Last summer I ended up in Hillbrow, Johannesburg’s most feared neighbourhood in a country where murder and rape statistics compete(d) with those of war zones’. To spice it up even more, I arrived there in the dead of night. I wandered between hijacked high-rises, got in contact with Nigerian mafia and had to sleep for one night in a parked minivan. Obviously I made it out alive, and so here is my story.
It was once called the New York of Africa. Under the apartheid regime Johannesburg’s Hillbrow was a ‘bustling, cosmopolitan neighbourhood of artists and intellectuals where cafes and bookshops stayed open late and where, even under the tight rule of apartheid, interracial mixing was common’, like you can read here. But with the end of the regime in the 1990’s, that all changed.
These days, Hillbrow (and other neighbourhoods like Berea and Alexandra) has to deal with a reputation for murder, rape, prostitution, firearm robbery, drug-dealing, shop-lifting, vehicle theft and illegal immigration. While I cannot confirm myself, around 2008 Louis Theroux captured in an extraordinary way the chaos that ruled the city. In his documentary series “Law and Disorder” he reported on the hijacking of buildings downtown, he casually interviewed several murderers and documented the violence, corruption and gangs that dominate the streets of Jozi.
But on the other hand, Johannesburg is also the promised land for jobless African immigrants who are seeking for a better life. To them, Joburg is rather a place of hope, a place of opportunities. If you forget about the Nigerian gangs that rule most of the hijacked buildings and control most of the drug-dealing (often under the cover of mobile phone shops), one can find Zimbabweans who fled the economic crisis back home, Zambians looking for jobs, Congolese war refugees, Somalians, you name it. Hillbrow, and Johannesburg in general truly is a melting pot of cultures.
Myself, I arrived in Johannesburg with two Swedish friends last summer. During our holiday we got stuck in Botswana’s capital, which made us decide to keep pushing forward towards Joburg. Together with a Zimbabwean and a few others we travelled by a minivan through the dark and arrived in the dead of night at our final destination: Park Station, right downtown in the former CBD of Johannesburg. Even the hardened black community considers this place extremely dangerous at night, explaining also why the scene was utterly deserted.
When we arrived in that minivan, everyone on board was nervous. The driver did not feel like waiting around for too long, and it seemed we had no other option than to hit the deserted streets with all our backpacks in the middle of the night. Three murky figures already started approaching our van, offering us a taxi ride. But those guys were not taxi drivers, the Zimbabwean told us. Himself he refused to step out of the bus and he seemed really tense as well. It was as if he had already made up his mind long before never to get out at Park Station. We ended up making a deal with the driver to join him to his depot, where we would be allowed to sleep in his van overnight behind the safety of a big fence, all for free. After a journey of 30 hours, to us it felt like a ‘warm’ welcome.
The next day we woke up early, and with no plan at all we decided to join our Zimbabwean friend in the search of his so-called uncle. He explained that once the sun is up again, the streets are safe to walk around. We followed him, not knowing where we would be going to. Indeed it was a difference of literally day and night: people were waking up all around us, they were on their way to work or setting up their stalls again. There was not a single sign that this place is completely ruled by gangs at night.
But when at one point I noticed the Ponte City high-rise, a hijacked building I had read about before, I finally realised we had followed our friend right into the heart of Hillbrow, Johannesburg’s most feared neighbourhood. In fact, Hillbrow is full of hijacked buildings, assumedly hundreds of them were stolen from their legitimate owners. After the end of the apartheid, crime rates in the area increased to such an extent that the legal owners of buildings were forced out and replaced by gangs who started to control the paying of the rent themselves. Until today that remains a big problem for Johannesburg’s inner city.
What I was told is that anyone who wants to visit this neighbourhood, would need an escort by an (armed) local or go on a guided tour. But as the Zimbabwean had lived in the neighbourhood for many years himself, we felt alright to just continue our journey with him. It offered us a unique insight in the life of the immigrants that flock to Johannesburg in such massive numbers each year. “Here in that building I once lived”, our friend told us as he pointed in one of the streets. “I also lived over there”, he added seconds later while pointing at the opposite side. Apparently people in Hillbrow move from place to place quite often, and also his uncle was not an exception. We went through several buildings to go and look for him, but without any luck.
When we continued our search after first having had a coffee, it was time for a toilet since we had been without for a long time. The Zimbabwean therefore took us to a night club, which was actually still open. There, while waiting for the others I started talking to a Nigerian gangster. He offered me at least three (!) armed guards and a car to take me to any place I wanted in Joburg. All I needed to do was to pay him about 100 dollars and tell the people ‘back in Europe’ that whenever they come to South Africa, he was the one to do business with. I appreciated his help, but I had to turn down his offer since it obviously wasn’t such a smart plan.
We continued our search for the mysterious uncle, and after giving our friend some money to make a few phone calls he soon got in contact with him. Minutes later we would meet him somewhere down the road. Our search was over, our job felt like done and so we continued our own journey to find a hostel. The guys helped us to find some minivans and after waiting for about half an hour we finally split our ways.
One of the things I really learned from hanging out with these guys, is that the conceptions we have in the west about his neighbourhood are fundamentally different from his own. At no point in time it seemed a problem to him to be renting a room from a committee that illegally collects the rent themselves. He even offered us to rent a room in Ponte City like it was normal. I think these people are already happy enough to even be able to rent a room at all.
The journey into Johannesburg had been an adventure, but it was about to go next-level as we were about to get lost in Soweto, South-Africa’s self-proclaimed largest slum. Under the guidance of a feared street fighter we got taken to multiple ghetto bars, learned how his friends were dealing in drugs and witnessed a bloody fight deep down a slum at 03:00AM in the morning. Stay tuned to read more about that later!
Meanwhile, you can already start reading about how I travelled under military escort over Mozambique’s deadliest road.