Stability Watch

Hostels remain deadly tumour in SA’s body politic

Hostels, monuments of the past

A short news item last week of shots fired from a hostel in Alexandra, Johannesburg, at anti-xenophobia protesters was a chilling reminder of a malignant tumour that has been present in the South African body politic for well over a century.

It also brought back memories of a time in the early 1990s when a wave of conflict around hostels, especially on the Witwatersrand, was threatening social stability while negotiations for the country’s transition to democracy were underway.

I can still, to this day, recall the sharp bark of shots from a hostel in KwaThema, Springs, and of a man dropping down only meters away. I was in a group of people trying to unlock a standoff between angry township residents and ‘Kopdoeke’ who had barricaded themselves inside the hostel.

How serious the situation was at the time, is reflected in a document hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory. Stating that “The detrimental consequences of the system on migrant labourers and their families, as well as the rural communities from which they are recruited, are well documented and are an irrefutable historical fact”, it supplies the following list of incidents at the time in various parts in the country:

  • 17 August 1990: 35 people are killed in fighting between pro-Inkatha hostel dwellers and residents in Soweto;
  • 18 August 1990: Clashes between pro-Inkatha hostel dwellers and residents continue in Soweto, with the death toll in the area rising to 53 and in East Rand townships to 171;
  • 26 November 1990: 13 hostel residents are killed when vigilantes attack a hostel in Dobsonville, Soweto;
  • 16 February, 1992: 12 ANC supporters are killed in an IFP attack on houses and hostels in Esikhaweni;
  • 17 June 1992: One of the most gruesome attacks on township residents is carried out by armed men from Kwa Madala Hostel in Sebokeng, south of Johannesburg. In what has become known as the Boipatong massacre, township residents are butchered and assaulted in their homes by armed hostel dwellers in the middle of the night. As many as 46 people, including women and children, lost their lives and several were maimed;
  • 21 July 1993: Ten residents are killed in an attack by hostel dwellers in Daveyton; and
  • 1 August 1993: Phola Park, East Rand: As township warfare spreads, a woman grieves over her husband’s death, following a night attack by residents of a nearby Zulu hostel. Fourteen hostel dwellers and residents are killed in clashes between hostel dwellers and Phola Park residents located in the Thokoza Township on the East Rand, near Johannesburg.

This particular report only deals with incidents at hostels directly linked to the mining industry that had started the practice of ‘labour compounds’ more than 130 years ago. Other incidents not linked to mines, like the one in KwaThema and elsewhere, are not listed. It does also not fully explore to what extent these conflicts impacted on the ‘homelands’, especially KwaZulu-Natal, from where the hostel dwellers hailed.

The Rhodes legacy

The history of hostels and the so-called ‘labour compounds’ in the country exposes the extent to which the system of apartheid was a mere broadening of a legacy that can be traced to the days of Cecil John Rhodes’s involvement in the mining industry in the late 19th century. It illustrates to what extent it is an over-simplification to ascribe the anger in the black community towards Rhodes to irrationality.

It is also a history that, if looked at today, gives some perspective on how the ‘us-them’ psychology/culture that still exists between hostel dwellers developed, as well as on a long tradition of bringing labourers from outside South Africa to the country.

The establishment of labour compounds dates back to at least 1885 at the diamond mines of Kimberley, where Rhodes first made his fortune. It was later replicated on the gold mines of the Witwatersrand.

The report by Padraig O’Malley referred to above, quoting from the 1994 commission of enquiry into mine unrest under chairmanship of Judge R.N. Leon, includes the following passages:

  • “At that time (1890) one of the Chamber's (of Mines) primary functions was stated to be “to reduce native wages to a reasonable level because they wanted to prevent competition”, and to find ways and means of recruiting labour. This led to the establishment of a whole process of migrant labour from all over the sub-continents. By 1889, 100 000 black mineworkers were needed on the mines and, at the time, 60% of the labour came from outside South Africa, mainly from Mozambique”; and
  • About the level of wages and the involvement of Rhodes: That these were slave wages cannot be denied by any human being with any sense of integrity. In this regard, the Commission quotes Cecil John Rhodes when introducing legislation in support of an argument for the imposition of a hut tax in order to force people living in the rural areas to seek work in the mines: “‘You will remove them, the natives, from the life of sloth and laziness, you will teach them the dignity of labour, and make them contribute to the prosperity of the State and give them some good return for our wise and good Government.’”

Over the years the system of accommodating workers from rural areas in cities and other urban areas were expanded to more industries. For example, the municipality of Durban started building hostels to accommodate dockworkers in 1903.

Transformation deferred

Another commission of inquiry into violence on three Goldfields Mines chaired by Justice J Myburgh (20 September 1996) further built on the work done by the Leon Commission.

Both accepted that the migrant labour system and hostels were undesirable and that they contributed to violence between workers on mines.

In concluding that the compound/hostel system was unnatural, the Leon Commission stated that “from the point of view of the migrant worker, he is divided in half as a human being. That is: a labour unit working at a mine and a family man with his family in the rural areas.”

The report of the Farlam Commission of Enquiry into the 2012 tragedy at Marikana has not yet been released into the public domain and still sits on the desk of President Jacob Zuma.

From what is known in public there can, however, be little doubt that in that instance the stalled process or reforming the hostel system has played a significant role in the violence at the Lonmin mine.

A report in April last year warned that the migrant labour system threatens the stability of important gold and platinum producers.

Against the background of what had happened in the 1990s and since at incidents such at Marikana, government probably did the right thing to mobilise the maximum resources to contain the present xenophobic violence and put some focus on the hostels.

While that is appropriate in the short term, it is essential that all involved – including the mining houses and other institutions – should get the reform of the migrant labour system and its accompanying hostels reformed to rid our society of this malignant tumour once and for all. If not, it will again make our body politic desperately ill.

by Piet Coetzer

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