Inside South Africa's 'dangerous' men's hostels

Hostel dwellers stand on the staircase during a joint South African Police and South African army raid in Johannesburg on 21 April 2015 Image copyright AFP

The hostels in South Africa, which for more than 100 years have served as homes for male migrant workers, may be shut down. The single-sex dwellings have been a focus of the recent xenophobic violence that has hit the country's major cities.

Police believe those who carried out some attacks on foreigners lived in the hostels around Johannesburg and Durban.

Many of the residents are unemployed - and the hostels have always been dangerous places to visit, even for the police.

As a crime reporter in the late 2000s, on at least four occasions I was present when officers who entered hostels were killed.

Following the xenophobic attacks - in which seven people died - the police and army jointly raided some of these hostels.

The Jeppestown Wolhuter men's hostel in Johannesburg was the first to be searched for weapons in April.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Hostels in Johannesburg's Alexandra township were raided in April

Some journalists accompanied officers who kicked down doors and ransacked rooms during the night-time raid.

Photographs were published showing men - some in their underwear they had been sleeping in - made to lie down in corridors as the search was conducted.

The media coverage angered the residents - and since then reporters have not been welcome.

But after days of negotiating with the hostel chief Manyathela Mvelase, he finally agreed to show us around the dilapidated three-storey building where washing hangs from grimy windows and the corridors are dark and filthy.

As we walked through the corridors one hostel resident was visibly angered by our presence.

"What are you doing here, are you here to show how we were humiliated by the police?" he asked.

Image copyright Umuzi/Khotso Mahlangu
Image caption Hostel chief Manyathela Mvelase (right) insists hostels are places of poverty, not xenophobia

But he walked away after he saw that we were in the company of the hostel chief.

"Police are discriminating against hostel dwellers; they keep saying criminals live here, but the truth is criminals live all over the country. We didn't start the violence," said Mr Mvelase.

He tried to make me understand that xenophobes do not live in the hostel, but he acknowledged some of the residents looted foreign-owned shops.

"It's only because they're hungry, many are unemployed," he said in their defence.

Sibangani Langa, who has been living in Jeppestown hostel for five years, thinks foreigners get more chances than him.

"The way I see it, African migrants are treated better than South Africans because they are employed," he said.

"They must just go back to their countries, because they're taking our jobs."

Image copyright Umuzi/Khotso Mahlangu
Image caption Young Zulu men move to the city and often stay in hostels when they cannot find work

These hostels, the first of which was built around 1912, have played a huge part in South Africa's social history.

They were meant to accommodate black workers who had moved to cities - often to work in mines - as strict rules meant black labourers could not live in areas designated for white people.

The hostels, the last one was built in the 1980s, were also usually organised by ethnicity.

Post-apartheid, the hostels, run by local municipalities, are now mostly home to thousands of young men from the Zulu ethnic group - the largest in South Africa - who come to cities in search of work.

Some residents do not pay rent, as the local authorities find it difficult to keep a track of who exactly lives in the hostels.

Rooms meant for four people often house 11; the Jeppestown hostel, for example, has 3,200 beds but up to 10,000 people reside there.

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Media captionTraditional male hostels in South Africa could soon be a thing of the past as Nomsa Maseko reports

And it is not the first time that hostels have made headlines.

Before the end of apartheid in 1994 and country's first democratic elections, they had a role in political violence that saw an estimated 20,000 people killed.

The hostels, where many Zulu nationalist Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) supporters lived, were used as bases for those determined to derail the peace process.

The IFP spurred on by white extremists who did not want change, were behind attacks across townships, mostly targeting supporters of Nelson Mandela's African National Congress (ANC) party.

Today many residents still support the opposition IFP - and in Jeppestown Wolhuter not a single ANC poster was on display.

Changing the image of hostels

But the ANC government is now determined to change the image of men's hostels in South Africa - and ordered a review last week of remaining hostels around the country.

Image copyright Umuzi/Khotso Mahlangu
Image caption There are attempts to revamp Buyafuthi hostel in the Gauteng province
Image copyright Umuzi/Khotso Mahlangu
Image caption In a move away from the era of all-male hostels, families now live in Buyafuthi hostel

Buyafuthi hostel in Tokoza, south of Johannesburg, is one of those that has been revamped into accommodation for families.

However, despite the government's good intentions, there is little privacy and up to three families share one unit.

"Each family must have its own flat because sometimes fights break out within the unit," said Busisiwe Langa, who shares a flat with her husband, two children and two other families.

It will take a long time to rid hostels of their reputation.

But as the sound of children playing fills the air, with it comes the hope that one day these South African symbols of violence will be viewed simply as home.

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