Changing hostels into homes


Renovations: Long a source of conflict, South Africa's apartheid-era quarters for migrant workers are to be integrated into the surrounding communities.

January 21, 2001|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

SOWETO, South Africa - For many years in this sprawling black township, few addresses were as synonymous with crime, violence and despair as Meadowlands Hostel.

Built during the apartheid era, when whites ran the government, Meadowlands was part of apartheid's grand plan to create a pool of cheap black labor to work in Johannesburg's factories and mines. Men from the countryside could come to live in the huge barrack-like hostels but were forbidden to bring their families with them. The men lived with a minimum of privacy and comfort.

Packed with more than 10,000 male laborers, Meadowlands festered into a center of unrest and sparked some of the worst township violence, earning it the nickname "death hostel."

But in the new South Africa, apartheid's imprint on the landscape is beginning to be stripped away. Now, a walk through Meadowlands finds children playing soccer in the alleyways, families living in renovated apartments with kitchenettes and indoor bathrooms, and young couples asking how they can make Meadowlands their new home.

The changes under way at Meadowlands are part of the government's effort to improve appalling living and social conditions in the nation's 178 hostels, where more than 1 million people live.

The project is more than new roofs, private bathrooms and fresh paint; it is also about healing wounds between the hostels and the surrounding townships. Divided by tribal, political and social differences and a history of violence, hostel dwellers and township residents have often been estranged. But as the improvements continue and more families move in, the line separating hostels from the townships is beginning to fade.

"People think that people who live in hostels are nobodies. Now we are treated equally. People in the township want to know how they can move in," says Tiny Mazibuko, who lives with her husband in a renovated apartment with a fresh coat of pink paint.

Mazibuko and her husband moved to Meadowlands 10 years ago when they could not afford any other place to live. (Although the hostel was still primarily "men only," Meadowlands had allowed some families to rent empty units.)

"I'm living a much better life now," says Mazibuko, washing the outside of her apartment on a recent afternoon. She pays rent of about $3.50 a month. "I'm happy to have my very own toilet and bathroom. What is in your house is yours and your family's."

What's more, she no longer needs to be ashamed of where she lives.

It was not always that way. Tension between hostel-dwellers and township residents has existed almost as long as the hostels. Living alone away from their families and homes, the migrant workers who filled the hostels had few ties to the community. Most were members of the Zulu tribe, and they did not easily accept the diversity of languages and cultures that characterized township life.

The differences came to a head in 1976, when Soweto became embroiled in protests after police killed two students demonstrating against the government. In the weeks of mass protests that followed, students organized a mass strike. Many township workers heeded the call, but the migrant workers in hostels, less connected to township life, ignored it.

In retaliation, students stoned hostel residents and tried to set Meadowlands Hostel on fire. Fighting erupted between the hostel dwellers and the students. Before a truce was called, about 70 people were killed.

Hostels became the battlegrounds again in 1990, when the Zulu-led Inkatha Freedom Party and Nelson Mandela's African National Congress party fought to determine who would shape South Africa's future. The hostels' largely Zulu population proved to be a perfect support base for the Inkatha Party. And the townships supported the ANC. It was chemistry for disaster.

From August 1990 through 1993, township residents and hostel tenants fought hundreds of skirmishes in which thousands were killed. Many hostels became akin to quasi-military regimes with weapons stores, warlords and warriors.

Hostel dwellers not sympathetic to the cause fled or were forced to join.

Brandishing spears and clubs and wearing red headbands, hostel dwellers launched attacks on the surrounding communities. And township youths, supporting the ANC, retaliated in kind.

"When you lived in the hostel, you couldn't go into the township," recalls Mazibuko, who moved to empty hostel units just before the violence erupted. "I couldn't send my children to school, and I couldn't visit my parents."

"Those days were terrible. You weren't free to do anything. You weren't free to walk around," recalls Petros Hlongwane, chairman of the residents' committee at Soweto's Dube Hostel, where clashes often occurred as migrant workers walked to and from the nearby train station.

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