Seven years later, my memories of that walk are fuzzy. But I do remember it was the first time I went to the Hillbrow Boxing Club.
It was a Saturday afternoon and the boxing ring was full of cavorting children. Adults lounged on chairs scattered on the sloping concrete next to the ring. The Hillbrow Boxing Club, in a prominent spot at the corner of Claim and Pietersen Streets, used to be a petrol station. Even today, empty petrol tanks lie dormant under the concrete.
Coach George Khosi stood near the door to the gym. I walked up and introduced myself.
George smiled and gave me a fist bump. “You will come,” he said.
I did come, but not until a year later. I didn’t have a car in 2011 and catching a ride to Hillbrow wasn’t easy in those pre-Uber days. And to be honest, I was scared.
In February 2012, my friend Anita and I finally worked up the courage to drive to the Hillbrow Boxing Club. It was raining and we got lost – we didn’t have Google Maps or even smart phones. But we called George and he walked to find us, hopping into our car and guiding us to the gym. I was a regular from then on.
I’ve been driving to the Hillbrow Boxing Club three mornings a week, every week, for the past six years. I hardly think about it anymore. But when I do think about it – when I walk around Hillbrow with George and look at the neighborhood through the eyes of an outsider – I’m reminded of how extraordinary Hillbrow is.
An Outsider’s History of Hillbrow
I moved to South Africa in 2010, so I didn’t know Joburg during its pre-democracy days. In some ways this makes me a perpetual outsider; I can learn to know the city but only to a point. It’s hard to fully understand Johannesburg “now” when I didn’t live in Johannesburg “then”.
I’ve read countless stories and Facebook posts by white South Africans, reminiscing about Hillbrow’s culture, its shopping, its nightclubs, and its legendary late-night fast food joints in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. These accounts always have a “those were the good old days” kind of vibe.
In those days Hillbrow was party central, where middle class South Africans went to drink and do drugs and live life to the fullest. Even then there was an edginess to Hillbrow, one of Joburg’s first “gray areas” where races mixed in open secret. Or so I’ve been told.
At the end of apartheid, white people began fleeing Hillbrow’s high-rises for gated communities in the suburbs. Landlords neglected their Hillbrow buildings; the government and police turned blind eyes. Immigrants poured in from across South Africa and the continent, packing into subdivided flats. Buildings were possessed by criminal gangs, water and electricity were switched off. “Hillbrow then” swung quickly and violently into “Hillbrow now”.
Today, Hillbrow still has the clubs and the drugs and the fast food, of a slightly different variety than before. But it also has extreme poverty, crumbling buildings, way too much rubbish, and an atmosphere of chaos.
I didn’t know Hillbrow’s “good old days”. To me, the good old days are now.
Five Secrets in Hillbrow, Now
I walk and run the neighbourhood around the Hillbrow Boxing Club frequently, usually with George. There are certainly some streets to avoid and it’s best to walk during the day, with a local. But overall I find Hillbrow as safe for walking as any other neighbourhood in Joburg.
Here are my five favorite Hillbrow secrets, all within a few blocks of the gym.
1) Nugget Hill
The steepest hill in Jozi, I first discovered this small section of Nugget Street when George brought me there to do hill sprints. (Even at my most fit, four trips up the hill is the most I can manage.)
In 2016, the Johannesburg Development Agency repaved Nugget Hill and added a wide set of stairs for pedestrians. Halfway up is an intricate mosaic, mimicking a waterfall that once trickled down Nugget Hill, by local artist Andrew Lindsay.
At the top of the hill is a huge hijacked building, perhaps 20 storeys tall, with rubbish piled around it.
The pedestrian bridge crossing Nugget Hill is currently closed as it had become a gathering place for the homeless. But the winding cement stairs leading up to the bridge are worth checking out. Each step is engraved with a few words of the poem “Welcome to Our Hillbrow”, by Phaswane Mpe. To read the full poem, walk the stairs from bottom to top.
Nugget Hill is on Nugget Street between Kapteijn and Pietersen Streets.
2) The Windybrow
The Windybrow, a Victorian mansion built in 1896, is one of Joburg’s oldest houses. Over the last 12 decades the Windybrow has been a private home, a boarding house, a nursing school, and most recently a theatre and centre for the arts. I remember attending a performance at the Windybrow in 2012, but the theatre was later mothballed and closed for an extended period.
Today the Windybrow has come under the management of the Market Theatre Foundation and is finding its feet as an arts hub and community gathering place. George teaches boxing to schoolchildren outside the Windybrow in the afternoons. In 2017 the building has hosted craft markets, music and dance performances, and a mural painting by legendary Ndebele artist Esther Mahlangu.
The Windybrow is at the corner of Nugget and Pietersen Streets, at the base of Nugget Hill.
3) Cathedral of Christ the King
I’m forever amazed by how few Joburgers know about the Cathedral of Christ the King. Built in 1958, this is the most awe-inspiring church in the city. The Catholic cathedral seats more than 1500 people and is in the shape of a Latin cross, with massive, geometric-patterned stained glass windows covering the full length of the nave.
I first discovered the cathedral on an early-morning run, when the rising sun shining through the stained glass windows illuminated the entire street in front of it. My friend Ruth and I walked inside and gasped - the beauty can’t be described in words. The cathedral is immaculately maintained and always open to the public.
The Cathedral of Christ the King is at 1 Saratoga Street, near the corner of Smit Street.
4) Quartz Street Market
Although it doesn’t have an official name, Hillbrow has a four-block outdoor market along a pedestrianised section of Quartz Street. The vendors sell mostly fresh produce but the market also offers a variety of interesting non-edible wares, from clothing to traditional medicine to hair extensions.
I once met a man at the market selling handmade leather donkey harnesses. He travels to Hillbrow every week from his home in the North West province, marketing his products to donkey-cart-owners in Soweto and other Johannesburg townships.
Libion Moyo, a cobbler, is my favorite Quartz Street vendor. He sits amidst a huge pile of half-mended shoes, clad in royal blue overalls and a jaunty Zion Christian Church hat. Libion is always keen to chat and be photographed. Someday I’m bringing him all of my broken sandals.
The Quartz Street Market is on Quartz Street between Bruce Street and Pretoria Street.
5) Hillbrow Boxing Club
My favorite place in Hillbrow, of course, is the Hillbrow Boxing Club. I go there from 7:00-8:00 a.m. every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for an hour-long session of boxing bag work, pad work, sparring, cardio, and abdominal work. No matter what else changes in my life, these three hours each week are always the same.
I must confess the Hillbrow Boxing Club is hardly a secret, having been featured on Al Jazeera, CNN, and virtually every news outlet in South Africa. George’s gym is a sought-after location for music videos and advert shoots and doubles as a church on evenings and weekends.
It’s tempting to romanticize the Hillbrow Boxing Club, but over the years I’ve learned not to. George lives in the basement beneath the gym with an ever-changing group of men, some who leave quickly for other accommodation and others who stay indefinitely. The men sleep on mattresses on the floor, hanging sheets from the ceiling to subdivide the room. The gym is always busy but somehow there is never enough money coming in.
The roof leaks. The surrounding area is badly affected by crime, especially at night, when – in George’s words – the vampires come out.
The Hillbrow Boxing Club is a place where people live and work and survive however they can. It’s not romantic. But it’s beautiful and it’s worth knowing.
It’s Hillbrow now.
The Hillbrow Boxing Club is on Claim Street at the corner of Pietersen Street. To schedule a workout, contact George at 082-260-4804.
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