A woman in the Alexandra township of Johannesburg walks past a mural of Nelson Mandela, who lived in the township as a young man. Themba Hadebe/AP

The city has an ambitious plan to redress historic inequities through mass transit and redevelopment.

JOHANNESBURG—Only four miles separate the crowded township of Alexandra, where Tshepo Monama lives in a one-room house, from the skyscraper suburb of Sandton where he is employed as a barista in an upscale office block. But in some ways, they might as well be on different planets.

The roads Monama navigates out of Alex each morning are pockmarked with potholes and strewn with garbage. In the inky 5 a.m. darkness, he shuffles to avoid the flattened red carcass of a rat pressed into the asphalt.

But once he crosses over Johannesburg's major freeway, the M1, he is suddenly in Sandton, the neighborhood dubbed "Africa's richest square mile," where five-star hotels back up against luxury car dealerships, fancy restaurants, and a gleaming shopping mall.

Although more than 10,000 people follow the same route as Monama each day to work as Sandton's domestic workers, gardeners, and shop assistants, there is no formal pedestrian walkway over the roaring freeway that separates the two neighborhoods. Instead, pedestrians must pick their way along a narrow ribbon of concrete on the shoulder of a bridge designed for cars, then walk for several hundred yards on the shoulder of the busy road on the other side.

But in February, the city of Johannesburg will break ground on a soaring $7 million cable pedestrian bridge between Alex and Sandton. The project is part of the so-called "Corridors of Freedom," a bundle of transportation initiatives designed to redress the spatial scars of apartheid, which for decades cleaved the city apart by race and class and left few bridges—physical or imaginative— across the divide.

"Ten thousand people are putting their lives in danger every day walking over a bridge that was never designed for pedestrians, so the first and most important thing this [new pedestrian] bridge will facilitate is safety," says Siyabonga Genu, who is managing the bridge project for the public Johannesburg Development Agency. "But it's also meant to close the gap between these two communities, to bridge Alex and Sandton to one another."

A rendering of the planned pedestrian and cycle bridge between Alexandra and Sandton. (Johannesburg Development Agency)

But to close such a gap, or even to narrow it, is a task of almost heroic proportions in contemporary South Africa, given that the primary concern of city planners for much of the 20th century was making sure people were kept apart. The result, in Johannesburg, is a city reeling from sprawl, where millions of residents are still confined to townships—the peripheral and mostly poor settlements, often many miles from the urban center, that the apartheid government zoned for black residence.

Compounding the problem, the new South African government has spent the two decades since the advent of democracy scrambling to meet a massive housing shortage, largely by building millions more houses on cheap land at the fringes of its cities.  

Those spatial patterns have, in turn, left city planners staring down a uniquely difficult question: How do you transform a city whose very infrastructure is your enemy?

For many, the only feasible answer has been better transportation.

Enter "Corridors of Freedom," launched in the late aughts. The web of ambitious transit projects includes an extensive Bus Rapid Transit system called Rea Vaya, dedicated bike lanes across the city, and pedestrian access projects like the Alex-Sandton bridge (which also includes more than 20 miles of new sidewalks in the township).

But the city's ambitions don't end at transit. Part of its project to "re-stitch" the city is the construction of high-density, mixed-use developments along its new transportation arteries, meant to lure in a wide cross section of the population to shop, work, and live together.

At the edge of Alexandra, for instance, the city is finalizing plans for a development that will include stores, apartments, and possibly a public library, which Genu says he hopes will encourage some Sandton residents to cross his bridge in the opposite direction as their hired help.

Not everyone is convinced.

"There's this assumption that if you build the infrastructure, everything else will follow," says Rehana Moosajee, a former Johannesburg city council member heavily involved in transportation initiatives. "But to make this work you have to change really deeply entrenched mindsets too."

Many middle-class suburban communities have already balked at the building projects, and dedicated lanes for the bus system have intensified traffic along some of the city's busiest thoroughfares.

"The fact that so many people are seething with anger just goes to show how great transit inequality is in this city," Moosajee says. "But the city has got to work harder to get these communities on board—it's doing a very poor job explaining what it's trying to do. It has to make people see that this is about bringing dignity back to transportation, when for so long it was a daily humiliation [for black people]."

By 6 a.m., Monama is standing in front of the Sandton office block where he works, clutching a starched black shirt he won't wear on his walk for fear of getting it dirty. The new bridge may make his walk more pleasant, he says, which is good because he cannot afford to travel any other way. Of the approximately $450 he takes home each month, $300 goes for the care of his aging mother. To take public transportation each day would cost another $50 monthly.

"I can't be spending so much on things like beers," he says, "or the bus."

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