Development In The News South Africa

Police raids shine a light on forgotten hostels

Police raids shine a light on forgotten hostels
  • PublishedMay 21, 2015

Of all the dramatic pictures to emerge from South Africa’s recent bout of xenophobic violence, in which at least seven foreigners were killed and thousands fled from urban areas, one collection of photographs looks like it could have been lifted straight out of the country’s difficult past.

In one image, 11 semi-naked men lie sprawled across a filthy concrete floor as a heavily-armed police officer decked in SWAT gear stumbles over their prone bodies. In another, a platoon of helmeted police push past rows of residents, their arms splayed along the faded walls in a symbol of surrender.

The photos, beamed around the world from Jeppestown, an impoverished suburb of Johannesburg, were intended to show the police’s resolve in clamping down on the xenophobic violence. Instead, the pictures shine a light on one of the most enduring symbols of South Africa’s unequal society – the decrepit urban hostels built under the apartheid system that continue to house thousands of poor domestic migrants.

More than 20 years after the democratic transition, thousands of South Africans continue to eke out a living in compounds. 379,756 households lived in urban and rural hostels in 2011, according to data from the Gaffney Group and the South African Local Government Association. By far the highest number of hostel households – 141,275 – were found in Gauteng, home to the urban metropolis of Johannesburg.

Colonial system

The daily reality of cheek-by-jowl living in dilapidated buildings has its roots in the mass migration of African workers to the 19th century boom-town of Kimberley, capital of Cecil Rhodes’ diamond empire. Migrant workers from across southern Africa were confined to compounds on the edge of the mines, where their movement, diet and wages were tightly controlled by overseers.

With the expansion of the apartheid system, hostels were introduced into urban settings to control the flow of African migration from impoverished ‘homelands’ to employment hotspots in the cities.  

“The hostels are an apartheid-era hangover. In those days to work in the cities you had to have a pass, and were only allowed to come in if you had work there,” says Mienke Mari Steytler from the South African Institute of Race Relations.

“The best way to control these people was to keep them in one housing unit. It was divide and rule, and fitted in with the apartheid idea of segregation”.

Today, residents are drawn to hostels by the promise of menial work and a lack of affordable township housing.

From its very inception, the hostel experience has been associated with an almost complete lack of service delivery. Conditions vary today, but erratic water and power supply reflects a time when authorities could terminate services to punish civil unrest.  

As dramatically illustrated in Jeppestown, overcrowding is rife. According to a 2002 housing study by the University of Pretoria, South Africa’s 2000 public hostels were occupied on average by 300 people each.

“We need to be clear that current conditions, despite changes and improvements in society at large, remain heavily overcrowded and extremely dire,” said Braam Hanekom, director of South African refugee rights group PASSOP.


It is generally agreed that such poor living conditions, allied to the single-sex status of many hostels, act as an incubator for low-level criminality. Where activists and politicians disagree is over the role of hostel-dwellers in organising and participating in the recent bout of xenophobic violence. Police who took part in the Jeppestown raid said that they had found weapons, marijuana and stolen goods.

Tandeka Gqada, a Democratic Alliance MP who has previously worked on hostel replacement schemes, says that the buildings represent “slavery housing” and are a danger to residents and those living around them. But Gqada does not believe that Cape Town’s hostels played a central role in the recent outbreak of xenophobic violence.

“In Cape Town they were not incubators of xenophobia. [There are] many other criminal activities – yes – such as illegal shebeening and other substance abuse,” she says.

PASSOP’s Hanekom says that hostels were not the only accommodation to house some of those responsible for xenophobic attacks, but acknowledged that overcrowded conditions could allow ringleaders to gain influence and marshal support against other Africans.

“The high density of people, the various challenges of low incomes and the contestation for employment…create a very tense and volatile environment in which instigators, trouble-makers and criminals, and those who have personal grievances with individual foreign nationals, are able to create anarchy. For the person living in a hostel who is not happy with their circumstances, foreign nationals remain an easy and soft target for people to unleash their frustrations on.”

The role of hostels in previous bouts of organised violence has been well documented. Hostels were the bloody battlegrounds of the turf war between activists from the African National Congress (ANC) and their Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) rivals in the tumultuous days of South Africa’s early 1990s democratic transition. One of the era’s most notorious incidents – the 1990 Boipatong massacre of 45 township residents – was allegedly carried out by hostel dwellers allied to the IFP.

Despite hostels’ fraught history and links to violent unrest, the images of police raids backed up by military support have provoked deep disquiet among many South Africans.

“Yes there are criminal elements, but it’s almost a way of showing force, and pretending to do something. They kind of use the hostels for show,” says IRR’s Steytler.

Hanekom agrees that the raids may have been necessary to send a strong message, but admits to feeling uncomfortable at the sight of armed police swarming into hostels in the dead of night.  

“Government needed to give a clear signal to South Africans and the international community that it would not be tolerating this violence…At the same time, it was very painful and extremely concerning that citizens should be raided and searched in such a manner. Was it necessary? Its hard to tell”.


Whether or not hostels played a key part in the latest round of anti-foreigner violence, there is a consensus that hostels ought to be phased out and replaced by more appropriate forms of housing. Councillor Benedicta van Minnen, Cape Town’s mayoral committee member for human settlements, says that the city is spending R132m ($11m) building new apartments in Langa township to rehouse hostel residents. The city has also undertaken programmes to convert hostels into family apartments, while others have benefited from refurbishment and redesign. 

But with the pull of the city continuing to draw millions of internal migrants to South Africa’s townships, there is a feeling that authorities are running just to stand still.

“At the birth of democracy, we estimated that 3m new houses would need to be built. Now over 3m have been built, and its estimated that we need millions more,” says Hanekom.

“We haven’t got to a point where we can honestly say as South Africans that our people are living in acceptable conditions, more especially those of the hostel community and the townships”.

Written By
David Thomas

David Thomas is Digital Editor at IC Publications, covering New African and African Business magazines. He has previously been published at Dow Jones, the Financial Times, and South Africa's Cape Times newspaper.

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