Long shadow of apartheid

Long shadow of apartheid


Grim, mainly single-sex dormitory blocks dotted round South Africa's main cities, the hostels are one of the lesser-known legacies of apartheid and the migrant labour system enforced on blacks by the white minority rule that ended two decades ago.

Associated with Dickensian poverty, crime - and, in many cases, Zulu tribalism - they played a major role in the wave of anti-foreigner violence last month in which at least seven people were killed.

A policeman guards a stairwell during a raid on a hostel in Johannesburg's Alexandra township.

After the spate of attacks on foreigners, police and army units launched two highly publicised raids on hostels in run-down districts of South Africa's commercial capital.

Housing Minister Lindiwe Sisulu recently told parliament she wanted to do away with hostels, calling them "a very painful relic of our past".

But with no better alternative for the millions coming to the cities in search of work in a country saddled with 25 percent unemployment, closing them risks prompting more unrest.

. JOHANNESBURG, South Africa. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

Hostels grew up alongside South Africa's mining industry throughout the 20th century as workers flooded in, extracting the gold and diamonds that built Africa's most advanced economy but leaving the social structures in their villages in tatters.

The system had the blessing of apartheid's white rulers as it provided the mines and industry with cheap itinerant labour, and left the workers' families in remote rural areas.

. JOHANNESBURG, South Africa. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

Twenty years after the end of apartheid, the government has not resolved the problem of rural decline and the hostels remain a source of despair, anger and frustration.

"Because of the poor living conditions, you have this sense of desperation - unemployed, mainly young men who for various reasons feel excluded from the system," said Noor Nieftagodien, a historian at Johannesburg's University of Witwatersrand.

The hostels also have a history of violence.

. South Africa. Reuters/Juda Ngwenya
African National Congress supporters run for cover after police fired shots during a protest march in May 1993. Zulu-speaking hostel dwellers had opened fire on marchers, forcing the police to intervene.

In the early 1990s as apartheid caved in, brigades of Zulu men armed with spears and traditional shields were mobilised in them and unleashed on neighbouring townships, the foot soldiers of a power struggle between the Zulu Inkhatha Freedom Party and Nelson Mandela's African National Congress (ANC).

Thousands of people were killed and the violence almost derailed South Africa's transition to democracy, taking it to the brink of a civil war.

. JOHANNESBURG, South Africa. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

Now the anger in the hostels is directed at the hundreds of thousands of African migrants coming to South Africa, either fleeing persecution elsewhere on the continent or seeking work.

They do not have the contacts to enter the hostels, but find meagre accommodation in the townships where they are based.

"In my grandfather's days there were a few foreigners but now foreigners are more than us," said Musa Nkabinde, who knew no-one in Johannesburg when he came looking for work five years ago, but the 22-year-old knew exactly where to stay - the same place as his grandfather and thousands of other migrant workers before him: the hostel.

"This place is not good for us. But we don't have anywhere else to go."
Musa Nkabinde

Nkabinde pays just 27 rand ($2.28) a month for his tiny share of floor space in the small room he shares with 14 other men.

The government is considering asking hostel dwellers to leave for temporary shelters while unspecified "permanent units" are built, a prospect that does not appeal.

. JOHANNESBURG, South Africa. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko