Light on the horizon for Soweto’s hostels

Built during apartheid, hostels in the township have become dilapidated and dangerous. But a dynamic young member of Joburg’s mayoral committee is on a mission to change this.

Celumusa Dlamini grew up in an impoverished home in Emangweni village in Ladysmith, KwaZulu-Natal. His childhood dream was to become a taxi driver. In 2016, he packed his bags and travelled more than 475km to the City of Gold in search of economic opportunities, where he moved into the Nancefield Hostel in Soweto. 

A businessman from his village who owned a fleet of taxis and some goats at the hostel had organised him a job. “The deal was that I would look after his goats for two years and after that ubab’ uMbuyisa would take me to the driving school to get my licence,” said the 25-year-old. Mbuyisa took care of Dlamini’s accommodation and food while he looked after the goats. 

Dlamini would herd the goats to a nearby field to graze on moss, weeds and shrubs before bringing them back to the kraal in the afternoon, where he fed them dried mielies before his shift ended. Two years passed and he now works as a taxi driver, doing the local route from Kliptown to the Bara Taxi Rank. 

8 September 2021: Clothes hang to dry at the Nancefield Hostel in Klipspruit, Soweto.

He does the early morning and late afternoon shifts so he can help new intern Kwanda Dlangalala, 24, who also comes from Emangweni village, through the same process.

Dlamini considers himself lucky. His dream has come true while many others who live at the hostel, who came to the city hoping for a better life, have given up on finding a job. “I’m grateful to be able to send money home to my parents and also be able to save some for rainy days,” he said. 

The unemployment rate according to its expanded definition is 46.6%, according to Stats South Africa. Gauteng, the economic hub of the country, attracts international migrants as well as domestic migrants from rural areas of provinces such as Limpopo, KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape.

The establishment of hostels

Hostels in South Africa were built in townships designated as African residential areas during apartheid, located far from the cities and towns where whites lived. These transit camps offered cheap and affordable accommodation for impoverished migrant workers who lived in rural areas. 

The hostel dwellers were never properly integrated into township life. Their wives or partners and children were not allowed to visit them, resulting in children being raised by their mothers, grandparents or members of their extended families.

Twenty-eight years after democracy, the Nancefield Hostel, which was built in 1958, is old and dilapidated – like many hostels. The view from the Maponya Mall down Moroka Nancefield Road is one of shacks, their density hiding the gigantic old dormitory blocks of the hostel. 

The structures are cracked and some have fallen apart, posing a danger to the occupants. Paintings on walls have peeled off after years of neglect. Most broken windows are covered with flattened cardboard boxes to block out dust or the cold wind in winter. 

8 September 2021: Thandiwe Zulu, 40, felt at home at Nancefield Hostel when she first arrived. But then electricity became unstable. She now gets power from neighbours and takes turns to cook, cool her fridge and light her room.

Despite being banned in 2008, broken and leaking asbestos roofing sheets still top all the buildings. Streets are untarred, except for a few main streets that take you in and out of the hostel. Laundry hangs on makeshift lines strung from tree to building.

The showers in the old blocks still don’t have geysers and residents have to boil water on their stoves to wash, although constant power cuts make this impossible at times. 

A mobile clinic comes on Mondays and Wednesdays to provide healthcare services. Recreational facilities for children are still not available and goats feed on stagnant spilled sewage that runs in the streets in certain areas.

Some older hostel dwellers allege that the electricity problem began when the administration office that supplied services stopped operating years after the ANC government took over in 1994. 

Electricity issues

Thandiwe Zulu, 40, used to rent a room in Kagiso, Mogale City, before she lost her job seven years ago. Out of desperation, she moved in with her boyfriend at the hostel. “Life was wonderful and I felt welcomed here,” she said. 

Her pink dress brightens the dark room and her dynamic sense of humour makes the three women next to her giggle. Their electricity mains box exploded in April 2021, and for seven months residents lived without power.  

The box was meant to supply a few blocks but ended up supplying the many shacks that have been erected in and around the area. Some blocks have been without electricity for more than a year. 

6 September 2021: For about three months, an exploded electric box has not been supplying electricity to the affected blocks of rooms at the Nancefield Hostel.

Zulu points to the extension cable on the floor that leads to a two-plate stove where mama Mntambo is cooking in the dingy open-plan kitchen and lounge. “We are now getting electricity from our block 23 neighbours and we take turns to cook, cool our fridges and light our rooms.”

“I spoke to people from Eskom that they should fix the electricity. They did not come,” said Mashiya “Thisha” Shange, an induna at the hostel. The box was only fixed in December. 

Not the only problem

Crime is another scourge. The hostel’s notoriety goes back to the 1990s, during the country’s transition to democracy, when killings intensified, creating perpetual tension between the township residents living in the surrounding areas. 

“It was perceived back then that the hostels were for the IFP [Inkatha Freedom Party] and the townships were for the ANC people,” said Shange, who has held his position for more than 20 years since arriving at the hostel in 1981. 

The Human Rights Committee estimates that around 3 653 people were killed between July 1990 and June 1993. In May last year, four cars were burnt and a 45-year-old woman was reported to have been gang-raped by three men during a protest over electricity.

18 September 2021: Mashiya “Thisha” Shange was born in KwaZulu-Natal and has been living at the Nancefield Hostel since 1981. He has been an induna at the hostel for more than 20 years.

“To be honest, as a leader, I got hold of that information and thus far there has been no one or woman that has come to confront me about this issue,” said Shange, who suspects that the rape might have been commited by criminals who don’t live at the hostel but took advantage of their electricity protest.

According to The Herald newspaper, another woman was raped in 2019. Two men were shot and killed in 2020 while sitting inside a taxi association patrol vehicle. And six dead bodies were discovered in a field in 2007.  “I tell people to honour and respect people. It does not matter if you are Venda, Xhosa, Tsonga, Tswana or Pedi,” Shange said, reflecting on the diverse community that lives at the hostel. 

He added that during the xenophobic attacks in 2008, the hostel did not chase away migrants who live or do business in the area. 

Restoration efforts 

There is a glimmer of hope that the hostel is changing. Mlungisi Mabaso, the City of Johannesburg’s member of the mayoral committee for housing, is on a mission to improve the living conditions at hostels, undertake refurbishments and create jobs. The 31-year-old protested successfully against the proposed demolition of the Dube Hostel in 2017, where he once lived for nine years. 

The City’s Johannesburg Social Housing Company has invested R178 million in a project that aims to revamp the old administration office and create cleaning and maintenance jobs for an 18-month period from May 2021 to November 2022. 

The Gauteng Department of Human Settlements spent R230 million building new apartments in Meadowlands, Mzimhlophe, Dube and Diepkloof. The flats were completed between 2011 and 2012 but left unoccupied and some vandalised because of the rental payment misunderstanding between the department and residents. 

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“We are working hard on all our projects aimed at hostel redevelopment. As things stand, it is currently not at the level of satisfaction that I would like. We are however attending to all issues of repairs and maintenance in all the hostels that are under our management,” said Mabaso. 

Born and raised in Ulundi, KwaZulu-Natal, he is popularly known to his peers as “Last Born” as he is one of the youngest mayoral committee members. He served without charge as a community leader for eight years at Dube Hostel before rising to prominence, and he attributes his success to his willingness to help people. As an IFP member, he also serves as the national secretary of the IFP Youth Brigade.  

The committee plans to develop more family units but is currently doing studies to see if the land is able to be developed or not as the Nancefield Hostel is built on a wetland. He said it is working on site and concluding plans for the Mapetla Hostel in Soweto. 

Proud of the changes

When the Covid-19 pandemic began in 2020, Mabaso and the department supplied hostels facing water shortages with tanks to curb the spread of the virus.

“When I arrived here 15 years ago, the hostel was dirty, buildings were collapsing and burst sewerage pipes would be all over the streets,” said Philile Zikalala, 38, who is proud of the changes Mabaso has brought about since taking over in 2016. 

Zikalala used to run the Philile Early Learning Site, which had 23 children and employed two staff members before it closed down in 2020. It was the first and only educational institution at the hostel that fed and taught children to count, read and write. It also helped grade 1 to 5 learners with their schoolwork at no charge.

“I love kids. I feel blessed when I’m around them. They make me forget about my problems,” she said, seated on the bed in the room in which she used to teach. 

8 September 2021: Philile Zikalala, 38, started the first creche at the Nancefield Hostel in 2017, but was forced to close when Covid-19 hit. She used to provide food for each child no matter what their parents could afford.

Nomvula “MaRadebe” Dyanti, 52, grew up during apartheid in a family of strong ANC supporters in White City. They were harassed constantly by the police looking for her revolutionary brother Thanduxolo, a member of Umkhonto weSizwe. 

Dyanti had always wanted her own home and recounts the difficulties she experienced moving from room to room, renting with her husband before they found an affordable place at the hostel in 1993.

“In the past, a woman would live inside the room and be treated like a housewife without being seen outside,” she recalls about the transit camp that housed predominantly men and was extremely patriarchal. When her husband was at work, she spent countless hours trapped in the tiny room, hiding away from her male roommates.

She applied for an RDP house several times, but all were unsuccessful. 

Better than before

Minister of Human Settlements Mmamoloko Kubayi told the media that the database for RDP houses was flawed to such a degree that the department could not tell who had exited the programme or not been allocated homes, and that the backlog could be much higher than the estimated 2.5 million houses. The department admitted that its budget is constricted and that the influx of people has worsened the housing problem and overcrowding. 

Dyanti is now an active IFP member. She is responsible for the rights of women and fighting for their empowerment at the hostel. She and her family have been living in one of the converted family units since 2000. It consists of two bedrooms, a bathroom and an open-plan kitchen and lounge.  

8 September 2021: Nomvula “MaRadebe” Dyanti, 52, has lived at the Nancefield Hostel for 27 years. 

Dumisile Shelembe, 26, shares a room that she inherited from her father with her two younger sisters. As an older sister, she first lived in it before the building was renovated in 2017. “I was constantly living in fear. The building was very dark at night and my door room could not lock,” she said while washing clothes in the kitchen and lounge space. 

She likes the new building because things work satisfactorily, there are two toilets instead of one and three shower rooms instead of one that she shares with eight roommates. “The lights are working properly and we can see one another easily. It’s very beautiful here. It is like I’m in Sandton.”

6 September 2021: Dumisile Shelembe, 26, shares a room in the Nancefield Hostel with her two younger sisters. She does washing in the new building, which has two toilets, three shower rooms and working lights.
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