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Making Hillbrow a neighbourhood Print E-mail

The effect of Ekhaya Neighbourhood - a clean street

The Ekhaya Neighbourhood programme is reclaiming the streets and buildings of Hillbrow, one step at a time.

Newly painted and refurbished buildings in Hillbrow, part of the Ekhaya neighbourhood initiative
Newly painted and refurbished buildings in Hillbrow, part of the Ekhaya neighbourhood initiative

HILLBROW used to be known for its dangerous New Year's Eve bashes, where fridges, TVs and couches would be thrown out of flatland windows, endangering lives and causing chaos - but no more.

A huge socialisation process is happening in the suburb. This means that throwing unwanted items out of windows has stopped; instead a social upliftment programme called Ekhaya Neighbourhood, with the slogan "Making Hillbrow your home", has been put in place. Ekhaya means "at home".

The organiser behind this pioneering inner-city, low-income residential neighbourhood initiative is Josie Adler, community organiser and a woman with a strong desire to change people's lives for the better. She has worked since 2004, with support from property owners and their managements, residents and the City to "make a neighbourhood" in Hillbrow.

Today the Ekhaya Neighbourhood Association has a membership of not-for-profit and for-profit landlords of 22 buildings in an area of some 17 city blocks, and a network of building managers, cleaning and security service providers and resident volunteers. Around 12 000 people live in the area.

The suburb, which dates back to 1895, is notorious as a high-rise no-go area, troubled by overcrowding, crime, dirty, unhealthy streets and neglect. One of the city's first residential areas, it used to be filled with single-storey houses, overlooking the fast-developing town. From the 1940s the tall residential blocks went up, and Hillbrow became the most densely populated suburb in the country. It was a cosmopolitan suburb, with bookshops, cafes spilling on to pavements, and coffee shops with balconies overlooking the streets.

Some streets are lined with rows of mature jacarandas and oaks, softening the tall buildings.

More than a CID
Ekhaya is much more than a city improvement district (CID), many of which have been established in the city and suburbs. The CIDs see building owners paying for guards to patrol streets; while building managers oversee blocks of flats, which are made more secure, allowing only residents into the buildings.

A sanitary lane, now clean and rodent free
A sanitary lane, now clean and rodent free

Neighbouring Berea is the first residential CID in Johannesburg. Preparations are being made for the registration of Hillbrow as a CID.

However, Ekhaya takes the CID concept further - it has worked from the ground up, in a process of building relationships between building owners and managers, residents and commercial tenants, and between these groups and agencies such as the Hillbrow Community Policing Sector Forum, SAPS, JMPD, Pikitup, Johannesburg Roads, as well as the local councillors.

With these solid networks in place, eKhaya has been able to work towards making Hillbrow a home through its annual "Safe New Year" campaign, its "Our Healthy Ekhaya Neighbourhood" campaign to clean and secure the dangerous sanitary lanes, and with the highly successful "Ekhaya Kidz Day" held in November 2007. Such activities have brought residents out from behind their closed doors, socialising with one another, and developing an interest in their surroundings.

"We are breaking the anonymity - people now know one another, and they now phone Pikitup to collect remaining rubbish, and report non-service by City Power and Joburg Water," says Adler. "Excuse me for being so excited about this."

Two street guards Eric Zulu and Nico-John Ndlovu on duty
Two street guards Eric Zulu and Nico-John Ndlovu on duty

It also involves creating an environment in which property owners assume responsibility for upgrading and maintaining their buildings, and getting the City to fulfil their obligations regarding cleaning streets, changing light bulbs and ensuring traffic lights work.

The growing number of brightly painted, renovated buildings which distinguish the Ekhaya Neighbourhood from the generally drab surrounds are a tribute to the property owners who have responded with energy and commitment.

Tenants are also empowered by means of the building managers. Complaints about noisy fellow tenants or inadequate cleaning of a building can be directed to these managers. Reneus Mtema, the building manager of the 147-flat Lake Success in Pietersen Street, says the cleaners in the building are now more responsible. But so are the tenants. "The tenants are getting involved, I cannot achieve this alone."

Last year Ekhaya distributed 3 000 pamphlets in late December, wishing residents a good new year, at the same time urging residents at celebrate the new year "with joy and respect for others", and encouraging them to "help make Hillbrow safe and friendly".

Guards now patrol streets in a 17-block area in southern Hillbrow, supplemented by security from the buildings and a patrol car. At first residents raised questions about the men in the bright bibs, wondering who they were and what they were doing, but within months they came to recognise them as a familiar and reassuring aspect of the streets. Comments ranged from "We can walk freely now", and "Now we will start to respect our streets", to "People are very happy to see the security".

Residents then started asking whether the guards could be on duty at night and over weekends, and when Ekhaya could be extended further north into Hillbrow

Learning how a city works
Adler says that the history of the inner city, including the collapse of rent control and laws governing landlord/tenant relationships and health and building safety, were followed by rent boycotts. The outcome was the complete breakdown of governance, thus alienating property owners, residents and the City and leading to an environment of exploitation and easy corruption.

The introduction of sectional title during the period when the suburb "went grey", and the failure of the majority of bodies corporate to manage their buildings was an aggravating factor in the general degeneration.

Add to this the fact that people coming to live in Joburg have never lived in a city before. "They have never learnt the business of how a city works."

They need to learn to communicate with one another, and with the City, so that when water goes gushing down the street, or when rubbish is not collected, they need to know who to contact and to be assertive about demanding their rights.

Ekhaya started by working with owners of the 22 buildings in the area. "We knitted a common-interest relationship." It was established that in some cases pipes in the buildings had not been fixed in 30 years. And with bad management and overcrowding, the facilities in the buildings were more than past their lifespan. Owners now pay their rates, and their garbage is collected, a marked difference to those buildings where rates are not paid - untidy, foul-smelling buildings are sandwiched between neat, respectable buildings.

In one instance Adler walked past a building and got wet. She discovered that a resident was urinating down on her from the third floor of the building. That building is now refurbished and properly managed.

Each building has a building manager now, through whom tenants direct complaints.

Sanitary lanes have also been cleaned, going from being thick with garbage and stinking running with water to being neat and clean.

Adler wants to "get buildings to squeeze each other" and to create "positive tensions" with unco-operative owners, residents and city departments until the whole area is "safe, healthy and friendly".

The City is making a contribution. A R171-million upgrade of Hillbrow, Berea and Yeoville is taking place, to be completed by mid-year. Pretoria and Kotze streets, identified as high streets, will get a thorough work-over, including new paving, special parkings bays, benches, bins, bollards and new bus shelters. High pedestrian traffic streets - Claim, Twist, Bruce and Quartz - will also get a dusting down. Parks in the suburbs will also be upgraded.

This project is to be overseen by the Johannesburg Development Agency (JDA).

Quiet, clean streets with green trees - where Hillbrow is heading
Quiet, clean streets with green trees - where Hillbrow is heading

Place to play
Adler is also concerned about places for children to the play in the suburb. At present they play on fire escape stairways and in garages.

She has her eye on an open patch of land behind the Windybrow theatre, now littered with a huge pile of rubbish, the odd shopping trolley, a barber shop, and filthy running water. The site contains a stretch of craggy rock, several tall jacaranda and wattle trees, and beautiful old stone steps - it has the potential to be an attractive park which Ekhaya would manage, and which, Adler hopes, would stretch to Pullinger Kop and other parks further east.

Adler facilitated an Ekhaya kids' day at St Enda's School in November last year, managed by 35 volunteers and funded by the JDA and several property management companies. Some 400 kids turned up and had fun with competitions and games, winning prizes, taking home a goody-bag and a t-shirt. "It was the first time parents were invited to engage on a social level," she says, "it is an important first step in engaging trust, involving NGOs, the church, schools, and housing managers."

Scared in Hillbrow
Two street guards, Eric Zulu and Nico-John Ndlovu, say they are scared working in Hillbrow, especially at night. They have had guns pointed at them, with a threat to shoot, with criminals telling them they are "disturbing them on the streets". The guards play it cool, saying nothing, and walking away. "We know the criminals, we report them to the police."

When asked why she does this at times dangerous work, Adler says: "It is an absolute obscenity that in my city there should be no-go areas. I am deeply satisfied that community organising principles are working."

She is greeted warmly by people in the buildings, answering in elementary Zulu and Sotho. "If the single woman knows she can walk in the streets, and children are safe, that's what I want."

Mtema testifies that this is certainly happening: "You can walk around at night with no problems." He says his wife leaves for work at 5am every day and walks almost one kilometre, with no problem.

Adler explains that South Africa has an unexplained resource - "The sawubona culture is highly relational, which is why Ekhaya works." The "sawubona culture" refers to the custom of taking time to know each other before discussing the reason for the visit.

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