Rare view of the raw life of Gauteng's hostel dwellers
A journey into hostel life is a walk down the painful memory of South Africa’s past.
Madala in Alexandra, Diepkloof in Soweto, Sebokeng in the Vaal Triangle and Nhlazatshe in Tembisa reflect what used to be the apartheid government’s labour dormitories.
Young men still choose to come to the hostels, because it’s a free roof over their heads and the strict rules ensure they are shielded from criminals in the big city.
A room in a dorm comes by word-of-mouth recommendation. Newcomers have to find a relative or someone to plead with the induna on their behalf when space becomes available. It is the quickest way to settle in Johannesburg without the worry of money for rent.
The most common job for men is driving minibus taxis, for which they need to get their driver’s licence. But the hostels are also a hive of business activity as entrepreneurial residents find ways to earn an income.
At Alex’s Madala Hostel, access is by strict permission of a headman. Induna Patrick Sokhela, the residential committee chairperson, charms the women and has a joke for everyone he encounters.
We find a laundry area with a tap that has been left open. Water is spilling onto the floor.
At the big kitchen on the fourth floor, the gas stoves are burning without anyone attending them. It’s free, because it is supplied by Egoli Gas under an arrangement with the council during the times when people paid.
Sokhela arrived at Madala Hostel in 1980. His spot at the hostel was secured by his employers. They also paid for his permit to be in the city.
“The hostel was clean and there was so much discipline inside. No woman was allowed. There was security who would ensure that everything was done by the book,” he says.
At Sebokeng Hostel, most of the old blocks have been converted into family units. Each block has a committee that oversees the administration of the buildings, under chairperson Amos Mashilo.
He arrived in Sebokeng in 1982 at the height of apartheid.
“We had 16 people living in one room, which was divided into two. We had to go outside to take a shower. It was lovely, though, because we were all men.”
When Mashilo first came from Limpopo to work in construction, rent was less than R10 a month, inclusive of a permit. Every man working in the urban areas had to carry both his dompas and permit.
“We had to sleep with these documents ready every night. Police would raid the hostel at night.”
But there were good times back then, he remembers.
“There were different nations living in this place. You had the Zulus, Shangaans, Vendas, Xhosas, Sothos and Tswanas ... all living together in harmony. We knew where the Zulus would gather together or the Tshongas. In that way we were able to learn about every culture in South Africa without having to travel. Each tribe in the hostel formed a soccer team and competed to find the best clan in the beautiful game,” Mashilo says.
“Today there is no such. Everybody is minding his own business.”
The ugliest days were the early 1990s after late former president Nelson Mandela came out of prison. The battle between the IFP and ANC was “hot” at the hostel.
“Mandela came to us. People had asked him to give us ammunition because of the killings that were taking place. He refused. He asked us what were we going to do with assault rifles because we had not been trained. He urged us to stop the war,” Mashilo says.
When the war ended and women started coming into the hostel at the beginning of the democratic era, the hostel changed.
“When the women moved in, men began focusing on their families,” says Mashilo.
The hostel’s reputation as an IFP stronghold saw the new ANC democratic government steer clear. Maintenance dropped off and the hostel dwellers decided not to pay rent.
Diepkloof Hostel is next to Soweto's most expensive neighbourhood. It has the bearings of the old system: U-shaped, with communal showers and common kitchens. All the blocks of the hostel, from A to H, are falling apart.
There are no ablution facilities, water or electricity. Hostel dwellers use a bucket system and have to go out of the facility to fetch water from a communal tap, which sometimes runs dry.
“We have been forgotten. Even people living in rural areas do not use a bucket system. They live a better life than us,” says Sbongiseni Khoza, a despairing secretary of the izinduna who is originally from Ulundi.
We have been forgotten. Even people living in rural areas do not use a bucket system.Sbongiseni Khoza
In this hostel, the consequences of unemployment are everywhere. Every other person we meet is drunk or looks drunk. Each block seems to have its own shebeen, and these waterholes are full of women.
Each room takes 16 people. There is a bed base made of bricks. Everyone has to bring their own mattress. An old coal stove that Sowetans call Welcome Dover is at the centre of the room.
The exterior wall of the room is peeling off, collapsing into a pile of bricks outside. In some of the rooms, one can see inside through the large cracks on the walls. The foundation of the block has cracked and is falling apart – a serious threat to life.
"It is a mystery we are still alive,” a resident says shyly. He is ashamed that we have walked into his “bedroom”, but he trusts Khoza.
Next to the rotten hostel are new family units built by the city. Some are beautiful and people have moved into them. Others are vacant and need to be revamped. Hostel dwellers have boycotted and damaged the units, arguing they should be exclusively allocated to them. But they refused to pay the "unaffordable" R700 monthly rent.
To have an income, hostel residents provide various services.
Bhekani Ngema, of Mnambithi, feeds a demand for “inyama yenhloko” – meat from a cow's head.
He buys one head for R140 and it yields R350. He operates from one of the big kitchens in the hostel. As the gas is free, his costs are minimal.
Ngema has been able to buy a car and send money to his three children back home.
“This is all that I have,” Ngema says, rinsing the meat. “It is my job. It is my life.”
Lindiwe Khumalo from Mnambithi lives with her partner and her sister's daughter in a room at the hostel. She bakes cakes and muffins for three of the tuck shops in the hostel.
“It is better than not doing anything,” Khumalo said.
Bongokuhle Mdlalose runs a tuck shop inside the hostel. There are many of them at Madala Hostel; so many that no one knows the total. The induna, Sokhela, loves Mdlalose's tuck shop because he does not sell alcohol. There is also the element of convenience: he opens at 5am and closes at 9pm.
Mdlalose's father started the shop with public phones. “My father decided not to sell alcohol because everyone was selling it. We were trying to avoid competition. We chose to provide more goods for our customer and they liked it,” says Mdlalose.
Nonhlanhla Khumalo lives at Nhlazatshe Hostel in Tembisa, where she uses her skills to run a fashion business.
She sews traditional regalia and rents it out to people for traditional weddings and ceremonies. She also sells her merchandise to retailers in the Johannesburg city centre.
Khumalo, who comes from Nongoma, northern KwaZulu-Natal, started her fashion business in 2000 and has been living off its proceeds.
A full traditional outfit for women costs R350 to rent.
“My wish is for the government to provide a proper trading space where I can run my business from. It would also be nice if all the businesses in the hostel would get that space and everyone would know where to find our products and services. We also would not mind trading outside the hostel because the market is bigger in the (wider) township,” she says.
Boy Nyani from Qunu in the Eastern Cape lives in Sebokeng Hostel. He loves his country so much that he named his first-born Democracy, because he was born in 1994, at the fall of apartheid.
Nyani has no job, nor does his wife, Sbongile. He has nine children, the youngest four years old. Their room is 4m by 3m and all the children sleep on the floor.
To support them, Nyani breeds pigs from a pigsty near the hostel, to sell at auction. It allows him to pay for Democracy's tuition at a nearby college.
He dreams of a better home. “I need a place that will accommodate my family. There must be also job opportunities so that I may be able to make a living and properly provide for my family.”
Diepkloof’s Khoza has a similar plea: “Our sin is that we are perceived to belong to a certain political party. We want the government to build us nice RDP houses where we can move in and even bring our kids to live with us. You cannot bring your family to come and witness this filth here. It is a sad story.”
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