Hillbrow: The 1970s-era Harlem of Johannesburg

Christine Nikol Contributor
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On the highway leading to Johannesburg, Bruce Ngema* pointed to the city’s skyline and asked, “What’s it like in New York City?” We were driving in from the south side, where the highway is flanked by huge yellow hills made of sand dumped from the gold mines that built the city. Joburg now has more skyscrapers than any place in Africa, so I explained, “It’s like this, but with even more buildings.”

Bruce was taking me to one of Joburg’s most notorious areas: an inner-city neighborhood called Hillbrow that’s known for its poverty and crime. Crime is another thing Joburg has in common with New York. The city’s mayor, Amos Masondo, even asked Rudy Giuliani for advice on how to turn things around.

As we drove towards Hillbrow, Bruce slowed at a crossing with barriers on the road. “It’s a checkpoint for drugs” he said, nodding towards a policeman standing by a beat-up car. “They let the good cars go ahead.” We drove by without a hassle. From a distance, Hillbrow looks like a good neighborhood. There are modern condos and older buildings with fancy, colonial facades. But up close, the lower floors of the buildings are covered in graffitti, windows are broken and the facades of the mansions are crumbling. “I used to live here,” Bruce revealed, “when I came from Zimbabwe. It was nice.” Under apartheid, only white South Africans were allowed to live in Hillbrow, and when the regime fell, people thought it would be a progressive place where blacks and whites could live together. According to Bruce, it didn’t work out that way. “The whites didn’t want to mix,” he said as we passed a hospital with signs about AIDS treatments and STD prevention.

“Then the Nigerians started to pour into Hillbrow, and they started selling drugs” he said. For anyone who’s seen the movie “District 9,” the Nigerian community’s bad reputation here is nothing new, and immigrants from Zimbabwe and Nigeria are often at odds. In Hillbrow, they even have competing churches: the Nigerians have the Christ, Church, Christian Care center for children, and the Zimbabweans go to the Central Methodist church nearby that shelters child refugees. When I drove here once with another Zimbabwean, he tisked at the Care center, and defended the Methodists. “There have been stories about bad things, but, you know, they help a lot of the refugees” he said. He was referring to a sexual abuse scandal.

As Bruce and I drove along the main avenue the buildings are covered in posters advertising characters like “Prophet Mzumba.” There’s even an abandoned synagogue that’s been taken over by another church, with a chicken joint on the building’s street corner.

Up the road, Bruce said, “There are prostitutes there.” He was pointing to more reminders of Hillbrow’s exclusive past: the “Park Lane Hotel” and a “Dorchester” — the names of some of London’s most expensive hotels. “I think prostitution and drugs, they go together.” He pointed out a gaudy club that was once a swanky place: “The Nigerians, they own the clubs with the prostitutes.” But the Nigerians also drive small business in the area: they own most of the stores along Rocky Street — a main road that’s starting to bustle with shoppers. It’s still early in the day and the area seems safe – women buy groceries and men play soccer in the alleys. “They must be asleep still,” Bruce suggested, “or there is lots of police.” Just as we stopped at a light, a policeman looked into my window suspiciously. “They’re not used to seeing white people here,” Bruce explained. “They think it’s for drugs.”

The city has been trying to revitalize the area, but it has to deal with too many issues at once: the building’s owners have often left the country, collapsed rent prices have driven out investment, many of the buildings are occupied by squatters and organized crime and the squatters have nowhere to go. One Joburg property developer described a typical eviction process: “I finally got them out,” he said of the 200 or so squatters in his building. “It’s best if you go on a Sunday. Then they are home and you’re not waiting all day.” At first, he tried to get the squatters out by paying them off: “I was ready to offer them 1,000 rand each to avoid the process,” he explained (about $100). They didn’t take the money, so he decided to hire a private company and found one willing to get the job done fast: “I found a place with a black woman,” he said. “It’s not racism.” It’s not racist, he means, to favor a firm that employs a South African black woman — it’s just easier that way.

In the end, it cost him more than 150,000 rand (about 15,000 dollars) to reclaim his building. He’d been waiting for his chance to invest: “I’m turning it into bachelor apartments” he said, “that will give me a steady stream of income. That’s all I want, then I’m getting out of here.” He wants to leave South Africa and set up a boutique hotel abroad. “I want there to be solar panels and alternative energy running the place. A vegan restaurant,” he explained, but no word on what becomes of the squatters. He said they’d all come out with their mattresses — their main possession, and that was the last he saw of them. As for Hillbrow, the criminals, squatters, immigrants and refugees continue to tough it out.

* Names changed for privacy