Hillbrow: Between Heaven and Hell
A personal journey to the heart of one of South Africa’s most dangerous neighbourhoods.
Award-winning filmmaker Clifford Bestall goes back to the place where he grew up to explore this microcosm of chaos, crime and corruption in urban South Africa and discovers a place where human spirit, hope and enterprise triumph.
George ‘the brick’ is an aging boxer, a hard-lived survivor. Around him and his gym are the characters that make Hillbrow the high-rise melting pot of South Africa.
Busi and Mimie are female boxers, punching their way out of their troubled backgrounds beyond the South African borders.
Les is a local nightclub entrepreneur with an eye for an opportunity.
And Bernice is a frail old Jewish lady – one of the very few whites still living in Hillbrow.
This beautiful, personal film elegantly draws them into its fold as their stories unfurl, revealing a rich seam of today’s urban South African experience.
By Clifford Bestall
For a young white boy growing up in Hillbrow in the 1960s it was possible to believe that most South Africans were white.
The only black people I ever saw were those who serviced the tall apartment blocks and lived in “rooms in the sky” or the domestic workers who travelled into Hillbrow from their townships every day.
That is how I remember it and George Nkosi, who lived a hidden and less privileged existence as a black child trying to get by on the streets of Hillbrow, shares a similar recollection.
“When I came here there were only white people, I didn’t see black people,” George remembers. “I used to see only the ladies, the old mamas. They used to work for white people.”
By the 1980s, I had already left Hillbrow. But through George I have been able to trace the story of how that neighbourhood in the heart of Johannesburg was transformed from an all-white area into a black one and to witness some of the consequences of that change.
As wave after wave of refugees from war-torn Africa took sanctuary in Hillbrow’s one square kilometre, it shifted from being one of the safest environments in the country to one of the deadliest. It became the most feared neighbourhood in a country where murder and rape statistics compete with those of war zones.
Busi, who crossed into South Africa from Zimbabwe in a bid to escape the violence there, describes the experience as being like jumping out of the pot and into the fire. “To come to a horrible place like Hillbrow and to survive you had to be tough,” she says. “I was a fighter fighting.”
Today, George coaches Busi at his gym in downtown Hillbrow. She, along with fellow fighter Mimie from the Democratic Republic of Congo, are among his best boxers. But even these two women are wary of Hillbrow’s streets, particularly at night.
Even in celebration, Hillbrow can be extremely dangerous. On New Year’s Eve, residents think nothing of tossing unwanted appliances and furniture from their high-rise apartments. All the police can do is try to keep people off the streets so that they do not get hurt by the falling objects.
Les Mehlapi, a DJ at Hillbrow’s Flamingo Club, wonders how the small handful of white people who still live in the area survive.
“There’s a belief that when you see a whitie you know there’s money,” he says, explaining that whites are often the victims of violence as a result.
I took this kind of information seriously and hired protection in the form of two men carrying hidden weapons who accompanied me through my old neighbourhood as I filmed. But Bernice Goldman, an old Jewish lady who never left Hillbrow, says she refuses to be intimidated and has resolved never to leave the area.
As I directed and shot this film, I tried to take stock of the extraordinary humanity in the characters I discovered living in the deep shadows of Hillbrow. In the process, I was inspired by the way they allow themselves to dream of greatness even amid the squalor of urban decay.