Hillbrow, Johannesburg

After decades of civil unrest and the eventual loosening of barbaric apartheid restrictions, poor South Africans began flooding into inner Johannesburg in search of a better life.

Unfortunately, due to poor planning, a lack of government investment and myriad problems with cultural integration, this rapid increase in urban population led to a city divided – affluent pockets of the global superrich living next to modern day slum neighbourhoods with an overwhelmingly black populous, overrun with crime and poverty.

Hillbrow is one of these neighbourhoods.

In this series, Panos Pictures photographer Nyani Quarmyne shows us a glimpse of life in Hillbrow. His images tell a story of both hope and despair, looking at the district’s ever-present backdrop of crime and poverty, while focusing on George Khosi’s boxing gym; one man’s attempt to bring discipline and aspiration to the youth of his neighbourhood.

  • Nyani_Quarmyne 1

    Nyani Quarmyne

    Johannesburg

    DSC-RX1R (F Stop: 5.6, Shutter: 1/1250, ISO: 500)

    George Khosi training a woman during a corporate boxing day at the Hillbrow Boxing Club. The club relies on a small number of private and corporate clients to pay the club's bills, as much of the work Khosi does is for free Hillbrow, in downtown Johannesburg, is the city's most notorious neighbourhood. It is overcrowded, ridden with illegal squats and suffers from high levels of crime, much of which is related the thriving illicit drug trade. Against this backdrop, George Khosi's story is not atypical. A childhood spent on the streets, where he survived by committing petty crime and hustling, led to imprisonment at the age of 16. Because he was big and looked older than his age this incarceration was in an adult institution. Here he began to fight, since, as he says “they wanted to make me a woman and I didn't want to be a woman”. When he got out, he took up boxing in earnest. His prospects as a professional boxer looked bright until he was shot and left for dead during a burglary. He lost his right eye and now walks with a limp. His boxing career seemed over but George picked up his gloves again, this time to teach Hillbrow's youngsters. His gym became a place of hope and discipline for local youth, keeping them off the streets and even producing some national champions.

    Open fullscreen
  • Nyani_Quarmyne 3

    Nyani Quarmyne

    Johannesburg

    DSC-RX1R (F Stop: 2.8, Shutter: 1/60, ISO: 2500)

    An old photograph of George Khosi, founder of the Hillbrow Boxing Club, annotated with his boxing record. Hillbrow, in downtown Johannesburg, is the city's most notorious neighbourhood. It is overcrowded, ridden with illegal squats and suffers from high levels of crime, much of which is related the thriving illicit drug trade. Against this backdrop, George Khosi's story is not atypical. A childhood spent on the streets, where he survived by committing petty crime and hustling, led to imprisonment at the age of 16. Because he was big and looked older than his age this incarceration was in an adult institution. Here he began to fight, since, as he says “they wanted to make me a woman and I didn't want to be a woman”. When he got out, he took up boxing in earnest. His prospects as a professional boxer looked bright until he was shot and left for dead during a burglary. He lost his right eye and now walks with a limp. His boxing career seemed over but George picked up his gloves again, this time to teach Hillbrow's youngsters. His gym became a place of hope and discipline for local youth, keeping them off the streets and even producing some national champions.

    Open fullscreen
  • Nyani_Quarmyne 2

    Nyani Quarmyne

    Johannesburg

    DSC-RX1R (F Stop: 2.0, Shutter: 1/800, ISO: 160)

    Yomi Shokunbi, a Nigerian living in South Africa, training at George Khosi's Hillbrow Boxing Club. Currently a model and fitness trainer, Yomi hopes to qualify for his boxing license in a few weeks time and become a professional heavyweight boxer. Hillbrow, in downtown Johannesburg, is the city's most notorious neighbourhood. It is overcrowded, ridden with illegal squats and suffers from high levels of crime, much of which is related the thriving illicit drug trade. Against this backdrop, George Khosi's story is not atypical. A childhood spent on the streets, where he survived by committing petty crime and hustling, led to imprisonment at the age of 16. Because he was big and looked older than his age this incarceration was in an adult institution. Here he began to fight, since, as he says “they wanted to make me a woman and I didn't want to be a woman”. When he got out, he took up boxing in earnest. His prospects as a professional boxer looked bright until he was shot and left for dead during a burglary. He lost his right eye and now walks with a limp. His boxing career seemed over but George picked up his gloves again, this time to teach Hillbrow's youngsters. His gym became a place of hope and discipline for local youth, keeping them off the streets and even producing some national champions.

    Open fullscreen
  • Nyani_Quarmyne 4

    Nyani Quarmyne

    Johannesburg

    DSC-RX1R (F Stop: 2.0, Shutter: 1/320, ISO: 800)

    Julie Tshabalala, South African Women's welterweight and middleweight champion, won her first championship while under the tutelage of George Khosi at the Hillbrow Boxing Club. She says that promoters tend to focus on men's boxing, and that it's harder for women to find sponsors. Hillbrow, in downtown Johannesburg, is the city's most notorious neighbourhood. It is overcrowded, ridden with illegal squats and suffers from high levels of crime, much of which is related the thriving illicit drug trade. Against this backdrop, George Khosi's story is not atypical. A childhood spent on the streets, where he survived by committing petty crime and hustling, led to imprisonment at the age of 16. Because he was big and looked older than his age this incarceration was in an adult institution. Here he began to fight, since, as he says “they wanted to make me a woman and I didn't want to be a woman”. When he got out, he took up boxing in earnest. His prospects as a professional boxer looked bright until he was shot and left for dead during a burglary. He lost his right eye and now walks with a limp. His boxing career seemed over but George picked up his gloves again, this time to teach Hillbrow's youngsters. His gym became a place of hope and discipline for local youth, keeping them off the streets and even producing some national champions.

    Open fullscreen
  • Nyani_Quarmyne 5

    Nyani Quarmyne

    Johannesburg

    DSC-RX1R (F Stop: 2.0, Shutter: 1/400, ISO: 2000)

    Aspiring professional boxer Phana Khumalo (24) smiles, despite his bloodied nose, after a sparring session at the Hillbrow Boxing Club. Hillbrow, in downtown Johannesburg, is the city's most notorious neighbourhood. It is overcrowded, ridden with illegal squats and suffers from high levels of crime, much of which is related the thriving illicit drug trade. Against this backdrop, George Khosi's story is not atypical. A childhood spent on the streets, where he survived by committing petty crime and hustling, led to imprisonment at the age of 16. Because he was big and looked older than his age this incarceration was in an adult institution. Here he began to fight, since, as he says “they wanted to make me a woman and I didn't want to be a woman”. When he got out, he took up boxing in earnest. His prospects as a professional boxer looked bright until he was shot and left for dead during a burglary. He lost his right eye and now walks with a limp. His boxing career seemed over but George picked up his gloves again, this time to teach Hillbrow's youngsters. His gym became a place of hope and discipline for local youth, keeping them off the streets and even producing some national champions.

    Open fullscreen
  • Nyani_Quarmyne 6

    Nyani Quarmyne

    Johannesburg

    DSC-RX1R (F Stop: 2.0, Shutter: 1/320, ISO: 100)

    Natalie Baniea trains a young boy during an afternoon session at the George Khosi's Hillbrow Boxing Club. As the club does not have the resources to provide child-size equipment, the youngsters make do with adult gloves. Hillbrow, in downtown Johannesburg, is the city's most notorious neighbourhood. It is overcrowded, ridden with illegal squats and suffers from high levels of crime, much of which is related the thriving illicit drug trade. Against this backdrop, George Khosi's story is not atypical. A childhood spent on the streets, where he survived by committing petty crime and hustling, led to imprisonment at the age of 16. Because he was big and looked older than his age this incarceration was in an adult institution. Here he began to fight, since, as he says “they wanted to make me a woman and I didn't want to be a woman”. When he got out, he took up boxing in earnest. His prospects as a professional boxer looked bright until he was shot and left for dead during a burglary. He lost his right eye and now walks with a limp. His boxing career seemed over but George picked up his gloves again, this time to teach Hillbrow's youngsters. His gym became a place of hope and discipline for local youth, keeping them off the streets and even producing some national champions.

    Open fullscreen
  • Nyani_Quarmyne 6

    Nyani Quarmyne

    Johannesburg

    DSC-RX1R (F Stop: 2.8, Shutter: 1/320, ISO: 800)

    Siyakudumisa Vapi (right), a licensed boxer hoping to make it as a professional, sparring at the Hillbrow Boxing Club. Vapi is training for a fight against the third-ranked fighter in the national featherweight division; if he wins it will bring him closer to his objective of challenging for the national title, and being able to make a decent living from boxing. Vapi says boxing pulled him away from the streets and bad company, and gave him discipline. Hillbrow, in downtown Johannesburg, is the city's most notorious neighbourhood. It is overcrowded, ridden with illegal squats and suffers from high levels of crime, much of which is related the thriving illicit drug trade. The gym has become a place of hope and discipline for local youth, keeping them of the streets and even producing some national champions.

    Open fullscreen
  • Nyani_Quarmyne 7

    Nyani Quarmyne

    Johannesburg

    DSC-RX1R (F Stop: 3.5, Shutter: 1/25, ISO: 6400)

    The ring at George Khosi's Hillbrow Boxing Club. Hillbrow, in downtown Johannesburg, is the city's most notorious neighbourhood. It is overcrowded, ridden with illegal squats and suffers from high levels of crime, much of which is related the thriving illicit drug trade. Against this backdrop, George Khosi's story is not atypical. A childhood spent on the streets, where he survived by committing petty crime and hustling, led to imprisonment at the age of 16. Because he was big and looked older than his age this incarceration was in an adult institution. Here he began to fight, since, as he says “they wanted to make me a woman and I didn't want to be a woman”. When he got out, he took up boxing in earnest. His prospects as a professional boxer looked bright until he was shot and left for dead during a burglary. He lost his right eye and now walks with a limp. His boxing career seemed over but George picked up his gloves again, this time to teach Hillbrow's youngsters. His gym became a place of hope and discipline for local youth, keeping them off the streets and even producing some national champions.

    Open fullscreen
  • Nyani_Quarmyne 8

    Nyani Quarmyne

    Johannesburg

    DSC-RX1R (F Stop: 3.5, Shutter: 1/25, ISO: 6400)

    Siyakudumisa Vapi, a licensed boxer hoping to make it as a professional, makes his way past a low overhang in the basement of the Hillbrow Boxing Club. He shares the basement with a number of young boxing hopefuls and down-on-their-luck former professionals, all living in curtained-off spaces. Between jobs, Vapi divides his time between seeking employment as a carpenter, and training for a fight against the third-ranked fighter in the national featherweight division; if he wins it will bring him closer to his objective of challenging for the national title, and being able to make a decent living from boxing. Vapi believes boxing pulled him away from the streets and bad company, and gave him discipline. The Hillbrow Boxing club is run by George Khosi, who founded the club after gunshot injuries put an end to his own boxing career. The club operates in a donated space on the forecourt of a disused petrol station in Hillbrow, one of Johannesburg's most notorious neighbourhoods.

    Open fullscreen
  • Nyani_Quarmyne 1

    Nyani Quarmyne

    Johannesburg

    DSC-RX1R (F Stop: 2.0, Shutter: 1/80, ISO: 4000)

    Siyakudumisa Vapi's boxing boots and pairs of child-sized boxing gloves hang next to a painting on the wall in his room. Currently living in a curtained-off space in the basement of the Hillbrow Boxing Club, he is training for a fight against the third-ranked fighter in the national featherweight division. If he wins, it will bring him closer to his objective of challenging for the national title and being able to make a decent living from boxing. Hillbrow, in downtown Johannesburg, is the city's most notorious neighbourhood. It is overcrowded, ridden with illegal squats and suffers from high levels of crime, much of which is related the thriving illicit drug trade. The gym has become a place of hope and discipline for local youth, keeping them of the streets and even producing some national champions.

    Open fullscreen
  • Nyani_Quarmyne 1

    Nyani Quarmyne

    Johannesburg

    DSC-RX1R (F Stop: 2.0, Shutter: 1/500, ISO: 100)

    The circular Ponte City tower is an icon of the Johannesburg skyline. For many years it symbolised the inner city's decline as it was overrun by gangs and crime. Now, with investment coming back in, and middle class and wealthy families moving into the buiding, it also symbolises hope for the inner city's renewal.

    Open fullscreen
  • Nyani_Quarmyne 1

    Nyani Quarmyne

    Johannesburg

    DSC-RX1R (F Stop: 2.0, Shutter: 1/500, ISO: 100)

    Sfiso, a drug user, injects himself with a used syringe of 'nyaope' on a street in Hillbrow, an inner-city neighbourhood with a reputation as a centre for illicit drug use. 'Nyaope' is usually described as a crude form of heroin cut with anything from anti-retrovirals to rat poison or pool cleaner. It is cheap and addictive, costing only about 20 Rand (1.68 USD) per hit.

    Open fullscreen
  • Nyani_Quarmyne 1

    Nyani Quarmyne

    Johannesburg

    DSC-RX1R (F Stop: 2.0, Shutter: 1/80, ISO: 160)

    Simo on his way up to the roof of a 'hijacked building' (slang describing an illegally occupied squat), where he lives in in Hillbrow, Johannesburg. The building has neither electricity nor running water, and refuse is piled up outside the walls. Simo says he has been living here for 16 years. Hillbrow, in downtown Johannesburg, is the city's most notorious neighbourhood. It is overcrowded, ridden with illegal squats and suffers from high levels of crime, much of which is related the thriving illicit drug trade.

    Open fullscreen
  • Nyani_Quarmyne 1

    Nyani Quarmyne

    Johannesburg

    DSC-RX1R (F Stop: 5.6, Shutter: 1/640, ISO: 100)

    A fire-damaged ‘hijacked building' (slang describing an illegally occupied squat) in downtown Johannesburg. After a steep decline in the 1990’s, the inner Johannesburg is now a peculiar mix of interspersed working class, down-and-out and gentrified realities, all within a few minutes walk of each other.

    Open fullscreen
  • Nyani_Quarmyne 1

    Nyani Quarmyne

    Johannesburg

    DSC-RX1R (F Stop: 2.0, Shutter: 1/1600, ISO: 100)

    Children play with old car tyres on a quiet street in Hillbrow, an inner-city neighbourhood with a reputation for drugs, violence and crime. The children fill the tyres with gravel and sand, which makes a noise and produces 'engine smoke' as the children roll them along the streets.

    Open fullscreen
  • Nyani_Quarmyne 1

    Nyani Quarmyne

    Johannesburg

    DSC-RX1R (F Stop: 11, Shutter: 1/125, ISO: 800)

    Hillbrow, in downtown Johannesburg, is the city's most notorious neighbourhood. It is overcrowded, ridden with illegal squats and suffers from high levels of crime, much of which is related to the thriving illicit drug trade. During the Apartheid era, Hillbrow was populated exclusively by white, middle-class residents. After the advent of majority rule in South Africa, Hillbrow’s population grew hugely due to foreign and rural migrants coming in to the city in search of a better life. This influx of people caused Hillbrow’s wealthier residents to leave the district. The new, poorer Hillbrow population continues to suffer with high rates of unemployment.

    Open fullscreen
Nyani Quarmyne

Nyani Quarmyne

“Being a photographer is such a privilege, because it allows you to enter spaces, places, and other people’s lives in a way that you ordinarily never could. This is something for which I’m always grateful, and of which I try to be respectful.”

As soon as Nyani discovered photography he quickly abandoned his former career to become a full time photographer. 

He refers to himself as a 'hybridized African' having been born in India to a Ghanaian father and Filipino mother and having lived in Kenya, Zimbabwe, Swaziland, Canada, Australia, the USA and Ghana, in addition to exploring the long list of countries where his work and his travels have taken him. 

As a self-taught photographer, Nyani has established an impressive professional career in the medium. He is a member of Panos Pictures and has worked for numerous high-profile international clients including the African Women’s Development Fund (AWDF), UNICEF, Save the Children, The Guardian, Médecins Sans Frontières and many more.

Nyani joins Sony Global Imaging Ambassadors program with a #FutureofCities story from Hillbrow, Johannesburg.as a 'hybridized African' having been born in India to a Ghanaian father and Filipino mother and having lived in Kenya, Zimbabwe, Swaziland, Canada, Australia, the USA and Ghana, in addition to exploring the long list of countries where his work and his travels have taken him. 

Close