In one of South Africa’s roughest townships, an overcrowded and dilapidated housing complex has enforced one rule for decades: no men allowed.
Brenda is sitting in a concrete hallway and smoking. The electricity went out the night before, with no sign of when it might return. She had nothing for dinner. The breakfast was water and bread.
“There is nothing good here,” said the 62-year-old, who declined to give her last name.
“No electricity, no water. Nothing is right here.”
A nearby puddle gives off a sickening smell, which overflows from the communal toilets.
She first stepped into this complex, which South Africans call a hostel, more than 40 years ago when she moved from her village to the Alexandra township in Johannesburg, hoping to find a better life.
Since then, democracy has arrived. Her hair turned gray, she gained some weight. Her dreams for a life in Johannesburg disappeared.
Sparkling high-rises rose over the highway in Sandton, the financial center of the city known as the richest square kilometer in Africa.
But she’s lived in the hostel all those decades: eight apartment buildings, five floors each, designed like a prison. The laundry hangs in the hallways. Litter covers the yard.
Her neighbors in this hostel are 8,000 other women, plus 3,000 children. Many were born here. On this morning many played outside, during school hours.
Each flat consists of a single room, with a single mattress, but with many occupants.
The rent is cheap, about R100 per month, but is rarely paid.
Originally, these hostels were built by the white supremacist apartheid government to house black men on the outskirts of South Africa’s cities.
The men often worked in the mines. Women were not allowed in, so their families had to stay behind.
After apartheid, the hostels became popular with Zulus who came to seek their fortune in the economic heart of the country.
The hostels are eye-catching reminders of both South Africa’s dark past and its current problems. They are so synonymous with crime that the police will not always go in.
Successive governments have promised to renovate the hostels, but there is no sign of the money promised.
And unemployment in South Africa is hitting record highs, hitting black women the hardest.
The overall percentage is 34.9%, but it is 41.5% for black women. For white women, the percentage is 9.9%.
In the early 1990s, South Africa suffered from the “Hostel Wars”, when the residences became the scene of deadly clashes.
Supporters of Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress fought the Inkatha Freedom Party, which was secretly supported by white security forces. Hundreds of people died.
‘I have no choice’
An ANC poster still hangs on the wall in the steps of the Helen Joseph Women’s Hostel.
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 was ever 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 the police every 12 minutes, women have created their own alert system here, Patronella Brown said.
She is 32 and has lived here for five years. If there is an attack, residents can blow whistles and their neighbors will arrive in droves to judge vigilantes.
“It’s not a decent place for anyone to stay,” Brown said. “It’s not a place to raise children.”
She recalls newborns being found among the trash, their corpses wrapped in plastic shopping bags.
“Life is painful here,” she said.
For the children who grew up behind the broken windows of the building, their world barely extends beyond the walls.
Phokgedi Lekga was born here and has never known a house other than the small room she shares with her mother.
“The future? It’s so hazy,” she said, taking a drag on a joint.