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Alexandra Township Samples New Sustainable Development Ideas - 2002-08-28

Delegates to the World Summit on Sustainable Development are meeting in a wealthy suburb of Johannesburg to talk about saving the planet and improving the lives of the poor. Less than three kilometers away is Alexandra Township, one of the poorest neighborhoods in South Africa. One group of delegates took a field trip to Alexandra to see how their ideas meet reality.

"As we proceed, coming on the right-hand side, we are passing an area, which also had a lot of informal settlements. But some of the people, in fact most of the people have been moved out in the past few weeks," explains tour guide Abbey Sechoaro. He points out the highlights from atop a double-decker bus as it lumbers through the narrow streets of Alexandra Township, known to local people as Alex.

It is just three kilometers from the Sandton Convention Center, where delegates are meeting for the World Summit on Sustainable Development. But the two areas are worlds apart.

Sandton is as well-developed as any city in Europe or North America. It has fancy shopping malls and shiny office buildings. Nearby, Alex is a crowded, crime-ridden slum where most of the 350,000 residents live in tin shacks without water, toilets, or electricity.

But that is slowly changing. South Africa's government and the city of Johannesburg have launched a major renewal project aimed at building homes, schools and clinics, and providing water and sanitation for the residents.

South African Minister of Housing Sankie Mthembi-Mahanyele admits it took a while to coordinate efforts between the different government departments.

"Finally as different departments, we are taking from our budgets, putting money into Alex in order to make an impact and push back the frontiers of poverty," she explains.

The housing minister invited her counterparts from Nigeria and Ghana, as well other delegates at the summit, to tour the township. The field trip was a chance to see first-hand a place where their theories of sustainable development are being tested in the real world.

Anna Tibaijuka heads U.N. Habitat, the U.N. agency responsible for housing.

"This really is an example of the challenges facing just about every city in the developing world - rapid urbanization, people coming to cities, conventional urban planning techniques simply overwhelmed," she says. " And you know, people have to live somewhere, so you have squatter settlements everywhere. And this is a very good example of the efforts of the public to partner with the people and try to improve their living conditions."

The improvements in Alex are clearly visible. Less than a year and a half ago, hundreds of shacks jammed the banks of the Jukskei River. Today, there are small, but solidly built brick homes, each with running water and electricity.

The trip was a revelation not just to the foreign visitors but to local guests as well.

Angela Makholwa is a public relations consultant working for the city of Johannesburg. She was born and raised in Johannesburg, but had not been to Alex in years. She was stunned at what she saw from the top of the windy, open top of the double-decker bus.

"It must have been about two years ago and none of this, none of these houses, especially big houses were here. I mean, I just knew Alexandra as a shantytown, basically a squatter camp, basically. And this is amazing! I think this is quite great," she said.

Residents say they hope the visiting delegates will come up with ideas to develop Alexandra even more, hopefully creating jobs for the 60 percent of Alex residents who are unemployed.