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 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.