South Africa: Hostel Dwellers Resent Undignified Living Conditions

Three men's hostels in the Durban area, despite attempts to convert them into family units, are still last-choice homes for many seeking work closer to the city.

The KwaMashu, Glebelands and KwaMakhutha hostels in KwaZulu-Natal have rapidly become home to thousands of families, including women and children. The detritus of displacement and unemployment in the hostels is obvious. The concrete kitchen tables and steel lockers stand as monumental traces of a prejudiced and cruel era for black South African labourers pre-1994.

The communities all bear the same brunt, sidelined and deprived of dignified living conditions. "Like these spaces we call home, our dreams and hopes are box-shaped and narrow."

Pinky Sithole and S'lungile Makhanya say these words almost simultaneously, a distinct sentiment they share. An immediate dismissal of the topic from the two friends darkens the mood. They each stop talking.

Sithole, 29, and Makhanya, 31, are neighbours in the KwaMakhutha Hostel south of Durban. Makhanya, an active community leader and member of civic organisation Ubunye bamaHostela (Hostels United), is seated alongside Sithole in the latter's home.

Sithole was born and raised at the hostel. Almost hopelessly, she asserts that she has given up the dream of making it out of there. She's the oldest in her family, responsible for her three siblings and their children. The Sithole family was raised by both parents and this role has now passed on to her.

"It pains me to know that my child will grow up in the same circumstances, no different than mine. The money that I earn is only barely enough to feed my siblings and children. And so, dreams of making it out of the hostel and into a dignified place to call home remain dreams forever. In fact, you almost stop dreaming when you wake up each day under the same circumstance your parents died in," says Sithole.

KwaMakhutha Hostel has been in existence for more than 30 years. The four-roomed unit is plastered in rough cement that is painted white. Sithole and her two sisters each have children and their younger brother, who is in grade 11, often sleeps in his friend's room. The family of eight shares the four-roomed unit with another family.

"It's not easy raising a family in a one-roomed space, staying with an estranged family under the same roof makes it even harder. This is not a place where children can grow. It's not safe or normal," says Sithole.

Harsh legacy

Sithole says that for her, living in a hostel reveals the harshness left behind as apartheid's legacy. She urges the municipality to "notice" and change the living conditions in hostels.

"Our parents came here to try and foster a better life, they never intended to die here. Our mother died still hoping things would change. My father is sickly and retired. He's left me with the responsibility for the family.

"And it has become clear to me that the hostel dwellers were never meant to make it out. The hostels house many families with children and the municipality should consider converting them into family homes, because it is not everyone who can afford moving into rented space," says Sithole.

"We try and celebrate our birthdays and make parties for our children. We even have braais on special occasions like Christmas, and thanksgiving ceremonies. Although we might be living in an environment that I feel isn't normal, we owe it to ourselves to make the best of the life we have."

Tension and violence

About 15km away is the Glebelands Hostel, which also bears the harsh residue of a destitute generation that was part of systematised engineering.

The tension is stronger than the high-walled and aged red-brick walls. Another consequence of a past fuelled by displacement and politics. The unkind fortress, poverty and cultural differences have created a deep disparity, to which is commonly attributed the killings and violent crimes that continue to creep between the hostel's passages.

According to an August 2019 report by community activist Vanessa Burger, titled Building Resilience in Glebelands Hostel, the four-storied hostel has 71 blocks, with at least 22 000 residents.

The report says the unemployment rate at Glebelands is estimated to be between 60% and 70%. The crowded rooms and hallways during the day attest to the alarming unemployment rate.

After she lost her husband to the hostel's violence in June 2015, Mamotena Pina, 48, found herself at a crossroads. The struggle to support their family of five was soon in Pina's hands. To help curb her poverty, she started selling vetkoek from the compact kitchen of the four-roomed unit she shares with her family.

'Painful to continue'

Pina arrived at the hostel with her husband, Themba Pina, in 1996. Moving between blocks with shared rooms and ablution facilities, they finally moved to Block Q where there were able to cohabit as a single family.

"It's painful to continue to live in a space that killed my husband and essentially turned my life upside down. He was shot and killed outside his work, and now I work twice as hard to make sure that my children, grandchildren and grandmother have food on the table daily. I wish I could go somewhere else, but the situation has let me with no choice but to stay here because rent is one less worry," says Pina.

Pina's vetkoek, containing polony or cheese, are ready by 7am. She sells the popular combinations for R2.50 each, making a weekly profit of about R400.

"Everyone loves vetkoeks. I have customers all over the hostel, even the notorious hitmen who terrorise the hostel come to buy my vetkoeks. I sell to them. After all, we all live here together and there isn't anything that I can do to them. Workers buy the vetkoeks before heading to work, and during the day my customers are the unemployed residents around the hostel.

"The hostel isn't an easy place to call home. But for people like us, all we can do is to make the best of it and survive so that at least our children make it out of here," Pina concludes.

Handed down

The KwaMakhutha and Glebelands hostels share similar dynamics. The hostels have gradually become hubs for criminals and criminal behaviour. Similarly, the rooms and beds in KwaMashu Hostel have been passed from older to younger generations.

Throughout their existence, these hostels have housed vast numbers of people from rural areas who come to Durban to seek employment. New families were often created soon after their arrival. After living there for years, some retired and moved back home. But others never left.

Muziwokuthula Ngidi, 54, has been a resident of KwaMashu Hostel for 30 years. He came to the hostel from KwaMaphumulo in northern KwaZulu-Natal, succeeding his father who also came to find work.

Ngidi is now an activist and community leader at the hostel. There is a firm grip to his handshake, and his courteous and modest manner gives away his northern Zulu origins. The conditions at the hostel enrage him. While being shown around, a man from a group of five standing under a tree shouts: "Take a picture so they can see, asisebenzi (we are not working)."

Ngidi says the dilapidated buildings, unserviced toilets and blocked sewage drains have been made worse by the informal houses built by residents with families.

"More young people who stay at the hostel have opted to build themselves mud or iron shacks. The hostel is still strict in its rule, no women or children can stay at the hostel. This has caused a spike in population, crime and pollution because people are crammed in a small space. You can barely walk in these passages, but there are disabled people as well as children who live in this inhumane condition."

'Unchosen home'

Ngidi left behind his wife and six children. He sees his family every two months. The hostel has been the hub of his dream.

Over the years, he has shared his one-bedroomed unit with family members, friends and strangers. He now lives alone, a rare privilege at the hostel. New and used lottery and sports betting tickets lie stacked, cluttering his kitchen table and bed. "One of these days, I'll strike a win," he says jokingly.

"When I left home, I promised my family a better life. I must remain resilient even though it continues to be tough to make a living. That's how the term ezimpohlweni (bachelor) was coined, impohlwa eats plain bread and tea, just so they can send money back home. When the jobs are scarce you must stick it up here because you'll be going back to an even worse situation. This place then becomes an unchosen home for your entire life."

Ngidi says the large volume of young people living in the hostel, and the growing informal community alongside it, is cause for alarm.

"New generations are being born and bred here, in a place hard to call home. It is highly unsafe for children, and sadly their future is dim. The government has neglected the hostel. They do not regard us as a community deserving of dignified homes and functioning public basics, such as toilets and waste collection.

"What future can a child have if they live and play in a place filled with filth and waste at their doorstep? Hostels no longer serve the purpose they were established to fulfil. There are less to no job opportunities now, yet families continue to grow. The development of this place needs to cater for this important factor. But development is still a far-fetched dream," he says.

All three of the hostels now accommodate families rather than men only, as in the past. Some newer units have also been built, but there are still not enough to accommodate all the hostel dwellers - and the available family units are rented out at rates many cannot afford. Ultimately, the hostels become a permanent home to thousands.

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