Crumbling hostels refuse to go away

‘At one point, [Nelson] Mandela wanted to fence us in and [Inkatha Freedom Party president] Mangosuthu [Buthelezi] said: ‘No, you can’t treat my people like dogs.'”

When Boy Simelane made that statement at his kitchen table in the  Mzimhlophe hostel in Soweto, it seemed innocuous enough. But, in fact, it revealed a lot more than it was probably meant to.

Much about the so-called community residential units seems to suggest an obscuring, rather than eradication, of the hostels.

In Dube, in the heart of Soweto, one could miss the eponymous hostel when travelling in a northerly direction up Ndlovu Street, away from the busy thoroughfare that can be considered its central business district. The empty cluster of double-storey units is the epitome of a Potemkin village, with its shaky workmanship and hollow promise of a brighter future.

In Mzimhlophe, there is a similar though less convincing illusion when one travels eastward along the snaking Modise Street, which, more or less, functions as a southern border of this teeming bricks-and-mortar slum. New developments at the western entrance, along with a clutch of sprightly township houses only partially obscure Mzimhlophe hostel’s dilapidation.

Sci-fi concentration camp
According to a 2011 portfolio committee on human settlements report, Gauteng has 64 hostels, 13 of which were to be improved in the 2011-2012 financial year.

The Mzimhlophe hostel, which has just a handful of latrines and gravel streets wet with sewage, is not far removed from a sci-fi concentration camp.

Simelane said he initially used his own money to personalise his unit, but in 2005 he received about R15 000 from the Hostel Dwellers’ Fund. The fund was rolled out in tranches before it dried up prematurely, leaving the hostel with its own north-south divide.

Simelane said the construction of rental units for occupation had been an onerous process that took about seven years to complete.

“We suggested that those still in the dilapidated blocks should temporarily occupy the flats while they refurbish the entire hostel,” said Ndlovu, seated in his cramped kitchen on a wintry afternoon. Outside, children were pushing each other around on plastic scooters.

Shoe doctor
“Only 20% of the people in this hostel work. It is R750 per month to get inside those flats. So what about the survey where we stated our financial position?” Ndlovu asked.

The same question could have been asked in the Dube hostel or in the Diepkloof hostel’s Giyane section, where buildings tired of maintaining the apartheid status quo are caving in on their inhabitants.

Overlooking the opulence of Diepkloof’s Zone Five, from where the more handy hostel residents divert their unreliable electricity supply, Lucas Ndlela, a 60-year-old “shoe doctor”, typified the worsening conditions.

“I’ve been doing this for 32 years,” he said from under his Stetson in the unforgiving sun. “I used to make money but not any more. People don’t have jobs any more.”

Simon Mkhize, who after days of badgering finally agreed to take us around the 10 blocks that comprise the Diepkloof hostel, said the morning rush of yesteryear had resembled a sea of black faces. Now, the offspring of all those black faces congregated in the dark pens of hostel wings and watched the seemingly haphazard mushrooming of double-storey units amid their decaying homes.

Progress in reverse
Mkhize said a government survey conducted in 2008 counted about 2800 people living in the hostel. He arrived in Diepkloof in the Eighties and likened the hostel’s continued neglect to progress in reverse.

It is a story that could easily be echoed by Dube hostel induna Qhiyani Mbokazi, except his neighbour, Bongani Malembe, told it with the requisite indignation. In his room across a narrow passage from Mbokazi’s, he handed me a one-page document on a Gauteng department of housing letterhead, titled “Demand Database”. Further down the page it states “Application/Amend Receipt, 14 August 2008”.

“After we got these receipts [apparently proof of a consultation process during which the hostel dwellers declared their financial capabilities], they registered even more people,” Malembe said.

The smell of sorghum beer from a tavern down the passage was constant. “They said we’d rent what we can afford. I was selling sweets at the time so I agreed to between R150 and R200 a month.”

Although Mbokazi was the first Dube resident to speak to the Mail & Guardian, it is prudent to take his pockmarked historiography with a pinch of salt. Although the hostel dwellers present themselves as saints in interviews with the press, a bit of  legwork reveals that they could have manipulated the consultation process.

Dube hostel residents speaking anonymously said they were told to hike their salaries in interviews with housing officials so that the government would build better-looking accommodation. In the case of Dube, in particular, political tensions between the IFP and the National Freedom Party bled into the housing committee’s negotiations, contributing to the stalling of any meaningful engagement.
Several Dube hostel dwellers were arrested last year after they vandalised the empty units.

In June last year, The Star reported that 250 families would have to wait another year as “protesting Dube hostel residents broke down and burned new low-cost flats”. Nineteen people were arrested.

According to the report, the cost of the project, envisaged to comprise 500 units, was about R55.4-million. “Community leader” Sipho Nkwanyana was quoted as saying that the buildings were vandalised because of the prohibitive rentals.

The report also stated that phase one was for people with fixed employment and rentals would be between R1500 and R3500.

Possibility of violence
Phase two, scheduled for 2012, would feature RDP-type finance for those qualifying for a full government subsidy.

Gauteng department of housing spokesperson Motsamai Motlhaolwa was quoted as saying it had received 258 applications for the 150-phase one units. 

Some Dube hostel indunas implied they would not rule out the possibility of violence if outsiders occupied the units, or if they were forced to pay more than R150 a month in rent.

A January 26 2011 report by the portfolio committee on human settlements, written after a visit to Gauteng the previous year, stated that the community residential unit policy had to be reviewed because it was too expensive to implement. “The acquisition, cost and availability of well-located land is hindering housing delivery,” the report stated. 

The department of human settlements refused to answer questions, despite more than a week of persistent requests, and one can only speculate on how it plans to resolve some of these embarrassing stalemates.

Not limited to Gauteng
The problem is not limited to Gauteng. Siyambonga Heleba, a lecturer at the University of Johannesburg’s law faculty, grew up in a Cape Town hostel and wrote a paper outlining the City of Cape Town’s legal obligation to consult the stakeholders in the Hostels to Home project, which affect hostels in Gugulethu, Langa and Nyanga.

“The Gugulethu upgrade stalled because the government said that people couldn’t agree,” he said. “It stalled indefinitely.

“In [the] Gugulethu [hostel], people were divided along political lines. You had a Cope [Congress of the People] section and an ANC section. In that case, the infighting had an effect in that the city stopped.

“I feel strongly that the city had to find creative ways of going ahead so as to close a difficult chapter in our history.”

In outlining the legal framework for public participation, Heleba drew from the Constitution, the Local Government Municipal Systems Act, the Local Government Municipal Structures Act and the Housing Act. He also drew on Constitutional Court cases such as Doctors for Life International vs Speaker of the National Assembly and Others.

Madulamoho, a social housing company that expressed interest in managing the properties in Mzimhlophe, Dube and others, said this week that it had pulled out of the CRU project, although it did not rule out participation at a later stage.

A human settlements department insider, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the absence of a management agent because of the  high level of risk involved, a lack of infrastructure planning and an inadequate consultation process that left people confused about what was involved could be at the heart of reasons why several community residential unit developments remained stagnant.

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Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo is the editor of Friday, the arts and culture section of the Mail and Guardian.

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