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Pulitzer Center Update June 4, 2021

Behind the Story: Johnny Miller on South Africa's Hostels

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Who owns the land in South Africa is a hugely contested question. Dominion informs data-driven...

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Hostels are a distinct feature of the rural and urban South African landscape. Given their prison-like landscape, hostels were designed as buildings for total control over the Black labourers in the diamond and gold mines. Now, as South Africa enters its 26th year of democratic freedom, the question remains of what to do with these historical structures.

"They are radically utilitarian in terms of architecture … 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,” writes Pulitzer Center grantee Johnny Miller in his article, The Architecture of Apartheid: Hostels in South Africa

Through the use of drone photography and architectural research, Miller reported on the current state of hostels, their continued effect on South Africans, and the discussion behind what to do next. “We are thrilled that our support helped leverage the immense skill and talent embodied in Code for Africa, Africa Drone and Johnny Miller's amazing aerial talents to produce such a compelling, informative, and sharply designed multimedia story package,” said Pulitzer Center Senior Strategist Steve Sapienza. 

To learn more about the inspiration behind hostels in South Africa, drone photography, and journalistic approaches for Miller’s reporting, Pulitzer Center Intern Shana Joseph spoke with him. The following Q&A has been edited for clarity and length.

Shana Joseph: What led to your interest in reporting on the history of hostels and their impact on the South African community?

Johnny Miller: I find hostels really unique and, as Heinrich Wolff says, "South Africa's unique contribution to world architecture." There just aren't many examples of this kind of structure anywhere else in the world. I also began to be interested in how they looked from above, since they are all different, yet similar in their controlling nature. Hundreds of thousands of black South Africans still live within the walls of hostels today, something that undeniably affects the social fabric of the country. And I wanted to look at that impact from the point of view of architecture. 
 
SJ: Throughout the reporting, readers can see aerial imagery and drone photography of landscapes and hostels. Why did you choose this vivid approach to illustrate the story? How did you come up with the idea?

JM: I have been a drone journalist for five years now and have a project called Unequal Scenes, which uses drones to look at inequality around the world. So actually, the idea for this story came from one of my first Unequal Scenes photos, in Johannesburg, in Alexandra, over the Women's Hostel there. I just found it so symmetrical and kind of beautiful from above, that I wanted to know more about these hostel buildings — their shape, construction, etc. I suppose that's what’s fascinating, is that these buildings can look so beautiful from the air but be so terrible in their reason to exist and conditions on the ground. 
 
SJ: How was the story reported on from the sky as well as on the ground? How did you successfully execute this approach?

JM: I was lucky to have an excellent team at Code For Africa to help me with the reporting, including the data visualizations, web design, reporting, and editing. CFA does incredible work and supports these sorts of complicated, challenging stories, which requires an uncommon level of commitment. 
 
SJ: Your reporting includes the mention of different hostels in South Africa’s provinces. Was there any particular reason that the reporting highlights hostels like Compound B and Lwandle?

JM: As the focus of the story was on architecture, I really wanted to find historical documents that spoke to the construction of hostels from that perspective. Compound B and Lwandle were two hostel complexes which I found after much research, both of which added to the story in terms of their contextual construction, history, and eventual peregrination to what they are today. Compound B is a valuable structure in a region that needs housing; Lwandle is in part, now a museum. I thought they both exemplified the difficult decisions politicians now need to make when deciding what to do with these huge concrete behemoths in the midst of their cities. 
 
SJ: Did existing maps or land data help inform your aerial photography and if so, how?

JM: Yes, in fact I scoured Google Earth for hours trying to compile a list of all the hostels still existent — which I think I got close to. The maps in the historical records, and the blueprints also, were useful to me and to the story in explaining the context of how the hostels were situated in a time before shacks, suburbs, and other buildings sprouted up all around them, mostly in the early 1990s. 
 
SJ: How did your history of drone reporting help you in this project? Were there any unforeseen challenges that you had to overcome?

JM: Drone journalism seeks to use that technology to help uncover or illustrate systemic issues from above, and in this sense it was perfectly suited for a project on hostels. I would say that the biggest challenge was just finding historical records of building plans, and especially in the context of control, that I could tie together with the story in the original designers' own words. Those types of admissions, that a building is going to be designed explicitly for control, aren't usual and I didn't find many examples of people admitting that. 
 
SJ: What are some key takeaways that you hope readers get from your story?

JM: I hope that readers will take away that infrastructure impacts our lived experience in society, and that it's not benign. This is true in the context of righting historical wrongs (disenfranchising people like hostels have) but especially important in the context of informing current design plans for sustainable growth in cities. Housing is a huge problem in South Africa, and the decisions that will be made on how to house the hundreds of thousands living in shacks, to give one example, will have lasting impacts for decades to come, just as hostels have done. I think drone journalism is well suited for these kinds of stories and provides for really compelling photography, as well.  

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