The Architecture of Apartheid


Hostels are buildings designed for total control.

Often shaped like prisons, hostels are a ubiquitous feature of the rural and urban South African landscape.

As South Africa enters its 26th year of democratic freedom, the question of what to do with the gigantic structures remains. Should they be preserved as historic monuments, razed to the ground, or improved and upgraded?

Originally built to house black labourers in the diamond and gold mines, hostels were designed to enforce total control. 

Seen from the air they are symmetrical buildings, almost beautiful.

"They are radically utilitarian in terms of architecture," says Cape Town-based architect Henrich Wolff. 

"They were built as cheaply as possible, with zero provision for any spaces of socialisation, entrepreneurship, employment, or opportunity. They are actually de-urbanising, misanthropic structures, designed to dehumanise, genderise, and increase ethnic separation."

Yet the existing hostels remain as spaces of home, employment, and community for tens of thousands of South Africans. They provide accommodation in areas where thousands live in informal housing, and are seen by many as desirable. 

Population living in public and private workers hostels

Hostel: A communal living quarters for workers provided by a public organisation or a private organisation such as a mining company.
Stats SA

Many hostels have already been upgraded - adding walls, doors, windows and toilets to formerly austere communal dormitories.

They are perplexing spaces, freighted with the weight of the past and the promise of the future.


Mining in South Africa at the end of the 19th century was a labour-intensive activity. Extracting gold and diamonds buried deep underground required the labour of tens of thousands of workers. First the diamond fields of Kimberley, and then the reef areas of the Witwatersrand swelled with money, power - and men.

The question was how to handle this vast influx of black labourers? Integrating them into the city was not an option, and therefore labour was intended to be transitory. They were not to settle into the surrounding communities, neither physically nor mentally. They were not allowed to bring their families to visit or live with them.

The ideal architecture of containment needed to be developed by mine owners for these quite specific use cases. The "compounds" needed to be sturdy, robust buildings with controlled entrances and exits. Their locations were to be near centres of authoritarian power, mine security, police, and administration blocks, but far enough away from white communities so as to not be visible. Their construction made no allowances for comfort, recreation, or social integration.

"The Compound itself is again surrounded a few yards away from its walls by a railing, indicating unmistakably that the property is private property and trespassers will be prosecuted. No unauthorised person will be able to approach the walls of the compound unless to be able to elude the vigilance of the guard. In this way also the whole of the Central Company’s works have been wired in so that the K**** will never be off his employer`s ground. He will betake himself to the mine on a pathway well inside this fence and will never, without a permit, go outside it."

The perfect structure was conceived and iterated over decades, beginning in Kimberley but soon expanding to Johannesburg and the rest of the country. Borrowing from both traditional ideas of the laager, as well as the modern philosophy of panopticon control, a version of the modern hostel emerged. 

Compound B

Compound B, a former hostel near Roodepoort in Gauteng, is unremarkable in every way except for its history. It was the site of the world's largest gold rush, where hundreds of thousands of men toiled deep underground in hot, dangerous conditions to extract enormous wealth from the earth. 

The fortunes of wealthy white industrialists, the founding of the city of Johannesburg, and even the country itself, was in part shaped here on the backs of black African migrant labourers. 

The compounds which housed them, as well as the massive mine dumps punctuating the skyline, still stand as monuments to their exploitation and sacrifice.

Today, the area near Roodepoort, including the hostel land called Fleurhof, is undergoing development by the City of Johannesburg to provide affordable housing to area residents. In just a few short years, the land surrounding Compound B has gone from empty fields to apartment blocks, and the question of how to develop the hostel itself still vexes city planners. 

Over the last decade the number of people living in hostels in Gauteng decreased considerably.

A 2014 heritage impact assessment [PDF] by PGS Pretoria and Graham Jacobs makes clear that Compound B "is of high local and potential regional significance as a rare surviving architectural example of its period" and recommends its preservation as a historical building.

The report also reads that "reasons for this support include the complex being a source for new housing. In other words, support among these respondents for the retention of Compound B is not always on heritage-related grounds."

In short, how can we preserve memory while being realistic about the housing crisis in Gauteng? Is it possible to do both or neither? Similar debates exist across the country - notably in Cape Town's District Six. However, the unique design of hostels such as Compound B makes it especially difficult to decide what to do, especially if community integration is a key outcome.

"Some redevelopments work due to the nature of the original layout," says Christo Vosloo, a professor in the Graduate School of Architecture at the University of Johannesburg. 

"But the layouts of many - if not most - hostels are such that it cannot easily become an acceptable humane urban environment after re-development. Provision for their upgrading must form part of a holistic urban and housing policy."

Control of the population was the first priority in hostel design. Minimising the number of entrances made the hostel easy to contain and control. In the case of Compound B, there are two with the main entrance flanked by hostel administration and security offices.

A central wash house, boiler room, and cooking facility meant that all activities of life were to be done within the compound walls. This contributed to the idea of the hostel as a "total institution", insulated from the outside world. 

In later years, some urban hostels were built with beer halls in a central location, both to deaden the monotony of life, and as a source of income for the white brewers who would sell it.

The housing blocks all face inward, and exterior walls lacked doorways to the outside world. In some cases windows also did not open to prevent the passage of contraband. Each block housed 20 workers sleeping on concrete bunks stacked three high. 

All life was directed inwards to a central courtyard. The architecture of surveillance, where one security officer could quickly scan the entire compound, was alive and well.

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Lwandle Hostel

Lwandle hostel near Cape Town is easy to miss, an intentional design element envisaged by the planners who built it. It was constructed with a 250m wide buffer strip, which separates the hostel from the N2 road and the adjacent formerly white neighbourhoods of Strand and Somerset West. 

The myriad footpaths leading into and out of Lwandle belied its utility as workers' accommodation, to be hidden from sight, tucked away in a field far from the fruit canneries in which many were employed.

Lwandle was laid out according to the "Kimberley model", referring to the compounds developed by De Beers around their diamond mine. The single-sex workers’ blocks were laid out in a chevron pattern allowing for a clear line of sight between the blocks by authorities standing in a central location. Each block housed up to 32 workers sleeping on concrete bunks, whose lives were effectively reduced to a "bedhold".

In 1993, Lwandle became one of the first sites to upgrade under the government’s Hostels to Homes project. The compound saw in-situ upgrades to facilities, buildings and infrastructure, as well as the conversion of the single-sex dormitories into family homes.

As part of this process, one hostel building was preserved as a museum, a relic of the old dormitory style which has since become an anchor in the community for memory, reflection, and outreach. 

Careful curation of the museum and oral histories are seen as vital components of bridging the gap between past and present.

"The idea was that these interviews (oral histories) on display would not become representative of 'voice of the people'", writes Jos Thorne in her 2008 book "Designing Histories". 

"Rather, by 'creating a presence of people in a museum', the intention was that they would provide an impetus for others to come forward and tell their stories." 

Memory-making and memory-preserving have important roles to play in understanding the experience of living in a hostel.

Redevelopment must take not only urban planning, but social dynamics, history, and community psychology into account in this highly emotional space.

"[T]he more time I spent in the hostel, the more I came to realise that there is so much more that goes beyond the brick walls and the beds of these spaces", writes Nocebo Bucibo, a South African photographer who has done extensive ethnographic work inside hostels in Gauteng. 

"I was getting exposed to the sounds, smells, atmosphere and ‘aura’ of the hostel. This was not physical but rather what I describe as spiritual attributes, which may trigger one’s memory in a particular direction."

By the late 1980s, the population estimated to live in hostels was between 400,000 and 1 million, and while accurate numbers are difficult to access today, many tens of thousands still live in hostel buildings.  

"429,085 South Africans live in hostels. Gauteng has the highest number, while Free State has the least."
2018 General Household Survey

In 2018 the Minister of Human Settlements stated that "The total number of hostels in the country is 166 excluding hostels in Limpopo. The total number of hostels in each province since 1 January 1994 is as follows:"

Total number of hostels in each province since 1 January 1994

Government policy, as implemented through the department of human settlements, is to upgrade hostels under its ownership according to the Community Residential Unit (CRU) programme. Upgraded hostels are seen as critical components of the national social housing sector, and is enthusiastically supported by members of government and civil society.

"[The government will] gradually abolish hostels in our towns, and hostel dwellers who have lived in our towns for a number of years would qualify for a Breaking New Ground house, or the CRU (community residential units) subsidy, depending on their specific circumstances", former Minister of Human Settlements Lindiwe Sisulu told parliament in 2015. "They are a very painful relic of our past... They [hostel residents] should live as part of society."

Many challenges remain. Crime has increased, with urban hostels in Alexandra and Durban developing reputations as murder hotspots. Reduced administrative oversight and budgets, and social upheaval in a population used to single-sex accommodation have led some hostel residents to report feelings of confusion, malaise, and fear.

"The government seems to promote urbanisation, while migrants want to continue moving from rural to urban areas only in order to make a living," writes Nomkhosi Xulu-Gama, a Durban-based writer who spent years researching hostels in KwaZulu-Natal.

In her book, Hostels in South Africa, she wrote: "The government promotes nuclear families and acknowledges female-headed households, while hostel-dwellers are happy with their polygamous marriages and extended families. In short, the government and the hostel dwellers do not see eye-to-eye on many issues."

Not only is the government faced with an incredible task, that of inheriting and then managing these dystopian living quarters, it must now decide how to interpret the future vision of South African society through the lens of what came in the past, and what exists in the present. They are complex places, perplexing places, and indelibly written on the landscape. As Wolff says, they are "South Africa's unique contribution to world architecture."