What We Can Learn from a ‘Hostel Environment’ in South Africa

The experience of a neglected housing complex shows the importance of state accountability, economic and social rights, and community activism to the broader struggle for freedom.


The experience of a neglected housing complex shows the importance of state accountability, economic and social rights, and community activism to the broader struggle for freedom.

I recently returned from a symposium Freedom House hosted in Johannesburg with civil society partners with whom we work to advance access to justice in eight countries in Southern Africa. Activists, lawyers, and judges shared best practices in helping citizens benefit from the rule of law, in reality and not just on paper. While there, I visited a housing complex in nearby Alexandra (Alex) that was emblematic of the gap between existing conditions and a truly inclusive democracy.

Freedom House teammates and I accompanied representatives of our community-based partner, ACTION Support Centre, to visit a hostel that is home to 11,000 people. The complex was created in 1970 to house mainly Zulu-speaking South Africans associated with the Inkatha movement.

As we approached, our driver (a black former police officer) was obviously concerned. There have been numerous incidents of violence and murder in the area, beyond even the high levels known to Johannesburg and other South African cities. Hostel dwellers have attacked local residents over the years, and now that violence is often aimed at foreigners, such as migrants from Zimbabwe and Mozambique.

Outside the perimeter of the huge housing complex was a sprawling shantytown. Between those meager shacks and the hostel one saw and smelled mounds of fetid refuse that local authorities have not collected, leaving adults and children subject to an unsanitary environment. One of our guides was clearly developing a bad respiratory condition.

To say the complex was dilapidated would be a gross understatement. A fire caused by unsafe conditions, including open cooking burners and poor wiring, had burned the roof off the fourth floor of one wing of the complex. A goat leapt in front of us on that floor, having made its way up from the dreary courtyard.

Toilets were all open, and both they and the long dark halls have reportedly been the scene of rapes.

Each tiny residential unit was designed for one male. But most are now inhabited by a dozen people who sleep in tiny, cramped bunks. Some are inhabited not just by the men the hostel was designed for, but also by many women and families who are there on an informal basis.

Up to four months out of the year, the complex is without water or electricity, and the interruptions in service are utterly unpredictable.

We met with the local induna (traditional leader) and his committee after they guided us around the complex. They expressed exasperation with the municipal authorities to whom they appeal on behalf of the community, demanding that government services for the hostel be delivered.

And yet they remain hopeful. Working with our partner, ACTION Support Centre, they hope to elicit responsive action from authorities, beyond the cynical surge of government services in the run-up to elections like those on August 3. While there are plans to eventually rebuild the hostel, they want it rehabilitated to properly house the residents whom it now serves. They want regular power, water, sanitation, and access to health care.

The Alex community offers four lessons about practical problems and promising responses.

First, marginalized communities lack rights in practice, even if they are enshrined in UN treaties or gold-standard constitutions, like South Africa’s, that are devoted to social inclusion. This problem develops not just when dissent is muzzled or corruption runs rampant. It emerges when governments lack accountability for failure to deliver on their promises—in this case basic social services.

Second, access to justice and accountability is often related to economic and social aspirations. Political and civil rights on the one hand and economic and social rights on the other are not as separate or hierarchical as many observers suggest. To fight for people’s dignity in the fullest sense, even an organization like Freedom House—known for monitoring, assessing, and advancing political rights and civil liberties such as freedom of expression—must not and does not neglect economic and social opportunity.

Third, government accountability helps to stem violence, whether it is violent crime, violence committed to get an unaccountable state’s attention, or violence against scapegoated groups (like migrants) in communities where the state’s failure to deliver basic services has fueled acute economic anxiety.

Fourth, some of the most important civil society efforts to fight for rights and access to justice are community based. Human rights organizations based in a country’s capital remain important and deserve external assistance to effectively develop and implement their own strategies. But community-based organizations that reach far beyond capitals are increasingly what is most needed, and they too deserve help on capacity and coordination from the international community.

The hostel at Alex and the partnerships addressing its residents’ needs underscore the necessity of accountable governments and justice systems that deliver for ordinary people, as well as the value of community-based voices that can not only demand but realize these aims. Goal 16 of the UN Sustainable Development Goals rightly emphasizes their importance. South Africa is rich with assets, especially its people. To retain hope and thrive, they deserve assistance in raising their own voices—and they deserve authorities who listen.