I’d just finished shooting an assignment in Hillbrow and was waiting on Edith Cavell Street for my Uber to arrive when an elderly white couple walking with their groceries appeared further up the street. They walked calmly and purposefully – as if quite at home – down the street in what is widely perceived to be one of South Africa’s most dangerous inner-city neighbourhoods.
The sight was so unexpected to me that I immediately reached into my bag for my camera. It wasn’t a particularly difficult photograph to capture. I’d already spotted the couple further up the street and they were slowly making their way down along the opposite pavement, so I had plenty of time to find my composition. All I needed to do then was wait for them to enter the frame and press the shutter at the correct moment as they passed through. Then I put my camera back in my bag and watched them go along their way and disappear into an apartment block further down the street.
It’s a rather mundane photograph, but it has come to hold a particular importance for me because its context and sheer unexpectedness provoked much subsequent thought and introspection.
If an elderly white couple could live here, why weren’t there more white people living in Hillbrow 25 years after the dawn of democracy? After all, Hillbrow was always ahead of most of the rest of the country in breaking down racial barriers prior to the fall of apartheid. It became the first deracialised neighbourhood in Johannesburg when the pass laws were scrapped in 1986 and emerged as an example of tolerance and non-racialism around this time.
But it didn’t last. By the late-1990s, all but a few white people remained in Hillbrow. Ivan Vladislavic’s novel The Restless Supermarket depicts a common sentiment among white people in South Africa during the early 1990s through the character Aubrey Tearle, a retired inner-city resident. Tearle’s complaints that the once well-maintained streets, parks and libraries had become disorderly and neglected are symbolic of the fearful outlook of many white people that the transition to a post-apartheid South Africa would bring chaos and the end of an era of “civilisation”.
And so we abandoned Hillbrow for our laagers in the suburbs, with our high walls and golf courses. It was easy for us to do because we had the means, but we did not pause to think. We were so obsessed with “order” that we failed to remember that out of the disorder and chaos associated with transition arise great possibilities for those willing to transcend their fears and embrace the change.
For me, the photograph is a reminder that us white people squandered a huge opportunity during the 1990s to start contributing to the building of a new, truly non-racial society out of the ashes of apartheid. But it also serves as a reminder that if an elderly white couple can still live in Hillbrow today, then there is absolutely no reason why the rest of us can’t too.
That, at least, gives me some hope.