Joburg’s hostel hell

2015-04-26 15:00

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Hostels have a terrible reputation as enclaves of temperamental, marauding and bloodthirsty people who predominantly speak isiZulu and have a confrontational relationship with their neighbouring communities.

Hostels gained international notoriety in the early 1990s at the height of political violence, which saw thousands of people lose their lives in one of the country’s bloodiest conflicts. Built in the 1950s as accommodation for migrant labourers, hostels soon became home to thousands of men from South Africa and its neighbouring countries.

But as the pre-1994 violence intensified on the Reef, the Zulu nationalist Inkatha Freedom Party quickly consolidated its support base in hostels across the country, making them havens during its fight with the ANC and organisations aligned to it. People who did not speak isiZulu were driven out ruthlessly.

The Kwa-Madala Hostel in Ward 37 in Alexandra was the epicentre of the 2008 xenophobic attacks in which 62 people died and thousands more were displaced. Picture: Muntu Vilakazi

Images of hostel dwellers engaged in running, bloody street battles with communities in areas such as Thokoza on the East Rand were beamed across the world as fears intensified that South Africa could slide into a civil war.

Today, the relationship between hostel dwellers and communities that surround them has somewhat normalised, but the reputation of hostels has not improved. Recently, however, the wrath of hostel dwellers seems to be directed at foreign nationals.

The Kwa-Madala Hostel in Ward 37 in Alexandra was the epicentre of the 2008 xenophobic attacks in which 62 people died and thousands more were displaced. And now Jeppe Hostel, on the outskirts of the Johannesburg CBD, featured prominently in the latest round of xenophobic attacks, which started in Durban three weeks ago and spread to Joburg. Seven people have been murdered and thousands more were displaced.

A communial kitchen with gas stoves in Madala hostel in Alexander. Picture: Muntu Vilakazi

This past week, the army and the police raided both hostels in search of dangerous weapons and drugs.

Videos of half-naked hostel dwellers lined up against hallways and armed riot police breaking down doors Hollywood-style drew wide condemnation.

Hostel dwellers were among those who went on the rampage last week, destroying property and looting foreign-owned businesses.

The brutal stabbing and killing of Emmanuel Sithole in Alexandra a week ago, which made headlines around the world, happened not far from Kwa-Madala Hostel.

Bafowethu Sokhela, the chief induna (headman) at Kwa-Madala Hostel, said such incidents helped cement perceptions that hostel dwellers were violent, and were responsible for the fresh assault on foreign nationals.

But it was residents of Alexandra, and not hostel dwellers, who instigated xenophobic attacks.

A carridor in Madala hostel in Alexander. Picture: Muntu Vilakazi

“They came here [to the hostel] toyi-toying and incited us. They came here because they know that no battle is complete without us,” he said.

But Sokhela, who arrived at the hostel in 1980, insisted that hostel dwellers in general were not violent people.

“We are not a violent people. It’s just that we are good fighters.”

The father of six, who hails from Msinga in KwaZulu-Natal, said local criminals often used hostels as cover to commit crimes.

It was criminals, he said, who incited unemployed youngsters from the hostels to go and loot Somali tuck shops.

Sokhela said he was totally against attacks on foreign nationals.

“These people run spaza shops. I suppose we don’t want them here because they have excellent business skills. We are not business-minded at all,” he said.

Living conditions at Kwa-Madala Hostel are dreadful. Streams of acrid water and raw sewage flow freely through the hostel’s courtyard. Piles of uncollected rubbish have become ideal breeding grounds for rats. Clothes are hung out to dry on broken and dirty windows.

As an induna, Sokhela has two rooms to himself – a luxury considering that the hostel is overcrowded and houses far more people than it can cater for. As many as eight men are crammed into two small rooms.

At Jeppe Hostel, induna Manyathela Mvelase also wants to see the image of hostel dwellers improve. He has heeded King Goodwill Zwelithini’s message to cease hostilities against foreign nationals, which the king made at an imbizo in Durban on Monday.

Zwelithini was accused of instigating the attacks on foreign nationals when he said at a ceremony last month that they must pack their bags and go home.

Mvelase has little patience for those who want to lure hostel dwellers into committing crimes.

He says people have approached him, asking him to organise hit men to take out their enemies.

“I send them back. It’s our job as izinduna to sanitise our image as hostel dwellers.”

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