Once known as the Dark City because it had no electricity, Alexandra, or Alex, as most locals call the informal community that sprawls between the posh suburbs of Sandton and the flank of the N3 highway.

Did you know?

As a young man, Nelson Mandela rented a tiny room from the Xhoma family in Alexandra.

Abuzz with vivid social culture, you'll find it's impossible not to get caught up in the tumult that is Alexandra township life. It couldn't be more different in veneer and character from its posh neighbour, Sandton, which is a mere five minutes' drive away.

But what it lacks in elegance, it makes up for in street cred. A peek into the history of Alexandra reveals that Alex has been home to many luminaries including world-renowned jazz maestro, Hugh Masekela and former president Nelson Mandela.

As for Alex's history, the area was proclaimed a 'native township' in 1912, escaping the territorial apartheid of the Natives Land Act of 1913 and remaining one of the few areas where black people could own land under freehold title in urban areas.

But in 1948 Alexandra fell under the direct control of the former Department of Native Affairs and, despite its value as a labour pool to the northern suburbs of Johannesburg, about 50 000 residents were forcibly removed to Thembisa and Soweto.

During this time, its residents were actively involved in the liberation struggle. The 1942 and 1957 bus boycotts and the 1956 march against the extension of the pass laws to women are notable events in the township's resistance history.

In the early 1960s, a decision was made to demolish all the properties in Alex. Family accommodation was to be eliminated and 25 hostels, each housing about 2 500 people were to be built, but the global political backlash that followed the 1976 Soweto uprisings forced the government to reconsider this approach and Alexandra was given full status as a residential area in 1979. The infamous hostels can be seen on a tour of Alexandra township today.

Besides a wealth of struggle history sites, an Alexandra township tour reveals revitalisation is happening at every level – from a new Pan African shopping centre, to extensive greening and clean-up projects.

On a township tour here you should be able to visit some of Alex's best shebeens (informal bars) where you can slake your thirst on umqombothi, traditional African home-brewed beer, and fill your tummy with local delicacies.

You can also stock up on unique arts and crafts from the street vendors, who flog all manner of quirky curios, and finally, step into the colourful world of traditional medicine, but be warned you'll need a strong stomach for some of the more exotic tonics. Busy outdoor markets, traditional healers, the St. Hubert Catholic Church and the Mandela Yard Precinct create a mix of old and new that makes Alex such a fascinating place to visit.

Travel tips & Planning info

Who to contact

Mulaudzi Tours
Tel: (Jeffrey Mulaudzi) +27 (0)71 279 3654/ (0)61 365 7695
Email: jeff@alexandratours.co.za

How to get here

The township can be accessed via the Gautrain's Malboro station.

Best time to visit

It’s possible to visit Alex all year round. During summer, rainstorms may cause the Jukskei River to flood quite suddenly. Your guide will advise if it’s safe or not.

Tours to do

Jeffrey Mulaudzi offers walking and cycling tours of Alexandra township with the pick-up point at Marlboro Station off the Gautrain.

Get around

A guided tour is the best way to make sure you get to see all the sights and hear all the stories Alex has to offer.

What will it cost

The cost of a half or full-day tour will depend on the operator you choose.

Length of stay

You can opt for a half day, or full day tour. Some tours include either a lunch or dinner at a local shebeen (tavern). You can also overnight in a local B&B or guesthouse.

What to pack

Feel free to bring a camera but be respectful. Ask the locals if you may take their picture.

Where to stay

There are a number of charming B&Bs in the township. They are safe, clean, very affordable and you’ll experience superb hospitality. Or opt for a luxury hotel or guesthouse in nearby Sandton.

What to eat

Don’t leave without enjoying freshly made magwinya, a fried bread snack sold on every street corner – and corn on the cob roasted over an open brazier.