By Hassan Isilow
The smell of marijuana filled the air as men dressed in blue garments danced to traditional Zulu songs blasting from huge speakers in a mini-bus taxi parked outside a men’s hostel in Jeppestown, a Johannesburg suburb.
“This place has a bad reputation for crime and violence. Be careful,” a security officer driving through the area warned us as we tried to park our car near the hostel and interview residents.
Last month, residents of the hostel were the first to attack foreign nationals living in their neighborhood amid a spate of anti-immigrant violence that had just spilled over from the coastal city of Durban to parts of Johannesburg.
They looted shops belonging to foreigners and set some of their cars and workshops on fire.
When we arrived at the hostel, residents were seen going in and out of the building.
Some were loitering on the streets, while others played cards outside the building.
“Who are you looking for?” asked one curious man.
When we asked for the caretaker of the hostel, he pointed to the men playing cards.
A man in his late 30s politely introduced himself as Radebe.
“I am not the caretaker. The induna [chief] of our hostel is not here today,” he said in isiZulu, the language of the Zulu people, South Africa’s largest ethnic group.
“But I will help take you around,” said Radebe, wearing a string made of animal’s skin on one of his arms.
But he refused to allow any photo-taking while taking us on a tour of the hostel.
Radebe, a taxi driver, lives in the hostel, just like his late father, who had worked in the mines.
“Living conditions here are not so good, but it’s free accommodation,” he told Anadolu Agency. “So it helps me save money to send back home.”
In South Africa, hostels are managed by local municipalities.
They provide free accommodation and, at some hostels, guests don’t pay for the use of electricity or water.
It is estimated that there are over 50,000 people living in hostels throughout the Gauteng province, which includes both Johannesburg and Pretoria.
Over 10,000 people are believed to live at the Jeppestown hostel alone, which was originally designed to accommodate only 3,000.
Men’s hostels were established in South Africa during the apartheid era to accommodate black male migrant laborers from South African provinces and neighboring countries.
Under apartheid, black people were not allowed to mix with whites, so they constructed hostels for migrant laborers to live in.
Women were not allowed to stay in the hostels with their husbands.
During the apartheid era, hostels catered to both South African migrant laborers – the backbone of South Africa’s mining industry – and those from the wider southern Africa region.
After the end of apartheid, some families moved into the hostels to join their breadwinners.
During the climax of the struggle for freedom in the 1990s, hostels took center stage in the violence between supporters of The Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) and those of the African National Congress, which came to power in 1994 after the end of the apartheid.
“Historically, it’s true that hostels are connected to crime,” Prof. Andre Duvenhage of Northwest University told Anadolu Agency.
He said hostels were part of the old apartheid system and were meant to cater to migrant workers coming from rural areas on a temporary basis.
“When the new government came in, it should have dismantled the hostel system,” said Duvenhage, noting that, during the transition period in the early 1990s, members of the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) would battle supporters of the African National Congress (ANC) at the hostels.
But more recently, the dwellings have turned into places associated with crime and violence.
“We sometimes hear gunshots at night from the hostel,” George Malulike, a resident of Jeppestown, told Anadolu Agency.
“I fear driving past whenever it’s late,” he said.
Malulike said residents lived in fear whenever hostel dwellers protested or engaged in acts of violence.
“Some motorists were stoned on this road during the recent xenophobic violence,” he recalled.
Malulike said he planned to soon move from the neighborhood.
South Africa was recently rocked by a spate of anti-immigrant attacks.
The violence began in April in Durban, where mobs descended on the homes and shops of a number of foreign migrants.
The victims were accused of stealing jobs from native South Africans, committing crimes, and putting a burden on the country’s social services.
The violence, which left seven people dead, including three South Africans, has forced scores of migrants from Malawi, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and other African countries to leave the country.
Earlier this month, police and the military raided the Jeppestown and Alexandra hostels in response to anti-immigrant attacks in parts of Johannesburg.
Several people were arrested after being found in possession of drugs and stolen goods looted from foreign-owned shops.
Most residents of the Jeppestown hostel are from the kwaZulu Natal province and pay allegiance to Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini, who was widely accused of making the statements that first triggered the anti-immigrant violence in Durban.
Zwelithini has since denied making the remarks, insisting that he was misquoted.
But Bongani Mdu, a 29-year-old unemployed hostel resident, insisted that not all residents were criminals.
“Our government has neglected us for a long time,” he told Anadolu Agency, adding that the protests were meant to express anger at the government.
“Foreigners come here and get jobs, while others open businesses to compete with our brothers [i.e., fellow South Africans],” he said bitterly.
Mdu said some foreign nationals were involved in selling drugs and other criminal activity.
“Some of these foreigners sell drugs to our children and brothers,” he asserted. “This is destroying our country.”
“Some have even taken our girlfriends, so we have to fight,” he added.
But many South African homeowners living in Jeppestown say the hostel has become a den of crime.
“They are violent and some are robbers,” said one resident on condition of anonymity.
“Some of these people are hit men hired to kill other people,” she alleged.
The resident went on to say that marijuana and other drugs were also sold at the hostel.
“We live in fear in our own homes because of these people in the hostels,” she said.
Gauteng Police Spokesman Lungelo Dlamini said police efforts to combat crime were ongoing throughout the province.
“I can’t say that hostels are generating crime,” he told Anadolu Agency.
Dlamini said that police always act on tipoffs, deploying to areas where crime was reported, not necessarily hostels.
“We have our sector commanders and police patrolling to fight crime. But I can’t say crime is from hostels,” he insisted.
The South African government is planning to shut several hostels in which people live in poor conditions, eventually revamping them into new homes with a view to providing residents with dignity and better lives.