It is a combination of the stench of raw sewage overlaid by frustration and desperation at a perceived theft of dignity by those who live in the Madala Mens’s Hostel which impales the senses.
Residents of the hostel in Alexandra, east of Johannesburg in the Gauteng province of South Africa, were the target of the second raid by the South African Police Service (SAPS), supported by the South African National Defence Force (SANDF).
Generally considered a no-go area for police and outsiders alike, police were having none of it on Wednesday night as members stormed the building.
The raid – much like the Wolhuter Men’s Hostel raid in downtown Johannesburg late Tuesday night – was ostensibly for weapons, drugs, wanted people, and stolen property.
A massive police and military presence showed government could still flex its muscles if it wanted to and although in a support role, the deployment of the army has been welcomed by some and criticised by others.
The Stalinesque building is a rancid survivor from apartheid days when migrant workers were housed, women and children not welcome, thank you very much.
And if the outside of the building is decrepit and ominous, then inside it is dank, dark, and desperate with litter strewn wide and deep, where sewage battles to find a path to ground itself in the gutter.
Surrounded by bare ground and with jagged glass framing smashed windows, it’s not a place which inspires hope.
The rats at least seem to have no problem, ignoring the stomp of boots and the rapid fire click of media cameras, falling over each other as they tumble over each other in their multitudes looking for scraps to feed their sleek fat bodies.
There are no hungry rats in Alexandra.
Is the crackdown by government armed forces too much too late?
Police have confirmed there have been no attacks in the Gauteng area since the army was deployed on Tuesday following the shooting of a Zimbabwean couple on Monday night.
“I don’t like this,” Siyabonga Mdlalose says.
He’s young, clad only in a pair of white shorts on the chilly autumn night, with a ready smile for inquisitive visitors.
“We are South Africans, we did not do this xenophobia thing. This thing is not helping us,” he says, speaking softly while he gestures at the backs of the police walking down the bare cement corridor wearing body armour, helmets and – at odds with their forbidding attire – bright blue plastic gloves.
The contents of his room were tossed – literally – by police and its contents lie asunder. With a wry smile, he shakes his bent head, turns into his room, and closes his door gently behind him.
A quick passing glance inside numerous rooms while following the police members on their search and seizure mission revealed a cold, spartan commonality of cement walls, cement floors and cement ceilings.
There is more grey than on a misty day unrelieved by glaring bare bulbs switched on as police enter room after room. The stark light casts grotesque deformed shadows against unyielding walls as clothes flutter and flap through the air during the search.
Of course, the rank and file of the police – who despite large numbers and overwhelming firepower – are only bit players in the overall saga, as are their commanders scurrying about barking orders, as are the residents who must suffer the indignity of police poking through their possessions and the world peering at their lives through they eyes of the media, at the behest of a government at its wits end.
“Never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another and suffer the indignity of being the skunk of the world,” said Nelson Mandela at his inauguration as the first democratically elected President of South Africa, a day when hope for the future and pride at conquering our past shone at its brightest.
Is the hostel a breeding ground for xenophobia?
It must be if the police have targeted it in response to the seven deaths – three of whom were South African – and in particular the death of Emmanuel Sithole, brutally stabbed to death on Sunday.
It was Sitholes death, in the midst of yet another flareup of violence targeted against foreigners which saw the police approach the SANDF for assistance.
At least, aided by photographs taken by Sunday Times photographer James Oatway, the police managed to have four accused speedily in the box.
For the sporadic and ongoing violence targeted against foreigners and their small businesses, it is unlikely there will be any measure of justice.
Sporadic because it only flares up now and again, ongoing because it never seems to end.
Earlier this year Soweto was brought to its knees as gangs of youths ran rampant through the township destroying property after a foreign shop owner allegedly shot a child while trying to scare off raiders.
Yet the Madala mens hostel will stand until, as with the Cecil John Rhodes statue of the University of Cape Town, someone decides Something Must Be Done.
And after all the time and energy spent on the raid?
A few crates of beer confiscated, a small kit bag of hand lotion taken away, one man arrested for possession of SANDF uniform, one arrest for dealing in liquor without a licence, a stolen laptop was recovered, 9kg of dagga and a panga were all the booty which could be produced after searching six buildings of four floors each with between 250 to 300 rooms in each block.
Mandela also said at his inauguration, “Our daily deeds as ordinary South Africans must produce an actual South African reality that will reinforce humanity`s belief in justice, strengthen its confidence in the nobility of the human soul and sustain all our hopes for a glorious life for all.”
The bitter irony is, government knew. It was warned.
Nothing has changed.
Aluta continua, indeed.