dumps and uranium dust of the mines.
 Under apartheid, the affluent predominantly white population resided in the city centre, while the Black African and Coloured communities were forcibly relocated to townships on the outskirts. Famous townships like Soweto (which means "South-West Township") and Alexandra are home to hundreds of thousands of South Africans, many living in squalor, while the riches of a first-world city lie dazzling close. In the case of Alexandra, the "richest square mile" in Africa lies just over the M1 highway, close but impossible to achieve for almost everyone in that dense square of population. 
Johannesburg is also the center of the province of Gauteng, South Africa's economic and population powerhouse. You cannot understand the country without understanding Gauteng, and the multitude of languages, nations, and types of people represented make this an incredibly diverse and unique part of Africa, and the world. 

The famous women's hostel in Alexandra, Johannesburg, South Africa. 

Alexandra in 2016.

Alexandra now. Informal settlements continually adapt, change, and morph to suit their environment.

The M1 highway bisecting Alexandra from the wealthy enclave of Sandton, in Johannesburg, South Africa. 

The story of Alexandra and Sandton is a story of the most stark divide of wealth in South Africa. Sandton is a name synonymous with wealth, opulence, finance, and white flight. The Johannesburg Stock Exchange is located here, as is Sandton City shopping centre, Sandton Convention Centre, headquarters of various companies, a polo club, and a residential heart that purports “Manhattan-style living”.   
Sandton benefited from the urban decay of central Johannesburg during the 1990s. It became an alternative, attractive, and safe area for business to operate, and is now considered the financial centre of South Africa, and therefore, one of the major financial centres of Africa.  
Less than a kilometer away, across the M1 highway, sits the former township of Alexandra, an icon of apartheid-era urban planning, and former home to several famous struggle heroes including Nelson Mandela.
From an aerial view, Alex appears as if carved from stone. It’s almost treeless, contrasting sharply with the leafy parks and avenues of Sandton. The streets are laid out in a perfect grid, but within those grids, shacks fill every gap, every contour. Huge hostel complexes, once proposed to house all of Alexandra’s inhabitants, now loom like megaliths within the urban structure.  The township itself is almost a perfect square, blatantly visible from any map view you choose.  

Massive hostels, built to control and house black workers in the early 20th century, still stand in Alexandra, just kilometers from Sandton, "The Richest Square Mile" in Africa. 

An alphabet soup of apartment buildings in Alexandra. 

Primrose and Makause. The informal area on the right is home to over 30,000 residents living on top of a disused gold mine.

Johannesburg's gold mines, once symbols of wealth, now exacerbate inequality through environmental damage. Abandoned mines like this one, near Soweto, pollute water sources and air with harmful substances like uranium, disproportionately affecting impoverished communities living nearby. This environmental injustice widens the socio-economic divide, as poorer residents bear the brunt of health risks without receiving benefits from the mining wealth.

The Klein Jukskei river and its tributaries split this scene, north of Johannesburg, between the informal settlement of Msawawa and the Cedar Creek Estates.

Near Tembisa.

Mooifontein Cemetery next to Vusimuzi, Tembisa.

Informal settlement in Innisfree Park, near Sandton.

Vusimuzi settlement is in an interesting position. It protrudes like an isthmus between a fetid stream, a huge cemetery, and two slightly wealthier suburbs. High above the shacks, high-tension power lines carry electricity to other areas of Johannesburg, but not Vusimuzi. As one resident put it (in an article written in 2013), "Electricity flows above, but not below". 

An endless sea of shacks and homes in Tembisa, near Johannesburg, South Africa. 

Hostels like this one were used to temporarily house black workers as they worked in the gold fields. To this day, hundreds of thousands of South Africans still live within them.

The story of Kya Sands is a story of ash, smoke, and broken promises. Search for the informal settlement on Google and you will find many articles relating to fires; including one that burned over 200 shacks in November 2015. Search a little more and you will find a list of protests and claims that formal housing that was promised but never forthcoming. A little bit more, and you’ll find accounts of the army being mobilized after xenophobic violence erupted. 

Across the street, among leafy trees, shady street corners and swimming pools, you find the middle-class suburb of Bloubosrand. A quick search on Property24 shows that many houses are worth over 1 million rand. Across the street, tin shacks with car tires on their roof extend into the distance. If you look even closer, the main thoroughfares in Kya Sands are actually drainages for the black, filthy water emanating from the nearby creek. 

The perspective over the northwest corner of Kya Sands informal area. 

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