Hillbrow is inner-city Johannesburg’s most notorious neighbourhood. Set against the backdrop of poverty and crime is George Khosi’s boxing gym, one man’s attempt to bring discipline and aspiration to the youth of his neighbourhood.
Words & photography Nyani Quarmyne
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 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 decades of civil unrest and the eventual loosening of barbaric apartheid restrictions, poor black South Africans flooded into the inner city seeking a better life, and in the 1990s, Hillbrow hit an apex of crime and poverty.
Unfortunately, due to poor planning, a lack of investment and myriad problems with cultural integration, this rapid increase in urban population led to a city divided – where Affluent pockets of the global super-rich live next to modern-day slum neighbourhoods with an overwhelmingly black populace, overrun with poverty. Hillbrow is one of these neighbourhoods. 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 dealers who operate with impunity in the park below. You will have to trudge up endless flights of stairs — the elevators are almost always 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 this backdrop, George Khosi’s story unfolds. A childhood spent on the streets, petty crime, hustling, and stealing to eat. He was constantly in and out of trouble with the law. Then, aged 16, because he was big and looked older than his age, George wound up in an adult prison. When he got out, he took up boxing in earnest.
His prospects as a professional boxer looked bright, and his record in the image to the right speaks for itself – bright, that is, until he was shot and left for dead during a burglary. He lost the sight in 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.
George operates Hillbrow Boxing Club on a shoestring. He does 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.
South Africa is an incredibly complex society — there are so many ethnicities, subcultures, economic disparities and world views, and all are inevitably set against the backdrop of the legacies 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. In many ways, it’s a microcosm of the socio-economic challenges the nation faces. Drawn to explore this further, it was along the way that I found George Khosi and his boxing club.
It would be hard for anyone not to like George. I respected his humble ‘I’ll-do-what-I-can’ approach to rehabilitating his corner of the inner city in his own way.
Ultimately, I was struck by the notion of positive transformation and the hope of a safer, more peaceful society deriving from the violence of the boxing ring.