In the 1970s and 80s, Hillbrow shifted from an all white community to a mixed community. I’ve been told it was a vibrant time to be in Hillbrow. Much like Greenwich Village in NYC, it was a haven of diversity and liberality in the extremely oppressive Apartheid era (which was not only racist but heavily censored popular culture as well). Artists and the GLBT community flourished.
But as the 80s continued, the neighborhood couldn’t cope with the population growth and the changing nature of Johannesburg. Whites and the middle class moved north into Sandton and the northern suburbs (where I live). Hillbrow crumbled.
Hillbrow is now notorious in Johannesburg. There’s poverty and over population, three bedroom apartments being rented as tenements to 10-15 strangers. Many buildings are being squatted in illegally. Crime rates are high, particularly drug-related and violent crimes. It is also heavily international, with some estimates that 70% of the community is non-South African. And a large percentage of that international community is undocumented.
All that to say that while it’s the closest community to the Court, I’ve never been. That is until last week.
Nigel, Mantla, and Bafikile led a small group of clerks to tour the community. They are all live in Hillbrow and, in different ways, are working to build Hillbrow up commercially, empower residents, and bring more resources into the community.
Nigel is a white South African who worked professionally as a Social Worker for UNICEF. Bafikile also lives in Hillbrow and works with businesses as part of a business reinvestment campaign. They help business owners in the area and organize security. Mantla is another organizer who works with kids in the neighborhood through Lutheran Outreach Foundation. And it is with the guidance of these servant leaders that we ventured forth into Hillbrow. Plus they got us two security guards.
And it was eye opening. Just fifty meters from the Court and we were in the heart of Hillbrow. And it was vibrant, there were people everywhere. Young and old, businesses were open.
We first saw a community center run by the Lutheran church. It runs lessons like for music and sewing as well as kids programs during school vacation.
We also went by Nigel’s place. Nigel moved his whole family (five kids under 12) from a six-bedroom house in the northern suburbs into a three-bedroom apartment. Eish. They are on the third floor of an apartment complex and are renting another apartment to create a drop-in center for kids with space for volunteers to come and stay.
Nigel’s story resonated with me deeply. It reflects what I wanted my narrative to be when I graduated from college. To move into an inner city neighborhood and truly meet my neighbors. Instead, when I moved to Boston, I lived in Beacon Hill. The exact opposite of Hillbrow.
Still, Nigel’s story demonstrates that anyone can make this shift and at anytime. Also, he didn’t come to Hillbrow empty handed but came with resources and life-skills that he could truly make a difference with.
All in all, the visit was super inspiring and humbling. My next challenge is what to do with what I have learned to contribute in my own way.
Read more about Nigel and his family at http://transforming.org.za/.