Business Day, 22 May 2008

PLEASE NOTE: Readers wishing to reproduce and reference this article
should contact the editors of the Business Day for permission

On the edge of the central business district, Denver might as well not be part of Johannesburg. In what is still a male-only hostel, built during apartheid, people still live several to one room. Most of them are unemployed and come from KwaZulu-Natal. They live a life focused on their immediate surroundings, the developments in their home province and within the party that they support. If there is a convenient bogey for some of the xenophobic attacks in Gauteng, it would be the hostel dwellers at Denver, and Alexandra, where the violence first erupted more than a week ago. Inevitably, these people have been implicated in the mob action and the search for a “third force”. Originally the name of just one hostel, Denver now refers to the cluster that incorporates four other hostels, a sprawling informal settlement, abandoned factories and parts of Jeppestown — all bound together by privation, shack fires and illegal power connections. The only sign of government intervention are rows of shiny aluminium mobile toilets. There are at least 50 old municipal hostels scattered around Gauteng and many more old compounds established by the mines. While some have been renovated and now admit female residents, others still carry on much like before. “Hostel life seems to be quite insular and contained within the hostel,” researcher Jo Vearey says. Some remain places where the police prefer to tread lightly. The old association between the hostels and the bloody political conflict of the ’80s is still too fresh. So are rumours of wanton criminality, including gun-running. No less foreboding in some of them, like Denver, is the political aspect, represented by the dual authority of the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) and traditional Zulu ndunas. Cautious, lest it step on fragile sensibilities, the African National Congress announced earlier this week it had opened lines of communication with the IFP. Several of its senior members, including government ministers, have alluded to a third force that, so far, they have been unable to name. Following “high-level” discussions between the two parties in Gauteng, the IFP says it has been agreed that the anti-foreigner violence is fuelled by “criminal elements and not just by xenophobia”. Spokesman Velaphi Ndlovu says both parties promised to restrain their supporters from engaging in any acts of violence. “We have warned our members that should they be found to be involved in any violation of human rights or any perpetration of xenophobia and violence against foreigners, the IFP will take stringent disciplinary action against them,” he says. But given the IFP’s history, and the militancy of its supporters, the hostel dwellers are seen as likely pawns, whether or not they are acting independently. In Durban, KwaZulu-Natal safety and security MEC Bheki Cele yesterday accused the IFP of involvement in the attack on a Nigerian-owned pub on Tuesday night. Cele blamed the attack on residents of the Dalton Road men’s hostel. Yesterday, police said at least 100 hostel dwellers converged on Durban’s Umbilo suburb, ordering foreigners to leave the province. Residents of the hostel were heard shouting profanities from their windows at the passing foreigners carrying their possessions. Yet Denver resident Thembani maintains that the outbreak of violence was opportunistic and not political. “I don’t think Inkatha was also influential in Atteridgeville,” he says, referring to the attack just outside Pretoria two months ago. Furthermore, the attacks began in the informal settlement, attracting hostel dwellers much later that evening. “They are simply one dimension of the violence; another element is the youth and sheer criminals,” Siphamandla Zondi of the Institute for Global Dialogue says. As for the concentration of violence in peri-urban areas, the hostel dwellers are also a part. “This tension is going to attach itself to anything in order to sustain itself,” Zondi says.