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A hostel life

What is it like to live in a women’s hostel? Ma Ambe Maseko tells us…

“Life here in the hostel is terrible. We only live here because we have nowhere else to go,” says Ma Ambe Maseko, one of the many women who live in the Alexandra Women’s Hostel.

The hostel building is six stories high and has no lift. Its windows are broken and dirty. The yard is filthy and is full of long grass and weeds. But this ugly building, that is owned and run by the Alexandra City Council, is home to over 4 000 women.

The hostel was built in 1972 after the government decided to turn Alexandra township into a city of hostels for workers. Houses were bulldozed and whole families were forced to move to other townships.

After the bulldozers, came the builders. Three hostels were built — two for men and one for women. All the while the people protested and in 1979, they forced the government to put a stop to their plans of making Alex a hostel township.

Even so, one lonely women’s hostel remains and it is here that Ma Ambe and 3 999 other women live.


As we walked around the hostel with Ma Ambe, she told us why the women stay here. “We do not live here because we want to. Most of us come from the rural areas. Many are domestic workers or factory workers. Some of us are divorced, or our husbands have died. We all live here because we have no choice.”

We asked Ma Ambe about her life and how she came to live in the hostel. “I was born in the small township of Mampatile near Warmbaths,” she said. “I came to Johannesburg in 1975 after I got divorced. I then worked as a domestic worker in Kelvin, a white suburb near Alexandra. I slept in the backroom of my employer’s house. The room was very small and the wages were bad. So I left to find a job in a factory.”

Ma Ambe did many jobs after that, as a domestic and as a factory worker. And always she struggled to find a place that was near her work and also her church — Ma Ambe is a churchgoer and a member of the choir of the Lutheran Church in Alexandra.

At one time, she was staying in a back-room in Sandton. She had to travel every day to choir practice. “It was very dangerous to travel by myself,” she says. “One day I told one of my friends in the choir that I was going to stop coming to practice. I told her I was risking my life every time I came. My friend said she would speak to the superintendent of the hostel and see if there were any empty beds. There were and I moved in straightaway. That was ten years ago.”


At first, Ma Ambe was very happy about moving into the hostel. Now she could go to choir practice every night without travelling far. But her happiness didn’t last long.

She got her first shock when she saw her room. “The room was tiny, and could only fit four single beds. I felt the mattress — it was thin and hard. There were no plugs, no heating and no water taps in the rooms. Today, ten years later, nothing has changed. Except the rent, of course. That just keeps going up.”

The hostel residents pay R24.50 a month. This means that for each room with four people, the rent is R98.00 a month — or R98 000 for 4000 people. For this they get a bed, a hard mattress and a small locker to keep their belongings.

The hostel is divided into blocks of 144 women and each block shares the bathrooms and kitchen. There are only four bathrooms in each block. Ma Ambe tells us that there is hot water for two hours a day — from two to four o’clock in the morning.

There is only one kitchen with 24 gas stoves and a dining hall with steel tables and benches. Four women share a locker for their pots and pans. There are no fridges. The residents have to wait their turn to cook. While they are cooking, they watch their pots carefully because stealing is a big problem.

The kitchen is very dirty. Ma Ambe says that the people who are supposed to clean it don’t do it. In fact, the hostel is hardly serviced at all, even though part of the rent money pays for servicing.


“We pay so much but we get nothing,” says Ma Ambe, as we walk down a cold dark corridor. “Look here, for example. You see the water running all over the place. Over here, the globes have fused. We have to pay for new globes ourselves.

“We haven’t got post boxes so letters get lost. Telegrams don’t arrive. One resident missed the funeral of her mother because she did not get the telegram. When she went home three weeks later, she learnt that her mother had already been buried.”

Ma Ambe complains that there is no place for the women to meet at night. The hall where the women used to gather is being rented out as a night club. “We cannot even listen to the radio or watch television because there are no plugs in the walls.”

Another thing that worries Ma Ambe is that there is no First Aid centre and no transport to take the women to the nearby Alexandra Clinic. Ma Ambe remembers how an old woman died because of this.

“In 1989, a woman in my block suddenly got very sick. We ran to the municipal police for help and told them to call an ambulance. They said there was nothing they could do because they haven’t got a phone. We also couldn’t phone because we are not allowed to have telephones in our rooms. One woman had a car and she rushed to the Alex Clinic to get an ambulance. But by the time the ambulance came, the woman was dead.

“What makes me angry is that I believe this woman would be alive today if there was a clinic or even a First Aid centre here. Or even if we had telephones. But the City Council won’t let us. They treat us like animals.”


Getting visitors is also a problem for the hostel women. There is no intercom to call the residents when their visitors arrive. So the visitors have to ask the municipal guards outside the hostel to go inside and call the person.

Ma Ambe says that the guards often don’t come — they are too lazy to walk up six flights of stairs. So visitors spend long hours waiting at the gate.

Many visitors leave without seeing their people. Those visitors who manage to see the person they came to visit can only remain for a few hours. “Relatives often come from far away to see us,” says Ma Ambe. “And when they arrive, they cannot stay here. The room is too small and all the beds are single. Even our own children cannot stay here. It is very painful. We have to ask people in the township to give them a place to stay, but their houses are matchboxes as well.”

Ma Ambe has two sons. They have never seen the room where their mother lives. No men — even husbands and sons — are allowed into the hostel. If a man wants to see a woman, he must wait outside in the cold or the rain for her. There is no waiting room.

On the other hand, drunk men sometimes get past the guards and into the hostel. The women are frightened of these men who may come to steal or rape. “Sometimes at night, you leave your room to go to the toilet in your nightie and you see a man in the corridor. If that happens, we shout “indoda!” (man) to wake the other women up. We all go out with spoons, forks, pots lids and even high heel shoes so that we can protect ourselves. We do not like doing this but we know what will happen if we do not defend ourselves.”


Ma Ambe says that the women have no confidence in the municipal policemen — or “green beans” as they are called in the townships — who are supposed to guard the hostel. “If you complain about something, they tell you it is not their business, that there is nothing they can do for us.

“The Block Ladies do not help either,” she says. The idea of Block Ladies came from Sam Buti, when he was mayor of Alexandra in 1983. Block ladies are supposed to solve problems among the hostel women. But Ma Ambe says they are useless. “They were not chosen by the women and they do not do their duty. Instead of solving the problems, they call the police. All they know is to call the police when there is a clash,” says Ma Ambe bitterly.

We asked Ma Ambe about the Alex City Council’s plan to privatise the hostels. The three hostels are going to be sold for R8 million. Already people have put down a deposit to buy them. It is not known if the new owners will keep them as hostels, or turn them into family accommodation. But it is clear that the new owners will charge more rent.

Ma Ambe is against the privatising of the hostels. “We earn so little,” she says. “How will we afford the rent?”

“I think that the hostels should become women’s residences for women like me who have no husband or family in Johannesburg. But the hostels must be improved. We need more bathrooms and kitchens, plugs, heaters, a health clinic and telephones.

“I believe we can get all this if we unite and fight together. We do not like the life of a hostel but we have nowhere else to go. That is why we must stand together for our demands. I know that if we can do that, we will win in the end.”


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