Fragmented Spaces of Suffering and Hope

Human Rights
Research Diary
There are many spaces of transformation in South Africa where past and present human rights violations have been engrained in the very foundations of its cities’ buildings. Robben Island, located just off the Cape Town shore, for example, is a celebrated space where icons like Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu overcame oppression, torture and cruelty.
During apartheid, the island was a gaping scar on the face of a beautiful country. Since the fall of apartheid however, the offensiveness of the island’s past has come to represent something hopeful – inspiring even. Inspiring due to the courage shown by prisoners who were incarcerated there by a racist regime. It now represents a space of remembrance, reminding us of humanity’s capability to defy injustice and overcome oppression peacefully.

While Robben Island is now a monument, a famous shrine of epic import to South African history, other areas remain hidden from public view despite the fact that they are still fighting for the rights of the forgotten outcasts of society. I visited one such a space during a recent research trip to South Africa – a space that gave central Johannesburg its emblematic skyline, a space called Hillbrow.

Originally envisaged as the ‘South African Manhattan’, the district was viewed as a prime location for rich white people who profited from the city’s industrial and mining activities. Yet, as the urban experts, Jonathan Standler and Charles Dugmore point out, the development of the district is characterised by constant shifts in its social fabric: The 1960s notably marked a period of significant infrastructural development. The face of the district was completely transformed by the construction of high-rise offices and apartment buildings. These provided affordable housing for young people, foreigners and rural migrants – a fact that gradually paved the way for the district to become a point of resistance during apartheid in the 1980s. It was during this period that, in addition to resisting the government’s racial policies, the district also became associated with progressive gay and lesbian activism. Hillbrow thus quickly became known as a ‘liberated zone of tolerance and inclusion’. However, by the late 1990s, a period of neglect once again significantly transformed the district. The demography became decidedly less diverse, while extreme poverty gave rise to the area gaining an ungovernable reputation where crime, drug abuse and sex trafficking ruled the day [1]. Contemporary Hillbrow has a similar image where the collapse of practically all services has additionally introduced a certain degree of social chaos heightened by gangsterism and xenophobia. This situation is only aggravated by the sheer concentration of the population. According to the latest census in 2011, Hillbrow is one of the most densely populated areas in southern Africa. It is estimated that roughly 74,000 people live in approximately 200 buildings, many of which are over 15 stories high – all of which are located in a district of a mere square kilometre. Significantly however, the population here almost exclusively consists of rural migrants, foreigners, social outcasts, the economically marginalised and the homeless [2], none of whom enjoy regard for their human rights, neither on the level of national nor on that of local government. As such, contemporary Hillbrow bears evidence of the significant social failures that still exist in South Africa today.

Yet, the way I have come to view Hillbrow is as a multifaceted space that holds as much hope as it does suffering. Those who have nowhere else to go often find their way to the streets and shelters of Hillbrow. It is a place where nobody is judged and many are helped. Yet, it is also a place where every night can be your last regardless of race, age or gender. In this light, Emma Hunt describes Hillbrow as a ‘fragmented space’ of ‘poverty, violence and dysfunction that emerges directly from apartheid and global inequalities [3]’. On the one hand, therefore, contemporary Hillbrow is the direct remnant of a racist past, while on the other hand it also signifies the hidden underbelly of neo-liberal economic oppression.

I found myself in Hillbrow due to a project I am researching related to children in conflict with the law. That is by definition a human rights issue, but can only be identified, approached and addressed through the undergrowth of its social manifestation. Given the information I received from local workers in the field, Hillbrow is facing significant challenges with regard to homeless youths. A national NGO called MES agreed to show me around the district and discuss the challenges they face. Founded in 1986 by members of the Dutch Reformed Church, the NGO works tirelessly to ‘change the heart of the city’ by providing assistance where they can within some of the most deprived areas of the country’s major cities. The acronym MES stands for ‘Mould, Empower and Serve’ and I was humbled by the selfless way in which those I met work to establish a meaningful relationship with the marginalised – with those whom society has chosen to ignore or dehumanise.

Wall of Defiance – Parking Area in Hillbrow

Makeshift MES ‘Field Office’

As I arrived at the meeting point, I parked by a wall that drew my attention immediately for the powerful message it contained within this fragmented environment. The wall was completely covered in graffiti of fists bulging towards the sky in defiance, thereby invoking the now famous salute of the struggle in Africa as they boldly challenged the status quo during apartheid. Significantly, every fist is painted in a different colour. Behind the wall however, one of the district’s dull, decrepit high-rises ascended upwards. The building has clearly seen better days and the air was heavy with a stench that could turn even the strongest stomach. But the wall’s message was stronger than the despondency of the immediate environment.
It was as if the building were lifted up and held upright by the efforts of people working from the grassroots level – people who live in Hillbrow against all odds. Like the history of the district, I ended up seeing Hillbrow as a space that still signifies wilful defiance – as a space where, despite the human tragedies that surrounded me, I could see hope and dignity everywhere I went. As I later entered the ‘field office’ site, a similar image awaited me. Below a grimy, depressing concrete building, a colourful rainbow decorated the side of the makeshift office – a portable crate dwarfed by the size of its dismal surroundings.
It is here where I met Ree Shabalala, an outreach officer working directly on the streets with young homeless people. Travelling every day from Soweto to Hillbrow, Ree told me that he believes the only way one can make a lasting difference is by respecting the people you are trying to help – by making the streets your office and seeing the homeless as your equals. His philosophy thus entails that human rights cannot be respected if the humans who have them are not themselves respected in the first place. Consequently, he refuses to work behind a desk and insists that there is no such thing as a lost cause. While taking me around some of the most desolate areas of Hillbrow, he told me that the first mistake people tend to make when working with children on the streets is to try and correct their behaviour. These children often get in conflict with the law because they are not wanted. They are seen as a problem. Seeking to change them into something that the society which rejected them in the first place would deem acceptable, understandably finds a great deal of resistance on the streets. He maintained, that is why many efforts to effect social change are doomed to fail from the start. Effecting lasting change therefore not only requires the acknowledgement of people’s rights, but it also requires accepting all as they are, however troubled, misguided and dangerous they might be. The challenge thus is to bring about a shift in perspective while not judging people for using heroin and joining violent gangs. This is a perspective I share for I have often found children who commit crime are regarded simply as a menace. They are seen as criminals rather than as children who happen to commit crime – in my opinion, a major difference.
Walking with Ree through the district, I could see the sheer respect everyone has for him. I distinctly remember a moment when he took me to meet the ‘Shoprite Boys’ who made the street outside of the local Shoprite supermarket their home. We found three of them huddled together behind a yellow pickup truck. As we approached, I could see one of the boys was injecting himself with heroin. The others were smoking a local, self-made drug called ‘Nayope’, which consists of a mixture of HIV medicine, blood pressure medication and marijuana – a drug that one parent I spoke to described as the ‘death of South Africa’. Seeing us approach, they made no attempt to hide what they were doing, though they did look at me suspiciously at first. However, the mere fact that Ree told them I was to be trusted was enough for them to relax and speak freely. I greeted them with a fist bump each. (Nobody in Hillbrow shakes hands as a greeting. This is so due to the sanitary situation. It is custom to greet each other with bulged fists.) As I greeted one of the boys, a makeshift knife fell out of his pocket down towards the ground. I tried not to react, but it was difficult not to notice the sheer amount of used needles and makeshift weapons that were on the ground where they sat. It shocked me because it hit home strikingly what these boys need to do in order to survive. To escape their circumstances they shoot their veins full of chemicals. To survive the nights on the street, they learn to kill with weapons they cut out of plastic and tin. These boys, I thought, should rightfully be enjoying a fundamental human right by attending school, worrying about which university they would attend. They do not belong on urine drenched sidewalks with needles sticking out of their arms. Ree however was undeterred by any of this. He didn’t even flinch at the knife falling out of the boy’s pocket. He asked them about their day and if there was anything they need. He saw the boys behind the grime, the human behind the statistic, the hope in the tragedy. He was talking to them as equals and not as youngsters making destructive choices.

Saying goodbye to the boys we continued down the road and up a flight of stairs. At the top, we found a blind beggar, whom Ree greeted as a friend. As we continued, Ree told me that the man lost his sight after being beaten up by local members of a gang. Our next stop, was a building dubbed ‘the White House’ of Hillbrow. Yet, it was anything but white. In fact, it was a burnt-out building, with black soot where white paint used to be.

The ‘White House’ of Hillbrow

From where I stood, I could see no floor. Instead, broken glass covered every square inch of it. To my surprise I then learned that 15 young homeless women and 2 toddlers slept there. Speaking to some of the women, it is just unbelievable how resilient they need to be just to survive these extraordinarily harsh conditions. One woman told me that all they can sometimes do is drink or do drugs – then at least they forget where they are. They are ostracised by society, because they sometimes sleep with men for food. But they prefer living in this scorched house with broken windows and a glass scattered floor because here at least they know the police leave them alone. There is a deep mistrust of the police amongst the women for, I was told, it regularly happens that off duty officers in uniform would arrest a woman, take her to a secluded area and rape her – a situation which leaves women doubly vulnerable. Firstly, they are assaulted by an authority figure, and secondly, they feel that they cannot report the crime as it was committed by a police officer, who himself ought to be a prime guardian of human rights. What is more, it is the word of a homeless sex worker against that of a man in blue uniform.
These women quite literally live in a fragmented space – broken and burnt to ruins. And indeed, it is difficult to find hope in such squalor. Yet, a few blocks down the road there is another building that epitomises Hillbrow’s potential to give relief to the hungry and homeless. Each morning the doors of Othandweni are opened for homeless men in need of food. Yet, unlike other food banks, those visiting Othandweni are not asked to stand in queues only to leave straight way with a bit of food. Everyone is invited to sit down and watch a film while they eat a free breakfast. At night, the doors are once again opened. This time only for women who have no other shelter. Historically, however, this building stood for something quite different. It notably used to be the building of a church that refused access to anybody other than white people living in the then diversified Hillbrow. In this building it was regularly preached during the seventies that human rights is a concept foreign to faith. But now the church building itself is refurbished. The pulpit and pews have been gutted and replaced by beds and sofas. As a shelter it now fulfils the function of a church better in many ways than it ever had when it was a place of worship. It is difficult to explain the power and significance of such a drastic transformation. The space quite literally became a site of injustice transformed into a place of solace. Not only has the building changed into something purposed for a noble cause, but it has finally become what a church in my view is meant to be: a literal, not only a figurative home of those in need. More significantly perhaps, it also represents a complete shift in the mind-set of those people who previously attended services there – people who unashamedly endorsed oppressive policies that saw people of colour banned from public places of worship. Whatever one’s religious inclinations, such an impressive shift can only engender the deepest respect. But the flipside of the coin is that none of this is state-related.

Othandweni Women’s Shelter – Formally a Dutch Reformed Church

I later drove out of Hillbrow with a strange mixture of sadness, gratitude and hope. While I carry on my research and visit similar places of ostensible hopelessness, I remind myself of people like Ree, who rather see the potential in a single human being than shrink from the magnitude of the problem. It is something I will never forget studying human rights and  something I will certainly incorporate in my own practice: No matter how big the injustice, there is always the potential for change if we acknowledge the problem while championing the individual.
[1] Standler, Jonathan. and Charles Dugmore, “‘Honey, Milk and Bile’: a social history of Hillbrow, 1894-2016”, in BMC Public Health, Vol. 17, No. 3, 2017.

[2] Hillbrow: Sub Place 798015088 from Census 2011, http://census2011.adrianfrith.com/place/798015088, Accessed 15/02/2018.

[3] Hunt Emma, “Post-Apartheid Johannesburg and Global Mobility in Nadine Gordimer’s The Pickup and Phaswane Mpe’s Welcome to Our Hillbrow” in ARIEL, Vol. 37, No. 4, 2006.