Nyani Quarmyne, April 2015
“Hillbrow, located in Johannesburg, South Africa’s largest city, is the inner-city’s most notorious neighbourhood.
During the apartheid era it was the exclusive domain of wealthy white South Africans. Then, during the unrest of the 1980s, black South Africans began to move into the area in defiance of the Group Areas Act, which decreed who could be where according to the colour of their skin. The whites moved out, taking their money with them, and the area began a steady decline. After the advent of majority rule, poor black South Africans flooded into the inner city seeking a better life, and in the 1990’s Hillbrow hit an apex of crime and violence.
Today, Hillbrow remains characterised by inbound economic migration, grinding poverty, over-crowding, illegally occupied squats, hard drugs and crime. Towers like ‘Highrise’ still offer magnificent city vistas, but to reach them one must enter in the knowledge that the building is the chosen home of the drug dealers who operate with impunity in the park below. You will have to trudge up endless flights of stairs - the elevators are permanently broken - and traverse garbage-strewn hallways to look out at the view. Long-term residents say Hillbrow is not as bad as it once was. But they still don’t walk the streets at night.
Against the backdrop of this history, George Khosi recounts his own story: a childhood spent on the streets. Petty crime, hustling, stealing to eat. Constantly in and out of trouble with the law. And then at 16, being big for his age, he wound up in an adult prison. It was here that he began to fight in earnest because, as he put it, “they wanted to make me a woman, and I didn’t want to be woman.” When he got out of prison he took up boxing.
Khosi had a burgeoning professional career ahead of him, but then was shot and left for dead in a home invasion that robbed him of the vision in his right eye, left him with a limp, and put an end to any dreams of becoming a world champion. Eventually, he decided to pick up the gloves again, this time to teach Hillbrow youngsters to box—to give them hope, discipline, and an activity to keep them off the streets. He brought up a couple national champions in the process.
Khosi operates on a shoestring, doing much of what he does for free, with battered equipment and a makeshift ring in the donated space of the forecourt of a disused petrol station: The Hillbrow Boxing Club.”
About Nyani Quarmyne
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’s Global Imaging Ambassadors program with a #FutureofCities story from Hillbrow, Johannesburg.
What inspired you to shoot this story for the #FutureofCities campaign?
Johannesburg is one of my favourite cities—I feel instantly at home every time I visit.
It’s also a place that intrigues me because South Africa is an incredibly complex society—there are so many ethnicities, sub-cultures, economic disparities and worldviews, set against the backdrop of the legacy of apartheid. Within this broader context, inner-city Johannesburg is a patchwork of the most incredible contrasts, all within the space of a few minutes’ walk from each other, and in many ways it’s a microcosm of the socio-economic challenges the nation faces. I was drawn to explore this, and along the way I found George Khosi and his boxing club.
It would be hard not to like George, and I respected his humble I’ll-do-what-I-can approach to rehabilitating his corner of the inner-city in his own way. I was also struck by the notion of positive transformation and the hope of a safer, more peaceful society deriving from the violence of the boxing ring.
How difficult was it gaining access to Hillbrow and it's residents? Were they welcoming?
Johannesburg in general is a fairly easygoing place, and I was certainly made welcome around the boxing club, and in many other places I shot in the city. However, at the same time, Hillbrow itself is not necessarily a place you just go strolling around in, particularly if you’re poking into dark corners.
I was lucky enough to find some rather companionable inside knowledge of the area in the form of Papi Mofokeng, who I met while he was working out in the gym at the boxing club, and he helped me find my way around the neighbourhood.
In your opinion, what would be a solution to Hillbrow’s social problems.
I’d say one of the obvious things that needs to change if Hillbrow is to have a real chance of renewal, is that it needs to get rid of the drugs. Hopefully this can be done in a sustainable way, rather than just pushing the trade out to other places.