This is Hillbrow

After our earlier tour through Yeoville, we booked a second tour with Dlala Nje to find out more about the infamous inner city neighborhood Hillbrow.

While we were the only ones in the Yeoville tour, this tour was a much bigger group. It is good to see many younger people are interested in finding out more about the ‘other side of town’.

So much violence has happened in this country and in this city in the last century,  and also in the years directly after the end of Apartheid, there has been so much violence and anger and fear between the races. The longer I am living here, the more I admire and respect mr Mandela, for uniting a traumatized nation and warding off a civil war.

Hillbrow is an area that for many years represented everything that was dangerous about Johannesburg: high crime rate, gangs, drugs and unemployments and of course, poverty. It is hard to believe that in the 1970s Hillbrow was a progressive and cosmopolitan area. But the international boycots of the 1980s led to a lack of investments into the inner city and a subsequent exodus of the middle class leaving empty buildings quickly turning Hillbrow into a large urban slum in the 1990s.

And if Hillbrow is the area that represents the decay of the city, Ponte City Towers is the building that represents it. This 54 storeys circular apartment building, designed by architect Rodney Grosskopff, was built in 1974 as the most modern, sophisticated place to live in town. The picture above was taken from the core of the building, looking up into the sky.

Twenty years later, the building was hijacked by gangs, unsafe and provided anything from drugs to blowjobs. It was said, that because there was no rubbish collection, electricity or water, everything was dumped into the circular core of the building and the debris measured up to 15 stores high: anything from regular trash to refrigerators to living rats and dead bodies.

A few years ago, the building was taken back by its owners. Apartments have been renovated to house middle class families, meaning that you need to have job to pay the rent. The apartments are generally one floor (instead of the original three), with two bedrooms, a living and a kitchen, which houses two families of maximal 3 people each. So if a family decides to have a second child, one of the families need to move out.  The area is still not very safe, and entrance is with a fingerprinting system and there are super strict rules (eg. no guests are allowed after 9pm) and a fine system if an overnight visitor gets caught. But,  there is  a waiting list to live there. I must say, the building is so fascinating it really is worth a visit. It is such a landmark in this city: the high circular building with the big Vodacom branding on top!

The rest of the tour was a walking tour of Hillbrow and Berea, with many anecdotes about its residents and their lives.  It it still not an easy place to walk freely. Buildings look menacingly deserted, streets look dodgy and I wouldn’t walk there on my own, especially after dark,  but it did change my perspective a little bit.  We walked into a local market and had lunch and a beer at a local pub, and there was plenty to opportunity for a pleasant chat with the locals, many of them immigrants from neighboring countries like Zimbabwe.

Highly recommended tour.

Best: Ponte Tower City

Worst:  The group was a little bit too large

Booked with Dlala Nje


Taste of Yeoville tour by Dlala Nje

Article in The Guardian about this tour

Jerusalema (2008), a gangster movie that takes place in Ponte City. I bought this DVD at the local market in Hillbrow


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