Hostile Hostels

Male-only workers' hostels, with their poor living conditions and endemic violence, are a remnant of South Africa's fading apartheid laws. Yet many residents don't want them torn down.

SQUALID men-only hostels - one of the grimmest legacies of the apartheid era - have become a flash point in the violence which has swept the black townships around Johannesburg over the past 10 months. Upon entering this violence-wracked township one passes a series of single-story buildings with grimy walls and broken windowpanes.

Each building encloses a courtyard where stagnant water and refuse mingle. The stench from communal lavatories is almost unbearable.

An outsider is met with an initial barrier of fear and mistrust by the mainly Zulu inhabitants, who live in dormitories of between 12 and 16 beds, divided into cells of four beds partitioned by knee-high walls.

There is no privacy and little room. The only storage space is a metal trunk on the worn concrete floor. There is no partition between the primitive cooking area and the dormitory.

Communal showers in an adjoining block - accessible only through the open courtyard - have only cold running water.

There is little maintenance by the township council and the constant cooking has left a film of grime on the walls, windows, and light bulbs.

Trapped in a cycle of deprivation, fear, and alienation, the residents - many of whom have permanent blue-collar jobs - are regarded by the community as aliens because of their tribal ways and the absence of wives and children.

``They have no visible involvement in the community and therefore they are seen as outsiders,'' said Bennett Balula, a Tokoza resident who owns his own home.

Much of the recent violence has originated in the hostels. In this atmosphere of insecurity, attack is often perceived as the best form of defense - setting in motion a vicious spiral of attack, counterattack, retribution, and revenge.

The volatility is exacerbated by ethnic tensions between the more traditional Zulus, who have a strong tribal identity, and the Xhosas, whose collective identity is derived more from a common language than a single tribe.

The focus of the initial violence in the hostels centered around an internal struggle for dominance between Zulus, who support the Inkatha movement, and the Xhosas, who back the African National Congress (ANC). The process has been intensified by the legalization of the ANC and its drive to establish a political movement.

Inkatha-supporting Zulus have gained control of most hostels. ANC supporters have gained control of most of the shantytowns that have sprung up on the outskirts of townships.

Since the outbreak of widespread violence last August, the government has conceded that the hostels must be replaced by family accommodations. But little has been done in practice.

President Frederik de Klerk recently announced that the hostels would be upgraded and turned into family units. But he stressed that the need for single accommodations would remain.

The ANC, which has repeatedly demanded that the hostel system be scrapped, concedes that there will always be a demand for single accommodations, but insists that is no excuse for not scrapping the hostel system.

But many Zulu hostel dwellers feel threatened by the prospect of conversion or demolition. Instead, they want their living conditions upgraded. There were strong indications that the recent violence that swept Alexandra township was sparked by rumors that the hostels were to be demolished.

``You can't just remove the hostels,'' said Dumisani Mbatha, a resident of a hostel in Tokoza township south of Johannesburg.

``The hostels have been there for 30 years,'' said Mr. Mbatha. ``They must be upgraded and improved, but not removed. Many Zulus come to the city to work and they want to return to their families in the rural areas. They don't want to bring them to the city.''

More than 400 people have died in Tokoza during the past nine months in battles between Zulu hostel dwellers and squatters and township residents.

THE first efforts by unpopular black councils and private developers to convert hostels into family units have been rejected by both Inkatha, which says the move will result in mass homelessness, and the ANC, which insists changes must be made in consultation with trade unions and civic groups.

As a short-term measure to halt the violence, the ANC has proposed the fencing of the hostels and the stationing of a security-force guard at the gate of each hostel. In long-term, they want the system scrapped.

Despite the grim conditions that prevail in the hostels, the 160,000 or so hostel dwellers in townships around Johannesburg see the brick-and-mortar buildings as preferable to the shacks of the hundreds of thousands of squatters.

Recent research has led social scientists to the conclusion that unless the residents themselves are involved in the process to phase out the hostels, that effort could bring a further escalation of the current violence.

The hostel system was created under the system of influx control - known as the pass laws - to house single men who were otherwise not entitled to live in the urban areas and were barred from bringing their wives and children to the towns.

Although the pass laws - which underpinned the system of migrant labor - were scrapped in mid-1986, their legacy is firmly entrenched in the men-only hostels.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Hostile Hostels
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today