“Hillbrow was on the ‘cutting edge’ of apartheid’s social, political and geographical demise.” 
Hillbrow’s population soon far outstripped the 40 per acre predicted in 1946 by local authorities. By the 1980s density had increased to 180 persons per acre (400 per hectare). The skyline was now dominated by the J.G. Strijdom Tower (Post Office Tower), built in 1971 and stretching 269-m high, forming the iconic image now instantly recognisable as a symbol of Johannesburg itself. But more than such physical developments, this period is marked by Hillbrow’s significant challenge to apartheid legislation governing where ‘non-whites’ were permitted to reside.
Hillbrow was designated as a ‘white’ area under the Group Areas ActFootnote 4 that was promulgated in 1950. While over 1000 black residents lived in the suburb, largely working in local apartments and offices as cleaners and domestic servants, according to the 1970 census, they kept to themselves in small rooms on the rooftops of the buildings in what was dubbed by the media as ‘locations in the sky’ . Meanwhile, the white population at this time numbered 10,000, with a mere handful of Indian and coloured residents. The overwhelming ‘white’ character of Hillbrow could be seen in its streets, as the Pass LawsFootnote 5 meant that only those who worked or lived there could avoid arrest from ubiquitous police inspections.
The erosion of the Group Areas Act began in the period 1978 to 1982, as Indian and Coloured residents tentatively began to enter Hillbrow in greater numbers. In part, this movement was triggered by a serious shortage of accommodation in ‘Indian’ and ‘Coloured’ areas and later in black townships as well. The latter resulted in a steady trickle of black people seeking out flats in Hillbrow in the mid to late 1980s. Many were also trying to flee the violent clashes between ANC-aligned youths and hostel-dwellers that had consumed the townships by this time .
These accommodation shortages in other parts of the city coincided with a surplus of housing in Hillbrow, as white residents departed from the area for a variety of reasons. Falling property prices, a by-product of capital flight after the Soweto Uprising of 1976, made it possible for many white tenants in Hillbrow to move out and buy houses in the suburbs. At the same time, young white adults were electing to stay with parents rather than moving into flats of their own, as the cost of living surged following the oil crisis of the late 1970s. Finally, the pool of young white men needing accommodation declined following the extension of compulsory national military service to two years in 1977. As a consequence of these factors, many flats in Hillbrow were left empty .
The early 1980s saw a number of important political shifts. The increasingly reformist Nationalist Party (NP) government began to court Indians and Coloureds, promising these constituencies limited political power – a promise that was partly realised in the formation of a ‘Tricameral Parliament’ in 1983. Lacking the financial capacity and political will to build new Indian and Coloured suburbs, however, the NP-controlled management committee of the Johannesburg City Council recommended in 1982 that Hillbrow should be declared a ‘mixed’ area to allow Indians and Coloureds to live there. These developments contributed to the failure – or, perhaps, the reluctance – of the government to check a steady influx of Indian and Coloured families into Hillbrow in the early 1980s. By 1985, an estimated 70% of apartments were occupied by whites, 25% by coloureds and Indians, and 5% by blacks .
In 1986, after three years of constant protests in black townships across South Africa, the worst recession since the 1930s and growing international pressure on the apartheid state, the NP government scrapped the Pass Laws and began to relax the monitoring of the Group Areas Act for blacks. As more black residents moved into Hillbrow, white residents steadily began to move out – concerned about the crime and growing deterioration of parts of the suburb, which they blamed on its changing racial composition. An estimated 25 to 30% of flats in the Hillbrow-Joubert Park-Berea area were vacant by 1987 . The combination of supply and demand, together with the legislation changes cited above, meant that during 1987 some blocks of ‘all-white’ flats in Hillbrow rapidly transformed into ‘all-black’ flats in just a few months .
By the early 1990s, black South Africans “had appropriated the neighbourhood numerically and psychologically” . This shift applied not only to residential spaces in Hillbrow but also to entertainment venues and schools. The few remaining clubs and hangouts were sold to new owners. For example, the Chelsea Hotel, a popular white hangout, was re-orientated to accommodate black patrons, but went into liquidation in 1998. The Johannesburg School for Girls became non-racial in 1990 and the following year it had 400 black pupils and just five white pupils, a ‘racial tipping’ process of astonishing rapidity. Nonetheless, Hillbrow remained ‘multiracial’ as a whole and by 1990, white residents still made up about 20% of its population .
The process of Hillbrow’s desegregation was not without struggle. The neo-fascist British National Front had offices in South Africa and in the late 1970s, its members led searches in Hillbrow for non-white tenants to evict them from their homes . In June 1989, following the scrapping of the Separate Amenities Act, a group of black people came to swim in the Hillbrow public pool as a celebration of the end of Apartheid legislation relating to public amenities. This provoked a response from the right wing organisation, the Afrikaans Weerstandsbeweging (Afrikaner Resistance Movement), whose members attempted to stop the swimmers and distributed racist literature .
Civil movements played an important role in supporting residents’ rights. Organisations such as the Action Committee to Stop Evictions (Actstop) in 1979 supported residents whose tenancy was threatened, mainly through challenges mounted by volunteers from the legal fraternity . This culminated in the landmark court case, Govender versus the State , in which Judge Goldstone concluded that convictions under the Group Areas Act were unjust and had to be halted . By the 1990s, there was minimal racist hostility in Hillbrow, although by this time most conservative whites had left the suburb. According to surveys undertaken at the time, over 80% of residents thought that racial barriers had broken down; most “were delighted” with this development and only 5% thought that racial tension still existed in their apartment buildings .
In this era, Hillbrow emerged as an island of tolerance and non-racialism. In part, the suburb’s pioneering and progressive spirit may have been influenced by its youthful population: even by the early 1990s, 55% of the population were under 30 years of age and 80% were under 40 years . Historians have also observed that the changing racial attitudes in Hillbrow can largely be attributed to gay activism in the area in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Gevisser and Cameron note: “As Hillbrow became a grey area in later years – a white neighbourhood where black people could live, illegal and unprosecuted, in relative safety - it became ‘pink’ in the 1970s: a heterosexual neighbourhood where gay people could live in relative safety” . It was the presence of gay people living in Hillbrow that turned the area into a tolerant, “liberated zone” of sorts, laying the ground for it to become Johannesburg’s first deracialised neighbourhood in the 1980s. It was a place where “those seeking to identify with subcultures relatively removed from the moral confines of suburban white South Africa” could feel safe . Yet, by the late 1990s, when most of the white residents had moved out, Hillbrow appeared to have abandoned this character.