Gauteng is the product of a 19th and 20th century ‘migrant labour’ system. The mineral revolution required cheap, controlled labour for the white-owned farms, mines and later factories. Male migrants were not allowed to live permanently in ‘white’ areas and so hostels played an important role in this system. Many hundreds of thousands of African men lived in single-sex hostels near their places of work. The hostels – reserved for men only until quite recently – were crowded with prisonlike dormitories where every aspect of life was controlled by colonial and apartheid authorities. Hostels were ‘tribal’ spaces, as the authorities insisted on them being structured according to ethnic and linguistic backgrounds.

To this day, many hostels are still closely associated with Zulu culture. In the early 1990s they were no-go Inkatha Freedom Party strongholds and played a major role in the upheavals of the time. They are still perceived by many South Africans to be inaccessible and unsafe. While these hostels are now home to families, Zulu cultural practices still dominate including the continued role of Zulu Royal families in overseeing the day-to-day management of the hostel. These spaces remain off bounds for visitors, but in Tembisa (a stone’s throw away from the OR Tambo International Airport) one hostel is slowly opening up to tourists.

Ehlanzeni hostel, host Neo Ramothata explains, is one of the largest hostels in Tembisa. It was built in the middle half of the previous century as a panopticon – an institutional building where the design allows all dwellers of the hostel to be observed by watchmen (and police) from a single advantage point.  The watchmen may be long gone, but the hostel still has an overseer in the form of an Induna’nkhulu. The ‘Induna’ reside in what used to be a Police Office, conveniently located at the entrance to the hostel.

According to Ramothata it is unclear exactly how many families reside at Ehlanzeni. Life in the hostel is hard and many residents are unemployed. Makeshift kraals are home to roaming goats.  One middle-aged man we meet shows us into his room. Against the walls hang traditional adornments which he makes from cured animal hide. He pulls up the mattress to reveal that he sleeps on layer upon layer of animal hides not yet fully cured. He shows us a leopard skin adornment and assures us it is fake. Only members of the royal family can wear Ingwe (leopard skin).

While the poverty and harshness of the environment is sobering, hostels like Ehlanzeni keep Zulu cultural traditions alive, especially for music. A Jukebox highlights the importance of Maskanda (in a Wikipedia entry referred to as the “the music of the man who’s got the Zulu blues”). The trek from rural KwaZulu-Natal to the Rand happened on a massive scale. Maskanda developed as an outlet for expressing the sense of exile and loss that these men (and later women) experienced. Maskandi is played on cheap, often homemade, instruments to produce the distinctive polyphonic sound.

Maskandi, traditional dancing and other events take place in a large open space in the centre of the hostel. Here sheep and cattle are also slaughtered and meat grilled on open fires. On our way out, we are taken into the original beer hall. Although the consumption of alcohol by black men was originally prohibited, by the middle of the 20th century, beer halls were introduced albeit strictly controlled. During the 1967 riots, many were targeted by the youth and burnt down as symbols of apartheid control.

As we leave, Ramothata, has to thank every Induna for allowing visitors to Ehlanzeni. These pleasantries take a while to complete but Ramothata assures us the community is pleased by their first visitors.

Neo Ramothata is the winner of the GeePee Township Experience Challenge which saw eighteen new experiences from across nearly fifteen townships in Gauteng compete for best new tourism experience. The competition is an initiative of the Gauteng Department of Economic Development in association with tourism consultancy Place Matters.

 Ramothata is hosted at WTM Africa 2017 courtesy of Place Matters and Better Tourism Africa.