Hundreds of protesters in Soweto have broken down doors and tried to set fire to Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) homes in the first significant service delivery protest this winter.
Police say they fear this morning’s protests could spread to other areas as residents of the notorious Dube hostel took to the streets in the early hours.
From as early as 2am today, a group of about 300 protesters from the hostels started breaking down the doors of the newly constructed RDP blocks of flats nearby.
Some of the doors were used to make fires on the tiled floors of the unoccupied homes, while some stoves were stolen from the houses.
A contingent of nearly 100 policemen, some in riot gear, confronted the protesters, who fled to the adjoining hostels.
Police, led by General Eric Nkuna, conducted door-to-door searches of the hostels in an effort to counter criminality in the area.
By mid-morning police had arrested 19 people – 18 for public violence and one for malicious damage to property.
“I’m just afraid that these things will spread to other hostels. Then I’m going to have a really big problem,” said Nkuna.
In the 1980s, Dube hostel was notorious as an IFP stronghold during the bitter clashes in the lead-up to the country’s first democratic elections.
“The Department of Housing promised to build houses for people staying in the hostels, who are mostly unemployed and poor,” said community leader Sipho Nkwanyana.
“They built these things (RDP flats) but they’re too expensive and if people can’t pay their rent, they get kicked out and these government people move their own friends in,” said Nkwanyana.
At Dube hostel this morning, many young men were basking in the morning sunshine as police descended to conduct body and home searches.
Xolani Buthelezei and Sibusiso Ndlela, two security guards who had come off duty a few hours earlier, were asleep when police came knocking.
The pair were quizzed at length about a bayonet that was found under a mattress of one of their roommates. “Life here is easy. You eat, you sleep and you work,” said Ndlela.
In 2008 Dube hostel and a host of others were upgraded by the city. In each bare, concrete unit, six rooms share a communal toilet, shower and a kitchen.
An adjoining development saw the erection of at least two dozen double-storey RDP flats. But residents say they were never consulted and are being asked to pay R1 300 rent a month.