/ 24 May 2008

Caught in the hostel trap

The appalling condition of most hostels for migrant workers around Johannesburg haven’t changed since the days of apartheid, despite millions of rands being allocated for upgrading.

Over the past two weeks some of these hostels, which chiefly house Zulu migrant labourers, have been alleged to be linked to the xenophobic violence in the area. Since 1994 the Gauteng housing department has repeatedly promised to improve the hostels, but there are few signs of improvement.

“We hear endless reports that the Department of Housing has allocated funds to improve conditions in our hostels but I have been living here since 1968 and I have seen no improvements,” said Bongani Simelani, an elderly resident of Jeppe Hostel.

Simelani has spent most of his life living in the hostel, which was built more than 60 years ago. He says there are leaking pipes on every floor of the building and that every room has broken windows.

“Not even a pig would live here. There was a time, a few years ago, when we were taken to Zuurbekom and told that we were going to move into RDP houses there, but that never happened,” he said.

At Jeppe hostel many rooms are shared by two or more men, with curtains marking off each man’s space. “There is no way we don’t get to share the rooms because there are too many of us,” said Simelani, who pays R25 for rent each month.

Gauteng housing department spokesperson Mongezi Myani says the department has spent a lot of money trying to improve living conditions for hostel dwellers, but all the money has “resulted in minimal impact”.

Talking about the three hostels in Alexandra, Myani told the Mail & Guardian that power plays within the township made it difficult for the council to improve the hostels.

“We must remember that the hostel dwellers are part of a broader community and all housing typologies are available to them. But the [hostel indunas’] leadership simply refuses to allow hostel dwellers to be allocated housing in projects outside the hostel,” he said.

The housing department said it is in the middle of a R13-million emergency intervention programme to fix major structural and drainage faults. This is scheduled to be completed in March next year, after which the department will tackle electrical and plumbing problems.

The stench from burst sewage pipes emanating from the gates of Madala hostel in Alex prove that drainage problems are urgent.

Acccording to the Housing Department, residents have resisted development of the buildings, including the creation of family units. Myani said the resistance is a result of misunderstanding and residents’ desire to own rather than rent the units.

Another factor that may contribute to the failure to improve hostels is that they are not the responsibility of any one government department.

Deputy director of communications for the Gauteng provincial government, Thabo Masebe, said ownership of the hostels is split between provincial departments of housing, public works and different municipalities. He said plans to revamp all the hostels had been made in 1994 but because of “hiccups” they could not proceed with the plans.

Masebe said he did not believe that the xenophobic attacks that occurred near the hostels were sparked by conditions in the hostels. “We do not know the issue that sparked the violence but we do not allocate houses to foreigners.”