Hillbrow is a densely populated residential neighbourhood in Johannesburg’s inner city, known for its high levels of unemployment, poverty and crime. This is where Jono Wood and Camilla Janse van Vuuren chose to be at the precise moment that 2014 became 2015 and the hours surrounding it. Camera in hand, Jono captured the entire experience in a remarkable photo essay while Camilla recounted the happenings in writing afterwards – together, they form an unforgettable account which you can read and see below.
“I spent New Year’s Eve on the streets of Hillbrow. In the belly of a beast that I have feared for over a decade. I’ve never been to Hillbrow. I’ve driven through it, windows shut, doors locked, eyes on the road.
This was a little different.
Jono and I meet up with some journalists and head to watch the police parade at Constitution Hill at dusk. Orange and purple skies, ash coloured buildings, rows and rows of men (and a few women) in blue uniforms. Shiny boots. All solemnly staring ahead, taking instructions for the night. There’s some whispering and occasional gum chewing.
We get a security briefing and are told to meet back at the police station at 9pm to board the police Nyala (an armoured personnel carrier) reserved for the press. The press Nyala will be driven to certain locations. Jono is having none of that. He wants to move with the police. ‘We need to be on the street where stuff is happening,’ he says to me. And even though I am an enormous scaredy cat, I know he is right.
He gets us a ride in one of the police cars that is doing the first patrol. Roughly 6pm to 8.30pm. It’s my first time riding in the back of a police car. First on a night of many firsts. My faux journalism credentials are feeling pretty faux at this point. Jono lends me his second camera that stays slung across my body for the rest of the night. A prop that somehow makes me feel irrationally braver.
We drive into Hillbrow. I have less than no idea what to expect. We realise we are in the front patrol car, these guys choose where we stop. Suddenly, they pull over, open the doors and run. The engine is still running and I’m still getting my bag and camera over my shoulder. They’re picking people in the street to search. Male policemen search men and the female policewomen search a few women. Mostly people comply patiently. Just waiting for it to be over. There is a constant popping of fireworks. They will become the sound track of the night.
I look up, the sky is turning hippo belly pink.
We stop five or six more times. Jumping out of the car and running with the police never gets less scary. My adrenalin is having the busiest day of its life. We go into a tavern, down alleyways, into shops. They search people’s stalls and through the blankets of homeless people on the pavement. I watch a policeman flicking dvds onto the ground like he is dealing a hand of poker.
A plainclothes policeman hands me a pair of blue rubber gloves. Having no idea what they are for, I put them on anyway. They’re too big, I feel like a Pixar character. I lower my hand and the glove falls to the ground. I take them off and shove them into my pocket.
We get back into the police car and the policeman riding in the back with us says, ‘Sorry if we smell. There’s a lot of shit out there.’ He is eating a banana and has turned his cap backwards like an action hero.
We start going into buildings too. Crossing the beautifully tiled lobbies of these old buildings and then up flights and flights of stairs. A lot of the time there is no power, so we’re running in the dark. I watch the pair of combat boots in front of me to see where they land. I suddenly remember I’m wearing a lacy, strapless bra. The impracticality of which makes me laugh out loud.
The bones of most of the buildings hold strong, but the muscle and flesh is all but ripped away. A city full of zombie buildings.
With closed fists they bang on doors. Bang bang bang. Until someone opensup or until no one does and then they move on. They bang on a particular door nine or ten storeys up and don’t stop. I am crouched on the stairwell, with a view of the whole landing. I watch a policewomen unclip the press stud of her gun holster. Bang bang bang. And place her hand on the gun, ready. This is the most frightened I have ever been.
Captain Backwards Cap breaks open a door with a backwards kick. Inside is a bunch of twenty somethings having a party. The police divide the room into males on the left and females on the right. There is some disgruntled, drunken shouting and scuffling. The partygoers seem frustrated by the sudden police presence. ‘This is disrespectful!’ a guy shouts. They find nothing. I lean against a wall just outside and a girl comes and stands next to me. She shakes her head a little and gives me a ‘I know, right?’ look. Neither of us says anything.
As we’re leaving the building a girl points at me and yells above the fireworks and music to her friends, ‘Hey, I love that chick’s fringe!’
A glass bottle hits the side of the police car as we drive away. It’s time to go back to the station. ‘Soft cars aren’t safe after 9,’ they tell us.
It takes a while for the briefing to happen and for teams of police to be divided into the Nyalas. We sit outside on the pavement and wait. I’m shaking like I’m barefoot in the snow. We find a tuck shop just up the road and buy Cokes and chewing gum. Adrenalin is a treat for the taste buds. It’s the most delicious meal I’ve had.
Again, Jono works his magic and we get to ride with the police in one of their Nyalas. Although this does mean we will run when they run, go where they go. The shaking comes back.
For over an hour we drive slowly through the virtually empty streets of Hillbrow. Through the mesh grid on the windows, it looks like the night has happened already. We pass a smashed computer screen and a three-legged plastic chair. A few roads later we pass an office chair on its side, surrounded by broken glass. There is celebration debris everywhere. Fireworks continue to explode. Occasionally as we turn corners people spot the police vehicle and run. A glass bottle hits the top of the Nyala and all the policemen chuckle.
Shortly before midnight, the police charge into a room that seems to be an illegal shebeen. They start to confiscate bottles. It gets messy quickly. The men are angry and shake their fists, the women shout and scream. Between the vivid colours and textures, the pop pop pop of fireworks, the breaking beer bottles and the endless shouting, the scene seems almost theatrical. Surreal Hillbrow opera.
I go and stand outside for a while. Casually sticking very close to a policeman. A guy wearing silky boxer shorts and women’s slippers drunkenly stumbles up to me and says, ‘Hey journalist, you gotta watch Carte Blanche this Sunday. Channel 109. I’m breaking a big story.’ He stumbles away and then comes back twice more to tell me the same thing.
It’s almost midnight and my policeman companion takes his phone out. I ask him if he’s calling his family. He looks at me like I’m an alien from outer space and says, ‘No, I’m calling the guys inside to see what’s happening.’
The fireworks reach their crescendo as midnight strikes. Bottles rain down. They hit the road and explode like popcorn made of glass. Suddenly all the police come running out of the building. The angry crowd is just behind them, throwing bottles. I run too, covering my head with my arms. A policewoman pulls me into the Nyala. I realise Jono has stayed inside to continue photographing. I see the pictures afterwards and I understand why. He tells me later that a bottle flew past his ear and smashed on the wall behind him, spraying his camera with beer.
We spend the next while watching the police bang on doors, get people out of their rooms and send them downstairs to wait on the pavement. They then instruct them to pick up the debris that has been thrown onto the streets. There is little complaint, except from a few people who point at the building across the road in blame. We go into that building too and repeat the exercise. It seems strange to be waking people up for this. So after the fact. ‘We do this to teach them to not throw things next year,’ Captain Backwards Cap explains.
It’s time to leave. It’s almost 2am. I look at my prop camera and realise that I didn’t take a single photo. The lens cap never even came off.”