Monday, April 12, 2010

Securing Hostel 33 for the museum purposes

When the Lwandle Migrant Labour Museum was initially conceived of it was only Hostel 33 that was intended to be the museum. However, the museum had been unable to take possession of Hostel 33 as there were people living in it and alternative accommodation had not been found for them either in the Hostels to Homes project or in the RDP houses that were being built in Lwandle. The museum could not evict the residents but it did suggest that they place themselves on the waiting list for new houses. They did this, but for several years those living in Hostel 33 were not allocated new housing in Lwandle. Visitors to the museum (which had relocated to the Old Community Hall in Vulindlela Street) were still taken to Hostel 33 but with permission of those residing there.

By January 2007 the situation had altered. Some of the residents of Hostel 33 had been allocated houses but once they had moved out a new group of young people had moved in without the permission of the museum. The museum had no authority to evict the new inhabitants but the curator was directed by the museum’s board to put up a sign indicating that the hostel was the museum’s property. Although this was done the youth took little heed of this. Problems continued to mount and it was reported from the neighbours that criminal elements were operating from the hostel. Evidence of the number 28 painted in one of the rooms is an indication that these reports were accurate. This is a number of one of the gangs that are formed in South Africa’s prisons. In the end the museum board decided that to ask Xolani Sotashe (the Lwandle councillor) to assist. Together with Cllr Sotashe the museum staff undertook some difficult and sometimes dangerous negotiations with these youth. Ultimately in June 2007 they vacated the premises. The museum, for the first time since opening was actually able to take possession of the hostel and secured the premises with a gate and a lock.

28's gang image painted onto the walls of Hostel 33.
Photograph by Noeleen Murray, February 2010.

Women’s Month of 2007 provided the ideal opportunity to formally mark the possession of the Hostel 33 by the museum. In choosing this moment the museum was signifying that despite the fact that under apartheid these hostels had been established as male spaces, from their inception women had stayed in the hostels. They had been subject to considerable harassment as under the laws and regulations of apartheid these women were illegally in Lwandle. It was also fortunate that at the time in 2007 Nungu Nungu, a student from the African Program in Museum and Heritage Studies, jointly offered by University of the Western Cape and the Robben Island Museum, was doing his internship at the museum. He came up with the idea to combine two events, the celebration of the Women’s Month and the securing of Hostel 33.

Nungu Nungu and classmates for the African Programme in Museum and Heritage Studies outside Hostel 33. 18 August 2007.
Photograph by Leslie Witz.

Nungu Nungu gave the title to the celebrations ‘Ubomi booMama emaholweni’
(Women’s Life in Hostels). The Women Ambassadors, who had been selected by the museum the previous year to publicize the activities of the museum to the community, were asked to decorate the Hostel 33 the way they remembered it. Lockers, beds, bedding, pictures from magazines, photographs, coat hangers and cooking utensils were all brought in an attempt to re-inhabit the hostel and depict their lives as they remembered it. On Saturday 18 August 2007, the group of women formally opened the doors to Hostel 33 and re-enacted elements of their lives. This included showing how a shebeen had operated in the hostel, how they made their lives around a bedstead and the ways they tried to deceive the police who were constantly raiding the hostels. Mrs. Kholiswa Ngcani, for instance, showed everyone how she used to hide away from police in the four door cupboard that was meant for luggage. One of the woman ambassador’s carried a small poster with the words that reflected on their conditions in the present compared with those that they had endured in the past. It read: ‘Lwandle today: a taste of freedom’.

Stories remembered inside the old hostel space, 18 August 2007.
Photograph by Leslie Witz.

Women re-enact a shebeen run from one of the spaces in Hostel 33. Soon after this image was taken a dratised police raid had on-lookers amazed as the women made themselves invisible by hiding in small spaces like cupboards, reminding their audience that women were of course not legal occupants of the hostels. 18 August 2007.
Photograph Leslie Witz.

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