The Mean Streets of Hillbrow

On my recent post about downtown Joburg, I received some questions about Hillbrow — a huge residential community overlooking the city center. I now have some answers.

Hillbrow was a bustling middle-class neighborhood until the end of apartheid rule, when it began to transform. Similar to many 20th-century American inner cities, Hillbrow’s white middle class fled to the suburbs, making way for poor black South Africans (who were previously barred from living in places like Hillbrow) and immigrants from across the continent. The population soared and crime grew rampant; Hillbrow became a “no-go” area for visitors.

Five years ago it would have been difficult (maybe impossible) for me to walk in Hillbrow and not get robbed. But the times, they are a-changin’. Yesterday I slung my camera over my shoulder and joined the Joburg Photowalkers for a jaunt through what most people consider to be Jozi’s meanest streets.

One of many colorfully painted apartment buildings in Hillbrow.

Our group met up at the Lutheran Community Outreach Foundation, a community center on Edith Cavell Street. This place deserves its own post so I’ll save it for later.

At the center we met up with Tim Rees-Gibbs, a lifelong Hillbrow resident and member of the South African Police Service Youth Division. Under Tim’s watchful eye, we wandered a few blocks of Hillbrow and shot photos of what we saw. I must admit, though, that I was often having too much fun to take pictures.

Bananas for sale — R4 per plate. I bought some and they’re excellent.

The buildings in the background have been “hijacked,” meaning that criminal gangs have forcibly taken them over from legitimate landlords. Tim told me that a one-bedroom flat can have a dozen or more people living in it. The tall building on the right does not have a functioning elevator. Count those fire escapes and imagine what that means.

This beautiful soccer field was at the foot of the hijacked buildings. It was built before the World Cup and I’m told that Nike paid for it. The score was 1-1.

According to Tim, this was once the most dangerous building in Hillbrow. If you walked past it you were guaranteed to get mugged. It was recently reclaimed from its highjackers and remodeled. Now it’s one of the nicest buildings around.

Another nicely refurbished building.

Vegas, baby!

If you look carefully behind the woman walking by, you’ll see a “referee” in a lab coat holding up a red card. Fabulous. Seriously though, beautiful graffiti and an important message.

No explanation needed.

A woman and her daughter selling sweets for R1 apiece. Despite my best efforts to win her over, the daughter did not find me amusing in the slightest.

The baby under the umbrella next door was another story.

This photo is a placeholder. We stumbled upon the Hillbrow Boxing Club during our walk and I had a chat with the man in charge, George Khosi. Those of you who know me in real life will understand the significance of this meeting. I’ll be back, and future blogging will ensue.

When I got home last night and looked through my photos, I realized that I’d captured a fairly “happy” picture of Hillbrow. I’m generally a happy person so I guess my camera is drawn to happy images. And it’s true that Hillbrow seems like any other place in the world — people live there and go about their business, feeling happy and sad and everything in between.

But I feel like I need balance out my happy images with a bit of reality. Hillbrow is still plagued by poverty, overpopulation, and crime. Not all the buildings are freshly painted and not all the streets are clean. I felt safe walking around because I was with a group and a knowledgeable guide. But it would absolutely not be safe for me to go there alone.

[Disclaimer: Take everything written here with a grain of salt, as I’ve spent a total of three hours in Hillbrow and actually have no idea what I’m talking about.]

That said, I would highly recommend visiting Hillbrow. It’s one of the coolest things I’ve done since moving here. The Parktown and Westcliff Heritage Trust is hosting a walking tour there next weekend. Or you can contact the Lutheran Community Outreach Foundation and ask for Gerard.

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  • Reply Jeroen March 6, 2011 at 8:55 pm

    Building hijacking never stops to amaze me either. For a fabulous local movie that deals with the topic, see the gangster flic ‘Jerusalema’ which was partly filmed in Hillbrow. It was on TV recently and the quality and humour (yes) of the story really surprised me. Louis Theroux also made a documentary about Johannesburg in which he talks about it, and though it’s interesting, he does sensationalise the dangers of Joburg a bit too much for my liking.

    • Reply 2summers March 6, 2011 at 9:20 pm

      Ah, Jerusalema. I was trying to remember the name of that movie. Thanks — will check it out. And thanks again for the ride yesterday! Hope the wedding was fun.

      • Reply Sine July 27, 2011 at 6:15 am

        Jerusalema was the movie I watched when flying here for our look-see trip. I wasn’t at all sure what to expect after that. Needless to say, a life in Dainfern is as far removed from what you see in that movie as a life in Alaska. But it was a great movie, and I also thought about it immediately when reading your post.

      • Reply 2summers July 27, 2011 at 9:03 am

        I still need to see that movie.

    • Reply Bexie May 17, 2013 at 3:29 pm

      Louis Theroux (British journalist) visited Hillbrow (could be about a year ago) – I felt really ill watching where he went and what he uncovered. He often films documentaries and he did one on Diepsloot as well.

  • Reply eremophila March 6, 2011 at 11:22 pm

    That last image is the one that stands out for me – there’s the future!

  • Reply Kathryn McCullough March 6, 2011 at 11:56 pm

    Fascinating post! I’m not familiar with entire buildings being “hi-jacked.” I’d love to know more about that. How does it happen? Over a period of time? And why do the police not intervene? I know in Haiti, there could be a lot of reasons, but I’m thinking SA can probably pay for a decent police force. I would guess it’s a matter of bribes and officials being paid off.

    Thanks so much for this post. I loved it!

    blogging from Haiti,

    • Reply 2summers March 7, 2011 at 10:51 am

      I didn’t get the chance to talk in depth about how the hijacking works, although apparently there was a good movie made about it called Jerusalema. It was actually filmed in the place where I shot that picture of the hijacked buildings. I imagine it happens through a combination of incompetent policing and bribery. The police seem to be getting things under control with the help of private and community security efforts, but I think downtown Joburg was a pretty lawless place in the years immediately after apartheid ended. Even this weekend, I only saw one police vehicle the whole time I was in Hillbrow.

      • Reply Bexie May 17, 2013 at 3:31 pm

        If you Google Louis Theroux (Hillbrow) he explains exactly how buildings are taken over by criminals.

  • Reply Rebecca March 7, 2011 at 1:28 am

    I’d love to do one of these Photowalks – will check it out for when I’m back in SA later this year.

    • Reply 2summers March 7, 2011 at 10:44 am

      Definitely check out their FB page – they do walks all the time, all over JHB. The walks are free and i think they’re more fun than organized tours.

  • Reply Tilly Bud March 7, 2011 at 11:00 am

    I really enjoyed this but I’m sad I didn’t recognize any of it.

    Those walks sound like fun.

  • Reply amblerangel March 7, 2011 at 11:34 am

    I love how you’re getting out and around!

  • Reply Jerome west March 7, 2011 at 3:03 pm

    It was great to have you with us on Saturday, Heather. I must say I felt safer here than on the Yeoville Photowalk. Most of the Hillbrow community were warm and welcoming whereas in Yeoville it was closed and cold.

    • Reply 2summers March 7, 2011 at 3:15 pm

      That’s very interesting. I only went to Yeoville once and didn’t get a very good feel for things. I need to get back and do a comparison.

      Thanks for the fun times on Saturday!

  • Reply tinkerbelle86 March 7, 2011 at 8:02 pm

    this is a really interesting post, thanks for sharing it. and what a cute baby!

    • Reply 2summers March 7, 2011 at 8:03 pm

      Thanks so much and thanks for reading!

  • Reply Jaco Roets March 8, 2011 at 4:19 pm

    Ola from the States! Thank you so much for your post on Hillbrow! I have always been curious, and since 2006 I have been sneaking in and out of Hillbrow more and more. At first I did frenzied drive-by camera shootings, and later on I started walking the main strips more comfortably. What I like about your pictures is that it tells a story of a place that people live. Hillbrow is often painted with one brush. Everyone that lives there are gangsters and drug dealers, we are told. Obviously this is not true. And there is a big drive to regenerate the community, and because of this the crime rate is falling (but it is still quite high). Consider taking the BRT on one of your tours. It costs R5, and it provides a fascinating window on the city – and is great for taking pics!

    • Reply 2summers March 8, 2011 at 4:39 pm

      Riding the bus would actually be a really cool blog post — great suggestion! Thanks for all the input too.

  • Reply Jane Widdop March 8, 2011 at 8:36 pm

    Very interesting. You have inspired me to branch out of my comfort zones and go exploring! Great blog on Hillbrow!

  • Reply neha March 11, 2011 at 9:47 am

    Fantastic post once again. I love photo walks for this precise reason, they open up parts and histories that might otherwise be forgotten or hidden or overlooked. And I’m sure it’s not all sugar and growth, but it’s nice to see some positive reflection on ‘troubled’ neighbourhoods instead of the usual doom and gloom most people tend to write about.

    • Reply 2summers March 11, 2011 at 12:45 pm

      Thanks so much. The photo walk was great — I’ll definitely be doing more of them.

  • Reply D1nx March 12, 2011 at 12:09 am

    Just found you and catching up :). I lived in Hillbrow and Yeoville 40 years ago when I studied at University. ‘Twas a whole different world then – we walked alone (‘girls) through those streets and met friends for coffee etc. Amazing how it’s all changed. I live in Pretoria now. I’m thrilled to see the renovations, but the ‘hi-jacking’ of buildings is still the hugest problem throughout our country.
    Enjoy your weekend.

    • Reply 2summers March 12, 2011 at 1:48 pm

      Thanks so much for reading! This city has been through a heck of a lot of change over the last 40 years — extraordinary times. I love Pretoria too — hoping to do some blogging about it in the next few weeks.

      • Reply Bexie May 17, 2013 at 3:36 pm

        Us girls used to walk (would you believe?) from Hunter Street in Bellevue to the city of Johannesburg to watch midnight movies at the 20th Century cinema. We’d then walk home again. Nothing and no one phased us. When leaving the movie theatre, we were met by street cleaners with these huge machines. The entire city centre of Johannesburg was washed clean every second Saturday of the month. It used to be jewel-like. 🙂

        • Reply 2summers May 20, 2013 at 2:26 pm

          Thanks so much for reading and commenting! Jozi has changed a lot 🙂

  • Reply tomorrowslices March 12, 2011 at 9:40 am

    It’s good to know that the streets of Hillbrow are starting to “come to life” again.

    • Reply 2summers March 12, 2011 at 1:49 pm

      Indeed. It’s a very interesting place. I’m hoping to go back soon and explore more.

  • Reply Sine July 27, 2011 at 6:20 am

    By the way, my work with the Alexandra Baseball Association has taken me into Alexandra many times, and I feel the same way about Alex as you do about Hillbrow. Yes it’s poor and yes it’s maybe not the safest place to go – I never feel quite at ease when there – but it has this vibrancy and life that you don’t see out in our suburbs. There is always something going on there that’s interesting. Just yesterday I saw a guy sitting in the middle of the sidewalk with an ancient sewing machine happily sewing away. I cursed myself for not bringing my camera…

    • Reply 2summers July 27, 2011 at 9:04 am

      I’d love to go to Alex with you sometime!

  • Reply Clare Appleyard July 27, 2011 at 1:20 pm

    Great post Heather! Cool pics too and makes me jealous I wasn’t on the photowalk!

    • Reply 2summers July 28, 2011 at 8:28 am

      It was a really great walk — the perfect one to start with.

  • Reply Lu July 30, 2011 at 8:18 pm

    I used to study at Wits, and would periodically find myself driving (never dawdling) through Hillbrow to jump onto Louis Botha and out to where I used to live in Orange Grove. It’s been a good 13 years since then – and until now – not somewhere I would consider revisiting! It’s good to see that there have been some improvements.

    • Reply 2summers July 30, 2011 at 8:44 pm

      Yep, times have changed. Although you still shouldn’t just cruise into Hillbrow on your own. It’s a fascinating place though. Thanks for reading!

  • Reply Ryan Kilpatrick August 22, 2011 at 8:21 pm

    Great post, and great shots. This, and other parts of your blog, inspire me to get out more and explore Gauteng. Before my wife and I moved to Pretoria in July, we read a book called “Welcome to Our Hillbrow”, which paints a more dire picture of the neighborhood. So, thanks for documenting the hopefulness.

    • Reply 2summers August 22, 2011 at 8:26 pm

      Thanks Ryan, and thanks for reading and commenting. Hillbrow is an amazing place. It’s nothing like the “old” Hillbrow that many white South Africans still remember. But those of us who weren’t here in the old days only know it for what it is now, and see it through very different eyes. I think that’s one of the things that I find so interesting about it.

  • Reply There She Goes Again » Blog Archive » Johannesburg, Day 3 September 2, 2011 at 10:35 pm

    […] friend, Heather, recently went to Hillbrow on a weekend with a group and had a much different experience than me. For one, she didn’t sit in a car the entire time. Apparently the weekends are a much […]

  • Reply appleblu February 24, 2012 at 3:28 pm

    I am pleased to see some positive blogging about Hilbrow & the rest of the Joburg CBD. Far to often only the bad is remembered and the positive’s overlooked. I enjoyed the read.

    • Reply 2summers February 24, 2012 at 3:37 pm

      Thanks very much. I think Hillbrow is a fascinating place. Glad you enjoyed the post.

  • Reply kabiito March 9, 2012 at 7:55 pm

    i was in that place but let hope that i was luck because i didn’t get any problem at all but crime is there for sho.

  • Reply kabiito March 9, 2012 at 8:01 pm

    Nigerians selling drugs at night to the kids under 15yrs
    which is very bad for the new generation .plz stop it
    we are all Africans we are brothers and sisters one for all all 4 one

  • Reply Edmund September 25, 2012 at 12:17 pm

    Here’s how building hijacking works. A large block has been abandoned by the owner for a long time due to lack of tenants or dilapidation, a local mafia gang breaks in and takes possession , partitioning and subletting rooms therein. Soon the owner comes along and after negotiations a temporary compromise of shared rents or phased evacuation is reached with the mafia. Meanwhile sanitary and environmental conditions deteriorate at the building and the municipal authority brings notices of contraventions which the mafia deliberately keep away from the owner, eventually a notice of seizure of confiscation is given.. The mafia then files for and is granted temporary legal custody , without the owners knowledge.When the owner finds out, he then goes to court to enforce his ownership, the legal proceedings might take a few years, in which time the mafia is in ‘legal occupation’ and collecting rent from many tenants. When or before the case is decided , the mafia is glad to move out with their hijack yet another building.

  • Reply John May 21, 2013 at 4:02 pm

    Hi there, was reading your various posts about Hillbrow, Thought might like to hear my memories 1986-1988, Click on the link and have a lsten
    If anyone can expand on what i have missed feel free to comment
    Thank you

  • Reply writing Johannesburg – the city of gold | February 19, 2014 at 11:08 pm

    […] I read that on the eve of democracy (that aspect of political systems that never fully translates into freedom for all) the white middle class packed-up for the northern suburbs. It wasn’t long after, I’m told, that Hillbrow ceased to represent the best of city living. No one dared ask, the “best of city living” from whose perspective? Sure, central Joburg is a dirty, busy, crowded place. But it is this Joburg that holds the most potential for poor daring Afrikans. Early stage capitalism and hustling cross paths here. Growing up, in the early 2000s, in one of Joburg’s townships, cosmopolitanism was defined with reference to your ability to navigate that part of Joburg with ease. It represented an urbanity that could not be experienced in the townships because of the social engineering experiment that was apartheid. Lately, packets of safe (together with the security apparatus that comes with it), of hip, trendy and cool are being created in the CBD (i.e. Maboneng). Yep, the Joburg CBD is undergoing gentrification. And with that has come displacement. Such spaces are middle class by design and values. […]

  • Reply Sydney Francis May 31, 2014 at 3:49 am

    I’m planning to do a walk, into Hillbrow with a cross.
    I’m motive is just to pray for people and offer them hope in Jesus.

    Sydney Francis. Sfpowernow@

  • Reply Jody Marans February 18, 2015 at 11:58 am

    A once lovely neighborhood in a First World city, it is now a dirty and chaotic and dangerous no-go zone. Do not go into this neighborhood without being in a group. Do not go into this neighborhood without taking precautions. Do not let other individuals’ curiosities entice you into dangerous adventures.

    • Reply 2summers February 18, 2015 at 2:40 pm

      I go right to the centre of Hillbrow three times a week for boxing training. I’ve been doing so every week for the past three years and never encountered a single problem. Just saying.

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