JOHANNESBURG northern suburbs Jews and other whites generally fear going to Hillbrow, believing they’ll be mugged. But anyone attending the Hillbrow Theatre – previously the historic Andre Huguenot theatre – last weekend to see the show Hillbrowification staged as part of the Dance Umbrella Festival, might have been impressed by a neighbourhood abuzz with pulsating street life amid Art Deco buildings, and the cosmopolitan mix of black immigrants and local black people. Undoubtedly problems of poverty and crime exist, but the energy is infectious.
Adult Jews remember a largely white Hillbrow in the 1960-70s which hummed elegantly with shops and cafes like the popular Fontana, and buildings such as Highpoint in which the first Exclusive Books was born. For residents, Hillbrow was a first step up for many poor Jewish immigrants from Lithuania who had started off in the humble Doornfontein neighbourhood to the south.
Few, if any, Jews remain in Hillbrow today. They sold up and moved north to the more suburban areas of Orange Grove, Sydenham and Highlands North.
That move was organic, driven by personal decisions and aspirations to own better properties. But this may change with the radical possibility threatening white property owners today, as the black EFF party wants government to seize white-owned property without payment, claiming it was stolen from South Africa’s original black inhabitants by white colonialists. An EFF motion in Parliament last month to review the Constitution to allow ‘expropriation without compensation’ (EWC) was supported by the ANC.
Rural land in Jewish hands today is small, compared to the 1960s when there were a multitude of Jewish farms; for example, the 30-mile strip between Ogies and Leslie in Mpumalanga was almost entirely Jewish farmland. Today, the effects of Jews losing properties would be felt mainly in cities.
The argument is often made that Jewish South Africans’ success in this country, whether in property ownership, business or elsewhere is not because they lived in a country that legally discriminated against blacks and favoured whites. Rather, they worked extremely hard throughout their lives and deserve what they achieved – including property they own – and they shouldn’t have to pay for what colonialists did centuries ago. Many will say Jews are inherently industrious and creative, and succeeded in whichever country they emigrated to from Eastern Europe, whatever the circumstances.
There may be some truth in that, but land is an emotive issue and the argument won’t satisfy black people who believe it was stolen from them. What’s to be done? President Cyril Ramaphosa says it needs careful consideration and there will be no ‘smash and grab’ – such as the Zimbabwean catastrophe, with rampant seizure of white farms.
The issue is complex, whether you support EWC or reject it. From whom should land be taken, and to whom it should it be given? For example, there are whites whose forebears arrived here in the 19th century and who are fifth generation South Africans. Must they still pay for what the colonialists did, as if they are not South African?
Furthermore, to whom should land be given? Which people qualify as ‘original’ South Africans from whom the colonialists stole land? South African history is replete with events where one group took land from another. Perhaps the only genuinely original inhabitants were the San – the so-called ‘Bushmen’ who are virtually extinct today?
What no-one can dispute is the need for major land reform. In a country with a majority black population, ownership of most land by whites is both immoral and a recipe for disaster. What does this have to do with Hillbrow? It is still a metaphor for the country, a reservoir of pulsating energy bordered by land largely owned or controlled by the privileged. Imagine if the pent-up energy crammed into those few blocks was released into bringing life to new places.
(GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org )