Saving Buildings and Lives in Hillbrow

My fascination with Hillbrow — a former middle-class inner suburb that is now the toughest neighborhood in Joburg — began in February when I explored Hillbrow on a Joburg Photowalk. When I heard there would be another Hillbrow Photowalk this past weekend, exploring the grounds of the old Johannesburg General Hospital, I signed up, stat.

Saturday afternoon in Hillbrow.

Walk down the street in Hillbrow and you’re simultaneously assaulted with Africa’s past, present, and future. Look up at the vividly colored mid-20th-century high-rises — a select few nicely restored, most crumbling and draped with laundry lines. Look down at the sidewalks, strewn with trash and random junk, interrupted by the roots of stately old trees. Look around at the masses of people — Hillbrow streets are always brimming with people of all ages, from all over Africa. There are countless Hillbrow stories begging to be told.

My new favorite apartment block in Hillbrow.

One of Hillbrow’s most interesting stories is the story of Johannesburg General Hospital, or ‘Joburg Gen’. This story is too long for me to recount in its entirety, but here are some highlights:

1) The hospital dates back more than a century; the original buildings were constructed in the 1890s. The architecture is stunning and historic.

2) In the mid-1980s, Joburg Gen was moved to a new location on Parktown Ridge. Several historic mansions on Parktown Ridge were torn down to make way for the new hospital, which is undoubtedly the ugliest building in town. (Some people say that the new Joburg Gen, which was slapped over properties seized from English mining magnates, was the Afrikaans government’s way of thumbing its nose at its old British oppressors. But that’s a story for another blog.)

The flat-topped monstrosity toward the top-right is the new Joburg Gen, as seen from the Melville Koppies.

3) The Old Joburg Gen complex became Hillbrow Hospital. Like most of Hillbrow in the 1980s, the old hospital fell into disrepair. A quarter-century later, most of the buildings were either locked and abandoned or occupied by squatters.

This building used to be the hospital nurses’ quarters. The laundry lines are a telltale sign that the building is now “squatted.”

4) Fast-forward to present day. Many of Hillbrow Hospital’s buildings are still empty, falling apart, and/or occupied by squatters. However, a couple of the buildings have been reclaimed and beautifully restored by a partnership led by the Wits Reproductive Health and HIV Institute (WRHI), one of Africa’s leading HIV/AIDS and reproductive health institutions. WRHI is using the old hospital grounds, which are now called the Hillbrow Health Precinct, to provide state-of-the-art research, training, and care for people affected by HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis. (Read more about the development of the Hillbrow Health Precinct.)

I spent five years working for an HIV/AIDS non-profit so this story is of particular interest to me. But you don’t have to be a non-profit geek to appreciate it. Here’s an urban renewal project that is revamping some of Joburg’s oldest buildings, while also providing health services to a community with tremendous need and combating the most destructive disease in Africa.

Plus, it’s a freakin’ cool place to take pictures.

View from the front of the old hospital’s main building, built in 1937.

Inside looking out: a random hole in the wall of the main hospital building.

Another view from inside the main building.

An abandoned chapel on the hospital grounds. There was garbage piled up against the door so we couldn’t get inside.

This dilapidated house used to belong to the hospital superintendent. The yard has become a well-tended vegetable garden, perhaps used by the health precinct staff. I was intrigued by the old apartment building behind the house, which has what look like solar panels on its roof.

A highlight of the tour was walking through the building that used to house the hospital’s operating theatre and x-ray block. This building is currently under renovation and will soon become a mom-and-baby clinic for families affected by HIV and tuberculosis. Pregnant women with HIV will come to this clinic to receive treatment to prevent HIV transmission to their babies, as well as other services.

Photowalkers scramble for pictures in the half-finished building, under a security guard’s watchful eye.

The renovations are being conducted with painstaking precision, to maintain the historical integrity of the 83-year-old building.

Lovely old windows, returned to their former glory. The windows in this clinic, unlike windows in airless American hospitals, will actually open so they can let in fresh air, which is essential for TB patients.

Yael Horowitz, the dynamic project manager for the rejuvenation of the Hillbrow Health Precinct, probably didn’t know what she was in for when she agreed to tour the Joburg Photowalkers through the hospital. There were at least 50 of us and we have a tendency to scatter and become unmanageable, especially in a photographer’s paradise like this. Yael did a brilliant job though.

Photowalkers stroll beneath a light-filled walkway.

I snapped more than 500 frames. Here’s one of my favorites.

On the way out of the main hospital complex, my friend Nina and I stopped to chat with Vusi, a guy who lives in the old nurses’ quarters. He asked why we were taking pictures and seemed relieved to learn that we weren’t on any kind of official business. I think he was worried that his home might be in danger.

Vusi and his friends hanging out at the entrance to the Hillbrow Health Precinct.

Our last stop was the WHRI administration building, which has been completely refurbished from the bottom up. It now serves as WHRI’s main office and training facility. A renovation of this magnitude is a huge achievement in a place like Hillbrow, where the majority of Joburgers are still terrified to go.

Looking toward Jozi’s city centre from a beautifully renovated Hillbrow building.

I ♥ you, Hillbrow Health Precinct.

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  • Reply Tilly Bud July 6, 2011 at 5:32 pm

    I found this really interesting because my husband was treated at Joburg Gen in 1987 after a motorbike accident. I feel a blog post coming on 🙂

  • Reply Kathryn McCullough July 6, 2011 at 6:24 pm

    Fascinating! I would love these tours! And this gives me an idea for a post I could do about a local state hospital–the stories waiting to be told! The space that contains them!

    Great post, Heather!


    • Reply 2summers July 6, 2011 at 7:29 pm

      Thanks Kathy. Hospitals are interesting places.

  • Reply jackie hulme July 6, 2011 at 9:05 pm

    great post Heather

  • Reply jackie hulme July 6, 2011 at 9:07 pm

    great post Heather
    Im equally intrigued by Hillbrow – and the people it has been home to over the decades – when we first immigrated here – it was the spot my folks use to go out to for the night out. When I turned 16 I remember going to a nightclub there (yikes) but then we moved to the coast …
    but just the immigrants it has seen over the years and the stories to be told …. very interesting indeed
    Im glad you enjoyed saturday

    • Reply 2summers July 7, 2011 at 7:57 am

      Thanks so much for organizing it! Really cool.

  • Reply Nina July 6, 2011 at 9:42 pm

    Thanks Heather for your writing and photos!

  • Reply Jaco Roets July 7, 2011 at 6:16 pm

    Hi Heather,

    Hillbrow is one of those spots that people want to ignore, but my argument is that we should actually try to understand what is happening in these places – so that we can manage urban change! (My argument is pretty much the same with Detroit in the US). I thought you would find this video interesting (attaching the link).

    • Reply 2summers July 7, 2011 at 6:27 pm

      Thanks Jaco, that was a cool video. I’m pretty sure that Tim, the guy who toured the Photowalkers around Hillbrow on our last tour in Feb, is the grandson on Pam Rees-Gibbs — one of the women interviewed in the video. She has been managing buildings in Hillbrow for like 25 years or something and was shot a couple of times times when hijackers tried to take over her building. And yet she and her family never left. Amazing.

      • Reply Jaco Roets July 7, 2011 at 8:20 pm

        I do think that Mia and I should host an expat gathering upon our return. Through your blog I discovered quite a few other interesting blogs on Jozi. Mia and I are very excited to be LOCALS again!

      • Reply 2summers July 7, 2011 at 8:38 pm

        Can’t wait!

  • Reply Gail Scott McDonnell Wilson July 8, 2011 at 1:13 pm

    Really brought back memories of when I grew up in Hillbrow and stayed one block away from the hospital. The bus stop to school was outside the hospital, we used to go off to the bus stop and then slip into the hospital until our parents went off to work and then go back to the flat. Knew that hospital passages very well. Thanks for the trip down memory lane.

    • Reply 2summers July 8, 2011 at 3:12 pm

      Wow, that’s a great story, Gail! Thanks so much for reading and commenting.

  • Reply Mark June 24, 2015 at 1:53 pm

    Great post. From a different angle, I am founder of one of South Africa’s bigger Paranormal Research groups, and would love to be able to investigate this site…and any other like it. Would you have any idea if this would be possible and which channels to follow to achieve this?

    Thanks so much

    • Reply 2summers June 24, 2015 at 2:39 pm

      Thanks Mark. I don’t know much about the paranormal, but I’m guessing this lady could help you:

      • Reply Mark June 24, 2015 at 2:45 pm

        Hey, thanks for the reply. Thanks for the link, but I don’t need help that way….as mentioned, I am founder of a Paranormal Investigation group, based in Gauteng……so have loads of paranormal experience and knowledge….my interest lies in finding old buildings, especially hospitals and the like, to conduct paranormal investigation with my team as well as take photos (as I am a photographer too). The biggest problem, though, is gaining access to said buildings… I wanted to raid your brain for ideas or knowledge on gaining access to these buildings……

        • Reply 2summers June 24, 2015 at 2:49 pm

          Ah, sorry I misunderstood. Yes, there are many abandoned buildings like this around Joburg. There is also an abandoned hospital in Kempton Park, which many people say is haunted. I’ve never been there though. I don’t have much specific advice for you on how to access the buildings though — sometimes the best thing to do is just go to the building, look for a security guard, and start asking questions. Or give the security guard 50 rand and then he’ll probably just let you in 🙂

          • Mark June 24, 2015 at 2:56 pm

            Indeed, the SA way to open locked doors..R50……we have done the Kempton Park Hospital, and there are spirits there, as I am sure there area at ALL hospitals…..but the place has deteriorated so much that I would not recommend going. It has been vandalized so badly and due to this, there are physical dangers everywhere…and then the possibility of being mugged by the vagrants and druggies who choose that as their haunt as well. But thanks for your input, much appreciated…

          • 2summers June 24, 2015 at 3:01 pm

            Haha. Have you been to the old bus depot in Newtown? That’s also a really interesting place and it’s usually pretty easy to get in.

          • Mark June 24, 2015 at 3:05 pm

            Oooooh…..never even heard of it…..but that sounds like a good lead..thanks

          • 2summers June 24, 2015 at 3:10 pm

            Here are some pictures from there from about four years ago:

          • Mark June 24, 2015 at 3:15 pm

            Nice pics of the place….and it does look interesting….thanks for the pics
            We have a FB page if you have any inclination to check it out.


            Gonna shut down now, was great chatting to you…have a wonderful evening.

  • Reply Lesley Clark November 13, 2018 at 10:50 am

    Thank you Heather for an, as always, brilliant article. Really enjoyed the memories. You inspire me to know more about my city

    • Reply 2summers November 13, 2018 at 11:05 am

      Thanks so much Lesley! I really appreciate that.

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