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Story Publication logo May 4, 2021

The Architecture of Apartheid: Hostels in South Africa


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

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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.

Read the full, interactive story here.


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Racial Justice

Racial Justice

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