Women live in fear and despair in a South African hostel

A woman can be seen washing clothes in a bathroom faucet at the Helen Joseph Women’s Hostel in Alexandra Township on February 17, 2022. The rule hasn’t changed since apartheid: the place is prohibited for men. In this ramshackle abode in Alexandra, one of South Africa’s most deprived townships, thousands of black women live huddled in filth and fear of crime. Guillem Sartorio, AFP

In one of South Africa’s toughest townships, an overcrowded and run-down housing complex has maintained a rule for decades: no men allowed.

Sitting in a concrete hallway, Brenda fumes. The electricity went out the night before, with no sign of when it might return. She had nothing for supper. Breakfast was water and bread.

“There’s nothing good here,” said the 62-year-old, who declined to give her last name.

“No electricity, no water. Nothing is good here.”

A nearby puddle of water gives off a foul smell, overflowing the communal toilets.

She first entered this complex, which South Africans call a hostel, more than 40 years ago, when she left her village for Alexandra township in Johannesburg, hoping to find a better life.

Since then, democracy has arrived. Her hair turned gray, she gained weight. His dreams of living in Johannesburg have disappeared.

Gleaming skyscrapers loomed across the highway in Sandton, the city’s financial hub known as Africa’s wealthiest square mile.

But she’s spent all those decades living in the hostel: eight apartment blocks, five stories high each, designed like a prison. Laundry is hung in the hallways. Litter covers the yard.

Her neighbors in this inn are 8,000 other women, plus 3,000 children. Many were born here. That morning, many were playing outside during school hours.

– ‘War of the hostels’ –

Each apartment consists of a single room, with only one mattress, but many inhabitants.

The rent is cheap, around 100 rand ($6) a month, but it is rarely paid.

Originally, these hostels were built by the apartheid white supremacist government to house black men on the outskirts of towns in South Africa.

The men often worked in the mines. Women were not allowed, so their families had to stay put.

After apartheid, hostels became popular with Zulus who came to seek their fortunes in the economic heartland of the country.

The hostels are stark reminders of South Africa’s dark past and current problems. They are so synonymous with crime that the police do not always intervene.

Successive governments have promised to renovate the hostels, but there is no sign of the promised money.

And unemployment in South Africa is at record highs, hitting black women the hardest.

The overall rate is 34.9%, but it is 41.5% for black women. For white women, the rate is 9.9%.

In the early 1990s, South Africa suffered from the “hostel wars”, when residences became the scene of deadly clashes.

Supporters of Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress fought the Inkatha Freedom Party, which was secretly backed by white security forces. Hundreds of people died.

– “I do not have a choice” –

On the stairs of the Helen Joseph Women’s Home, an ANC poster still hangs on the wall.

Built in 1972, the hostel has survived decades of change. But the threat of violence remains terrifyingly real.

A few years ago, a woman was raped and stabbed to death in the hallway of what is now Nomvelo Nqubuko’s room. No one has ever been arrested, the 28-year-old said.

“We live in fear but I have no choice,” she said. “I have to stay here.”

In a country where a rape is reported to police every 12 minutes, women here have created their own alert system, Patronella Brown said.

At 32, she has lived here for five years. If there is an attack, the inhabitants will be able to whistle and their neighbors will arrive in force to render justice in self-defense.

“It’s not a decent place for anyone,” Brown said. “This is no place to raise children.”

She remembers newborn babies being found in the garbage, their corpses wrapped in plastic shopping bags.

“Life is painful here,” she says.

For the children who grew up behind the building’s shattered glass, their world barely extends beyond the walls.

Phokgedi Lekga was born here and has never known any home other than the small room she shares with her mother.

” The future ? It’s so blurry,” she said, taking a puff from a joint.

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