| Walking and welcomed in Hillbrow
Andie Miller is the author of Slow Motion, a collection of stories about walking, published by Jacana.
Click here to order Slow Motion from Kalahari.net!
When a friend asked me recently where I wouldn’t walk in Jo’burg, I said without hesitation: “Hillbrow.” Someone else in the conversation, young, male and black, said he is still quite happy to walk there, and I had to think about why I’d responded so automatically. Was it simply a matter of vulnerability about race – I’d stick out walking in Hillbrow? I stick out in other parts of the city, too, and I don’t feel threatened there. Is it the stories of drug dealers and dealings?
Or perhaps, as someone once pointed out, it’s the grime more than the crime that’s unnerving. Almost unconsciously, urban decay makes us feel unsafe. There is a sense of disintegration, and a niggling feeling that chaos is about to ensue. But actually, mostly there are just ordinary people living there, going about their lives. So it was with that in mind, when I heard about the Goethe Institute’s X Homes site-specific performance project, that I jumped at the chance of taking a guided tour of my old hood.
I arrived in Jo’burg in 1984, as a migrant worker from Cape Town, and my first stop was Hillbrow. It was early evening, and I was struck by the neon lights and the smell of a summer thunderstorm, and the street and night life. I lived my with friend Elzabé at Basswood Place on the corner of Quartz and Kapteijn Streets for a year. Quartz was notorious for the number of hookers that worked the street. Possibly the most significant landmark in the more “obscure” Kapteijn, as the late Phaswane Mpe referred to it in his novel Welcome to our Hillbrow, was the André Huguenet Theatre, now the Hillbrow Theatre, housing a community theatre project run by the Lutheran Church. This was the starting point where the shuttle from the Goethe Institute (where there was “safe parking”) dropped us off to begin our walk at midday. We would be guided by members of the community theatre project.
Reading the blurb about X Homes, I found it hard to imagine how it would happen. Sometimes it was referred to as performance, and sometimes exhibition or installation. One thing was clear, it echoed the current trend in literature and television to blur the boundaries of fact and fiction. We would be taken into real people’s homes, but whether the scenes presented to us were by the occupants about their own lives, or by actors about others’ lives, would not always be apparent.
First things first, though: at the theatre we are presented with indemnity forms. I am alarmed by the language: “The participant and his/her dependants, heirs, executors, administrators or assigns, hereby indemnifies … illness or death from any cause whatsoever out of any events related to or arising during the exhibition.” And this is real. It takes me back to my first experience of river rafting.
We are led from the theatre by a dedicated “walker” (as they call themselves – we recognise them from their X Homes T-shirts), in groups of three or four at ten-minute intervals; my friend Paola and I are in a group with two other women. We are all South African. Once the walker has left us at our first location, he will be back to pick up the next group.
Crossing Twist Street we turn left into Ockerse. A torch singer leads us up the stairs of Sunnyhoek flats, in a red boa, singing with surprising nostalgia about when she arrived in Hillbrow, as she “watched the world slowing down for us” black people, who could now frequent the European cafés. It takes me back to my most vivid memory of the cafés, of my stylish friend Elzabé in the early hours of a morning, flipping a plate of eggs on to her pristine white suit. As the woman in Sunnyhoek sings, she is accompanied by a man on double bass and another on trumpet.
Then we are taken down Claim Street to the Hillbrow Boxing Club, sponsored by the Rhema church. Pictures of Julie Shabalala, the South African middleweight champion who trains here, adorn the walls. Rows of red candles lead us downstairs to the basement, where we find a woman quietly sewing, and a man in figure-hugging tights and high heels, the top half of his body covered in brightly coloured balloons, sitting in an armchair watching Dr Phil. When we enter, he minces over to the candles, teasing us. But nothing bursts. This is a light interlude before our next location and director Mpumelelo Paul Grootboom’s customary gritty style.
At St Anthony’s in Wolmarans Street we climb nine flights of stairs – the lift is out of order, as all the lifts in Hillbrow seem to be; or perhaps locations that are lift-free have been picked especially for the event – and we are met by “Lebo, 26 years old”, a glass of beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other, checking if we have “come to see the room”. She is renting it out for R1 500. Her mother left her this flat when she passed away, and Lebo is “getting [her] act together”, despite living in cramped conditions in overcrowded rooms divided by curtains and hardboard.
She takes us down the passage to meet the men we will be sharing with, and we pass the only other woman living here, behind a curtain, who is “full-blown”, Lebo tells us. The boys offer us beer and Lebo’s boyfriend picks a fight with her – it is unclear about what. He is speaking an African language that we can’t understand. And though I know it is being staged for our benefit, when he hits her, it is unnerving. This may not be her life, but it is someone’s life, not far off; perhaps it is the life of a person who really lives in this flat.
At the bottom of the stairs we pass a very small boy carrying two loaves of fresh bread, and I wonder how many flights he has to climb. Outside in the sunshine we pass GloBake, where he has just come from, and our walker is waiting for us. “It’s run with German precision,” my friend Paola remarks. And she’s right. The indemnity forms are way back in the past and the streets are welcoming. This one in particular seems very clean, with new paving stones. “Probably because it’s on the BRT route,” Paola points out.
Then we are moving up Quartz Street, approaching my old home. “It’s so quiet,” Paola says, and we realise it’s because there are no cars. Pedestrians are in the majority in Hillbrow. Phaswane Mpe wrote in Johannesburg Circa Now: “On first visiting Hillbrow in 1989, at night, I felt that it was a surreal place, what with the activities going on; with so many people seeming to enjoy themselves in the streets … [but] one of the people I was with pointed out that, in fact, there were far more people in the buildings around us, hidden from our view. I wondered what I would encounter if those people decided, simultaneously, to come out into the streets.”
Mpe was referring, of course, to the people who have homes. Continuing along Quartz Street, as we near High Point, and Fontana, captured by Ivan Vladislavić in The Restless Supermarket, I wonder what his protagonist Aubrey Tearle – the retired proofreader of telephone directories, who attempted to edit the transforming Hillbrow – would have made of the line of bodies sleeping on the pavement.
“Nigerians,” says our walker. It’s not clear if this is simple prejudice or is based on anything real, but it echoes the research of AbdouMaliq Simone, that this block is dominated by a Nigerian network. Whether the sleepers are drug-dependent or just homeless our guide can’t say. It’s the first point in our walk where I feel uncomfortable.
Across Kotze Street, as we pass the supermarket that never closes (now a Spar), Paola wonders nostalgically if their roast chickens are as good as they used to be. Then we turn left into Pretoria Street, and into Dungavin Court, up seven flights of stairs and into a spotless kitchen. A woman’s voice warns us not to open the door carelessly to anyone, and I notice that this front door has almost no security, just one Yale lock.
We sit on a new red lounge suite, still covered in plastic, and a television (one of two in the small living space) reveals how the occupant was held up in her home. When she emerges from under the covers of her bed, a warm, lovely woman, she continues to tell us her story face to face. This is really her home, she says. She is a nurse. When the government bought this block and gave flats to low-income earners, and she took responsibility for managing finances, some tenants didn’t understand why levies and electricity had to be paid. They victimised her. Now she and her young son are minding their own business.
Our walker takes us up to the roof, and the tables are turned as “Ayanda, the King of the roof” expects us to perform for him. The two women with us are braver than Paola and me. They interview each other about the virtues of a Dutch or a Spanish World Cup win, and expertly blow the vuvuzela. As we head down the stairs, residents, oblivious to the performance going on, ask us: “What are you doing?” “Where do you live?” “I live in number 701, come and visit me.”
Back in Pretoria Street we pass another GloBake, with the smell of fresh bread floating by, and I recall a club called the Bella Napoli on this block, and ladies’ nights hanging out with Elzabé during the only year that I attempted to wear high heels.
In Quartz Street, on the other side of Pretoria, we pass through a wonderful vegetable market. “It reminds me of Rome,” says Paola, and I think of a market I visited in Paris. The quality here is as good as Woolworths, and a fraction of the price.
Turning right into Goldreich Street, approaching the Berea Park, I remember Aquarian Books and the Hare Krishna restaurant that used to be here, and then we’re heading through the park that I haven’t been near since I was mugged alongside it at 7 pm on a Sunday evening in 1996. Then it was deserted. Now it is filled with life. A group of men crowd around a card game, others play basketball and soccer next to the children’s play area. The worrying thing is that there are so many young men unemployed on a weekday afternoon.
Out of the park and into Joel Road, where I lived after moving from Quartz Street, and up to the 3rd floor of Pontresina. The lift is working! Here we are met by a large mama who ushers us into a living room to watch a soccer match on DVD, interspersed with flashes of porn, until two men arrive waving guns around and we are rushed out. It turns out the lift isn’t working on every floor, so we climb down the fire escape to the floor below, and meet three little boys playing their own soccer game in the passage – much more interesting to me than the spectacle we’ve just encountered.
Then it’s on to the final location, a DJ booth amidst the faded décor from the seventies on the 20th floor of the Crest Hotel in Abel Road. And thankfully the lift takes us all the way.
After two and a half hours of walking around Hillbrow, there is no way of looking out romantically at the decaying buildings covered in washing and satellite dishes, and the life going on down below. From whichever angle I look at it, it’s tough. And yet on the street, life is simply going on.
Back in the shuttle, we head down Tudhope Avenue and pass the house with the mosaic of broken mirrors on the wall, the home of the late actress Fiona Fraser, opposite where the Black Sun Theatre used to be, half a lifetime ago.
| Respond: firstname.lastname@example.org