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The Roads to Hillbrow: Making Life in South Africa’s Community of Migrants

South Africa has become a major "hub" for global migration.[1] In 2020, it was the world's fifteenth most frequent destination for international migrants and the most common destination in Africa. In the last decade alone, the number of international migrants within the country doubled from two million to four million.[2] Just over half of South Africa's new arrivals settle in Gauteng, the heavily urbanized province that is home to Johannesburg.[3]


Johannesburg also draws people from every province within South Africa. During most of the twentieth century, South Africa's former government reserved urban areas for the white minority and consigned the Black majority to the status of "temporary sojourners." As Letlhogonolo Gaborone candidly summarizes: "The history of South Africa is one of massive and well-orchestrated land dispossessions, from the colonial era until the demise of apartheid."[4] For decades, activists and organizations mobilized around the right of the majority to occupy and benefit from spaces they have been denied.[5] With the collapse of formal apartheid in the 1990s, most South Africans experienced the right to move freely for the first time.[6] So many migrated to Johannesburg during the end of the last century and the beginning of the new one that just over forty percent of its inner-city residents in 2003 had been living in their homes for a year or less. Much of the city's population growth continues to be driven by, in Loren Landau's words, "newly urbanized South Africans."[7]


These two major trends—transnational and internal migration—intersect in Hillbrow, a one-mile strip of land in what is now Johannesburg's inner city. About 40 percent of Hillbrow's approximately 90,000 residents have arrived from twenty-five other countries, including Zimbabwe, Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Mozambique, and Malawi. Thousands of others have traveled from other parts of South Africa.[8] Tanja Winkler describes Hillbrow as one of Johannesburg's most significant "port-of-entry" neighborhoods. Such communities are urban landing spaces where new arrivals can readjust, develop a sense of a new city, and build new networks. Hillbrow, like all port-of-entry neighborhoods, is characterized by density, heterogeneity, and continuous change.[9] Because of its numerous high-rise apartment buildings, access to transportation, and proximity to job-rich suburbs,[10] Hillbrow makes a logical port-of-entry for people both from South Africa's other provinces and from countries to the north. It is often the first neighborhood that any new migrant arriving in Johannesburg by bus or passenger van will see.

[1] Aurelia Segatti, "Migration to South Africa: Regional Challenges versus National Instruments and Interests," Contemporary Migration to South Africa: A Regional Development Issue, ed. Aurelia Segatti and Loren B. Landau (Washington: World Bank, 2011), 9-28, esp. 9; and Jonathan Crush, "Southern Hub: The Globalization of Migration to South Africa," International Handbook on Migration and Economic Development, Ed. Robert E.B. Lucas (Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar Publishers, 2015), 230-240.    
[2] International Organization for Migration (IOM), World Migration Report, 2020 (Geneva: IOM, 2020), esp. 49 and 80. 
[3] World Bank Group, Mixed Migration, Forced Displacement and Job Outcomes in South Africa (Washington, DC: The World Bank, 2018).
[4] Letlhogonolo Gaborone, foreword to Still Searching for Security: The Reality of Farm Dweller Evictions in South Africa, Marc Wegerif, Bev, Russell and Irma Grundling (Polokwane, SA and Johannesburg: Nkuzi Development Association and Social Surveys, 2005), vi.  
[5] Loren Landau and Jean Pierre Misago, "Who's to Blame and What's to Gain? Reflections on Space, State, and Violence in Kenya and South Africa," Africa Spectrum 44, no. 1 (2009): 102.
[6] Ogujjiuba Kanayo, Patience Anjofui, and Nancy Steigler, "Push and Pull Factors of International Migration: Evidence from Migrants in South Africa," Journal of African Union Studies 8, no. 2 (August 2019): 220.
[7] Loren Landau, "Transplants and Transients: Idioms of Belonging and Dislocation in Inner-City Johannesburg," African Studies Review 49, no. 2 (2006): 123-145, esp. 130.
[8] Hayley Gewer and Margot Rubin, "Hillbrow," Resilient Densification: Four Studies from Johannesburg, ed. Alison Todes, Philip Harrison, and Dylan Weakley (Johannesburg: University of the Witwatersrand, 2015), 71-105, esp. 77 and 97; and Alex Wafer, "Precarity and Intimacy in Super-Diverse Hillbrow," in Diversities Old and New: Migration and Socio-Spatial Patterns in New York, Singapore, and Johannesburg, ed. Steven Vertovec (London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2015).
[9] Tanja Winkler, "Why Won't Downtown Johannesburg 'Regenerate?': Reassessing Hillbrow as a Case Example," Urban Forum 24 (2013): 309-324, esp. 317. 
[10] In South Africa, "suburb" is a term used to connote a neighborhood.