Life in Madala Hostel Alexandra

Shembe Church

It all started with a plan to attend a Shembe Church service in the Madala Hostel in Alexandra but ended up quite differently as the worshippers had left for a gathering in Potchefstroom! In pre-Covid times (yes there was such a time), Harry Nakeng, an Alex tour guide, arranged for a group of us to learn more about the Shembe Church, an African initiated church, establishing by Isaiah Shembe  in 1910 in Inanda north of Durban.   Also known as the Nazareth Baptist Church, the practices lean towards the Old Testament, as seen in the dietary laws banning the eating of pork, a new liturgical calendar leaving out Christmas and Easter, a return to a Saturday Sabbath, an emphasis on some of the teachings of Old Testament prophets like Moses and a separation of men and women during services. 

Shembe Church Service Joahnnesburg Central
Shembe Church service Johannesburg Central 2017

The Shembe Church has not been without its controversies: claiming prior to the World Cup 2010 that the vuvuzela belonged to the Shembe Church; establishing a commercial partnership with Vodacom; and many internal power struggles between Shembe family members over the Church leadership. This last has led to several different groups within the Church each loyal to a different leader. The Church also known as “iBandla lamaNazaretha”, has been closely connected with Zulu identity and nationalism as has the Madala Hostel.   

Harry Nakeng with a Shembe priest and church member
Shembe services take place outside in rural and peri-urban areas. Trees are planted where possible to form a shaded space with a designated area for the most sacred space seen here






Madala Hostel

Being a Saturday it was washing day






In the early 60s, the hardline ideological policies of the apartheid government were reflected in Alex with the removal of many families from their homes and the decision to build single-sex hostels. These hostels enabled the apartheid government to control the lives of urban Africans, while ensuring a labour pool for nearby northern Johannesburg. In a classic case of “positive spin’ aka ideological manipulation, the government claimed that it was establishing ‘luxury hostels’ in “parklike surroundings with all manner of sports and recreational facilities’.  The reality was far from this. A Wits Honour student in his dissertation describes a harsher reality:

Rooms in the hostels would have a bed, mattress and a cupboard, but no central heating or electricity outlets. The hostels would be divided into controllable units of 150 people divided by electrically operated steel doors … There were 112 washing tubs and 32 electrical points for about 3000 residents, 1 bath per 25 residents, 1 shower per 35 and 1 hand basin and toilet per 20. In the kitchen 5 people would have to share 1 gas burner.

The plan was to build 25 single-sex hostels which would house 2500 workers each. But in the end only 3 were built: Helen Joseph Women’s Hostel  and Madala Hostel in 1971 and Nobuhle Hostel in 1972.  

Appalling conditions continue 

25 years into the democratic South Africa, the hostel conditions have only deteriorated into more disrepair and squalor. There were high hopes when a few years ago, the DA Mayor of Johannesburg said that a portion of the city’s budget would be used to address the acute housing backlog and improve the living conditions of the people living in the townships. But nothing has happened with hostel upgrades and the Madala buildings and grounds are still in shocking condition with poor water and sanitation infrastructure, inadequate drainage, no electricity in many parts,  broken windows, cracked and peeling paint. 

Lack of drainage and adequate sewers leaves pools of fetid water in various parts of the hostel. 

But living goes on and entrepreneurial enterprises abound with Spaza shops, restaurants and barbers 

A restaurant sign
Spaza shop
A small food stall
Harry having a beard trim













While outside livestock are attended to and others prepare for a weekend soccer practice

Goats being moved from their night time kraal
Getting ready for a soccer game
Graffiti points to the historical connection between the Madala hostel as an Inkatha Freedom Party stronghold. More recently however families, couples and singletons from across the country have replaced a predominantly male Zulu demographic.

There’s always a joker and always a smile to be found. 

This Gogo has earned her wrinkles

And at the end of the day Harry wants his mother to meet all the Gogos that he has been taking on his tour.  

We end our morning with a visit to Mama Nakeng

You can contact Harry (phone or What’s App) on 074 261 8531 




















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4 thoughts on “Life in Madala Hostel Alexandra

  1. I remember this Tour so well Liz. My goodness – it was an eye-opener – and everybody so welcoming. Despite the very hard living conditions, always a smile, a joke, happy faces. I often wondered, during our pandemic and hard winter, how everyone was coping there.

  2. I was given a tour to the Madala hostel earlier today. The most amazing experience of my life, people were welcoming, all smiles and friendly gestures. I hope they are transferred to a better good hygiene and sanitation environment 🙏

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