Guy in Hillbrow

10 Photos of “Our Hillbrow”

I train at the Hillbrow Boxing Club and I’ve been going there three mornings a week, every week, for the past five years.

I used to go to the gym with a bunch of friends, but for the last several months it’s been mostly just me. I drag myself out of bed at 6:00 a.m., plunge my tiny car into the riot of taxis on Claim Street, wind boxing wraps around my hands, and exhaust myself for an hour with my coaches, George and James.

This thrice-weekly ritual is an essential part of life for me. Boxing, and Hillbrow, have seeped into my veins.

Heather and George at Hillbrow Boxing ClubMe and George Khosi, founder of the Hillbrow Boxing Club. (Photo: Marie-Lais Emond)

I spend more time alone in Hillbrow than I used to, driving and running up and down the parking lot of the boxing club. I see more and I think more.

In a city full of complicated, confounding, rapidly changing spaces, Hillbrow is the most complicated and confounding and rapidly changing of all. I’ve written about Hillbrow many times (here’s my first post from March 2011), but I struggle to fully explain what it is, or what it feels like.

Hillbrow is different from the rest of Joburg — the people are different, the buildings are different, the weather is different. I often leave Melville in bright, warm sunshine, and arrive 15 minutes later to thick, chilly fog in Hillbrow. It’s weird.

But in another way Hillbrow is the real Joburg. When major historical shifts happen, Hillbrow is the first part of town to experience tumultuous change — where change manifests itself most acutely. Hillbrow is like a sensitive child with a weak immune system, catching all the bugs before the other children, experiencing high fevers and coughing fits. We hope she’ll survive, and grow up stronger for all her suffering. But maybe she won’t.

I used to romanticize Hillbrow. The crush of people and traffic, the piles of trash, the air of danger — it seemed so fascinating and cool. Sometimes it still does. But I think I’m more realistic now. Hillbrow is a special place. It’s always been a cultural nerve center, a part of the city where people go to party and challenge the establishment. But Hillbrow is also a place of suffering. There’s acute poverty, addiction, and violence. There are huge, dying buildings, rotting from the inside out as people try to live in them.

Hillbrow is a hard place, like the city that surrounds it. Hillbrow is hard to know.

I could have saved myself a lot of time and made this a five-word post: Hillbrow is hard to know.

10 Pictures of Hillbrow

Anyway, the real reason for this post is a set of photos I took last month during a walk in Hillbrow. I took the pictures while exploring Nugget Street with George and Marie-Lais, for Marie-Lais’ “Other Side of the City” column in The Citizen newspaper.

Here are my ten favorites.

Kids running up Nugget Hill in HillbrowA kid runs up Nugget Hill, a legendary Hillbrow hill. The mosaic in the background is by prominent Jozi artist Andrew Lindsay.

Nugget Hill from aboveNugget Hill from the top. The city has recently given this section of Nugget Street a face-lift, redoing all the pavement and sidewalks and installing stairs and a wide walkway near the bottom. The pedestrian bridge over the street is closed — I’m not sure why. Hopefully that will change soon.

Welcome to Our HillbrowGeorge, Hillbrow’s proudest ambassador, stands on a set of steps decorated with the poem “Welcome to Our Hillbrow” by Phaswane Mpe. The poem’s words wind their way to the top of the steps.

HauntingHaunting, indeed.

Building in HillbrowA child plays in front of a Hillbrow high-rise, laced with satellite TV cables, as a city employee sweeps the street.
 Guy in HillbrowThis guy demanded that I “shoot him”. I can see why, as he is exceptionally photogenic.

Pulpit of Christ the King Cathedral in HillbrowCathedral of Christ the King, at the bottom of Nugget Hill, has to be one of the most beautiful churches in South Africa. It’s perfectly maintained and always open to the public. 

Cathedral of Christ the KingAnother shot inside Cathedral of Christ the King.

Cathedral of Christ the King stained glassAnd another.

Skipping rope in the Hillbrow Boxing Club
Back at the Hillbrow Boxing Club, where we started our walk, a teenage boy skips rope.

That’s my take on Our Hillbrow.

If you’d like to explore Hillbrow but aren’t sure how to go about it on your own (most people aren’t), I recommend taking a tour with Dlala Nje.

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  • Reply FiiNix January 18, 2017 at 2:47 pm

    Hillbrow has always had an edge, like broken glass, but just as compelling. It was my stamping ground as an art-college teenager in the 80s, a place to escape to when cutting class. It is different now, but it was different back then…different to every other place.

    • Reply 2summers January 18, 2017 at 7:21 pm

      That’s a beautiful analogy. And there is also lots of actual broken glass in Hillbrow. Haha. I wish I could have seen it in the 70s and 80s!

  • Reply It's only P! January 18, 2017 at 6:48 pm

    In the early eighties I lived in Hillbrow for a couple of weeks. I had arrived from Europe with the intention to stay. I found a great job with super colleagues. Over the next 19 years I lived all over Jo’burg and travelled extensively all over SA. In terms of people you’re so right: there is no place like it. Since 2002, when I left, I’ve lived in two Canadian provinces and three European countries. 🙂 About five years after leaving I wondered what was worse: to be scared to death, or to be bored to death. It is the latter… Thank you so much for putting the city in the picture with your stories and photo’s. Well done!

    • Reply 2summers January 18, 2017 at 7:19 pm

      Thanks so much for the comment, and I know exactly what you mean. I often make that comparison when I think about my previous life in the US compared to my life here.

  • Reply Jaina January 18, 2017 at 8:41 pm

    Hillbrow looks and sounds like a place with an amazing amount of character. Fantastic photos, Heather.

    • Reply 2summers January 18, 2017 at 8:42 pm

      Thanks Jaina. Character is one thing that Hillbrow definitely has 🙂

  • Reply momogs January 18, 2017 at 9:09 pm

    My entry to Hillbrow was in 1986, a backpacking Canadian on a tight budget, who through the Lonely Planet guide book decided to stay at the Europa Hotel. That was an interesting experience, to say the least. I followed that introduction with subsequent visits from a rural part of Swaziland (where I was living at the time) to hang out in Pretoria Street to re-energize the city vibe and visit places like Cafe Three Sisters, Look & Listen and Estoril Books. When I moved to Jo’burg in the 90s, the vibe seemed to have shifted to Yeoville, but Hillbrow has always maintained a mystique and intrigue. Thanks for your blog.

    • Reply 2summers January 18, 2017 at 9:12 pm

      Thanks so much for the comment. I’m loving all these stories about what Hillbrow was like in the times before I was here. Yeoville is still a crazy and intriguing place, as well.

      • Reply It's only P! January 19, 2017 at 8:25 pm

        Okay then :), have you heard of Café Wien? Many foreigners, Portuguese, Greek, Germans, Dutch, etc. came to have a coffee or a meal and play a game of backgammon. It was upstairs with an enormous restaurant deck – super for breakfast! I was there in the eighties, but it had been going for quite a while before that. That was quite a landmark… I never hang out in Yeoville, but Melville and Rosebank after I stopped going to Hillbrow. Waves of nostalgia here…

        • Reply 2summers January 19, 2017 at 8:28 pm

          No, never heard of it. Was it in Yeoville?

          • Teresa January 19, 2017 at 9:26 pm

            Café Wien was in Hillbrow and was always full of Portuguese, Greeks, Lebanese, etc. In the 80s I used to live near Yeoville. Just go to the FB site We Grew Up in and Around Yeoville.

  • Reply Hestelle January 19, 2017 at 1:24 pm

    Another great view of our city. I now want to do the Hillbrow tour too!

    • Reply 2summers January 19, 2017 at 3:20 pm

      Please do! You’ll love it.

  • Reply autumnashbough January 20, 2017 at 6:47 am

    I like your honest contrasts. Also those photos of the church are amazing.

    But the Nugget Hill photo is my favorite.

    • Reply 2summers January 20, 2017 at 7:33 pm

      Thanks! That church would be a major tourism destination if not for the fact that everyone is afraid to go to Hillbrow.

  • Reply Lani January 20, 2017 at 8:34 am

    I really love your description. I feel like I know it, a little bit, through your eyes. And that’s part of the connection, right? You also picked great photos. I’m sure there were many to choose from. Great post, Heather.

    • Reply 2summers January 20, 2017 at 7:32 pm

      Thanks so much Lani. It’s a very evocative place. I never feel like I do a good enough job describing it but I’m glad you enjoyed my attempt 🙂

  • Reply Eugenia Parrish January 20, 2017 at 11:36 pm

    You have the most amazing photos of street art. I looked twice before I realized that mosaic was not a waterfall coming down the wall. And the cathedral is the most stunning I’ve ever seen. Maybe someday I’ll see it for real.

    • Reply 2summers January 21, 2017 at 8:05 am

      That’s exactly what the mosaic is portraying! Nugget Hill used to have an actual waterfall running down it. You’ve got a great artistic eye 🙂

  • Reply Ray Hartley January 24, 2017 at 8:51 am

    I really enjoyed this post. I remember Hillbrow as the epicenter of anti-establishment politics in the 1980s. Races lived and mixed freely. We used to get up very early to watch the big boxing matches (Sugar Ray Leonard, Marvin Hagler, Roberto Duran … ) on the big screen at the Europa. Some big brands were born there – Exclusive Books was still a defiant little store stocking radical literature down a flight of stairs, Look & Listen was the musical equivalent.

    • Reply Ray Hartley January 24, 2017 at 8:53 am

      Apologies, we watched boxing at Cafe Wien (mentioned in an earlier comment), not Europa …

    • Reply 2summers January 24, 2017 at 8:59 am

      Thanks so much for the comments, Ray. I wish I could have seen Hillbrow during that time — I’ve actually just been reading about it in Mark Gevisser’s book, Lost and Found in Johannesburg.

      PS: I saw you speak at Bridget Hilton-Barber’s book launch. I’m going to check out your website now.

  • Reply Rian September 15, 2017 at 10:25 am

    I used to work at the civic center during 1990-2000, lunch times was a drive through Hillbrow to find a food place and just experience the vibes. Different to anywhere else in Gauteng, i was inside the Telkom tower/Coca cola tower (not sure of the name), watched the rugby on saturdays and drove into Hillbrow in the middle of the night at new year amongst all the beds and TV’s thrown into the road, yet, somehow even with the feeling of fear, i never felt scared. I now work and live in China, but once a year return there to see how things are, and i guess as mentioned in another comment, it’s better to be scared to death than be bored to death.

    • Reply 2summers September 15, 2017 at 10:36 am

      Hahaha. I agree with that sentiment completely.

  • Reply Eugenia Parrish September 15, 2017 at 1:35 pm

    Thanks for making Hillbrow so real to me. Your descriptions [and your obvious passion] make me feel like I’ve been there.

    • Reply 2summers September 15, 2017 at 1:46 pm

      Thanks so much!

  • Reply Tess Reid September 19, 2018 at 3:42 am

    I remember Hillbrow in the 70s and early 80s. It was a lovely, cosmopolitan, beautiful place. Someone above, visiting it on occasion, wrote “…even with the feeling of fear, I never felt scared.” ???? Can I have some of what he’s smoking? Boredom may not exist in Hillbrow, but there are plenty of other ways to die there now.

  • Reply Mark Sykes September 22, 2019 at 2:23 am

    Hi Heather, Mark here. I moved to South Africa from the UK with my whole family (six of us) in July of 1982, when I was 12. We lived in Ponte City block (now aka ‘Vodacom Tower’) in Berea, and that alone was a playground for my brother and I (not much security around to monitor two small boys exploring every nook, cranny, hidey-hole, abandoned stairwell and disused door). But when we discovered Hillbrow itself, a ten-minute walk away, we were in seventh heaven.

    Our first visits were every Friday night, when our whole family would go there for the evening. There would be waffles at a place above the Hillbrow Record Shop, and my brother and I would be allowed to play a couple of video games (there were several arcades, and games were only 20c each). Then we would just window shop up and down Pretoria Street. (For some reason I have a mental block as to exactly where that underground flea market was, that smelled so wonderfully of incense, and even had a small video arcade at the back. Can anyone pinpoint it for me? What was it called?)

    Once my folks knew that it was safe to be there unsupervised, they would let my brother and I go on weekends and school holidays, and we’d spend pretty much every available minute in Hillbrow during the day: often I’d blow my R5 weekly pocket money on games, but even then simply walking round Hillbrow with a couple of friends was just as fun for us. Highpoint, Estoril Books (they were very tolerant of boys with no money just reading the comics!) and Exclusive Books were regular haunts.

    On Saturday mornings the Mini Cine One (its name before becoming the Mini Cine Cult Cinema some years later) would have double-bill features for school kids, costing about R1.50 per person.

    The first time I spent New Year’s Eve there was 1986/87, at the tender age of 16. It was brilliant – the streets were closed off to general traffic, and the only vehicles on the roads were two huge flatbed trucks that just circulated slowly up and down Pretoria St and Kotze St; you could jump off and on them as you pleased to either get somewhere or just watch the celebrations as you cruised by. And back then no-one was throwing life-threatening garbage out of windows… there was the odd loo roll dropped from the 24th floor, which unraveled prettily, but that was about it. I did New Year’s there there for five or six years in a row, and up until 1991 or so it was all really safe and everyone was happy.

    Nothing would give me greater pleasure to see Hillbrow restored to its former glory, with everything it has now, alongside new cafes, book and music shops and specialist cinemas. But hey, maybe I’m just pining for the past! I see now that there are walking tours available, and tours of Ponte as well – I’m so doing that next time I’m staying in Joburg. I live in Cape Town now so I’ve never been to Maboneng, but I understand that it’s a great vibe, and if that can happen, then Hillbrow can come back one day too.

    Thanks for reading!

    • Reply 2summers September 22, 2019 at 6:56 am

      Thanks so much for your comment, Mark. It was beautiful to read!

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