As angry residents attack the dealers, the police move in, take another hand-out and turn a blind eye to the comings and goings, write Roger Young and Simon Doda.
It was sometime in 1994, shortly after liberation, when Hillbrow began to change.
From a well-regarded cosmopolitan but white area, a sort of Bohemia replete with cinemas, books shops, record and comic shops, coffee shops galore and a vibrant high-street culture, it became a place where white people ventured into only to buy drugs.
And you could buy drugs everywhere.
Certain buildings were well known among clubbers and weekend users as places you could just pull up at and buy, mostly cocaine.
But, as the whites left, the community that moved into Hillbrow solidified and so did their stance against drugs.
Community pressure saw the drug trade move to two distinct areas: The corner of O’Reilly and Fife streets, known as The Sands after a former hotel on O'Reilly, and the corner of Esselen and Quartz, known as the Cape Agulhas, after the apartment block of that name, home to dealers specialising in rock or crack cocaine.
Residents and street addicts believed the police were in the dealers’ employ and so did not do anything to protect the community.
All it took was about 30 minutes’ sitting across the street from where the dealers plied their trade to observe police vans from different wards and divisions pulling up and receiving handouts.
Duchess Court, on the corner of O'Reilly and Fife, technically in Berea, was known as a safe house for heroin dealers. They kept the drugs inside the building and sent runners inside when a client made an order.
But two months ago the security company hired to run the comings and goings of Duchess Court, 24/7 Security, left and residents employed the notorious Bad Boys Security to take over.
Within days all dealers were ousted and no trade was allowed on the pavement.
So trade moved across the street and all hell broke loose. The street addicts who slept rough were hustled up the road and condensed into a smaller area and the residents of the building opposite were up in arms.
DESTITUTE Two addicts use a crack pipe to smoke their drugs. They have nowhere to go and their families don’t want them back.
Emboldened by their neighbours’ success, they confronted the street dwellers and dealers on O'Reilly Road on October 6.
Resulting clashes between Hillbrow’s self-appointed community guards, street addicts, alleged heroin and crack dealers and public order police erupted early that Saturday morning, climaxing in sorties that resulted in street bonfires made from burning street dwellers’ belongings.
After the clashes an uneasy calm followed, with both sides on high alert.
And although hopes were high that the dispute would peter out – with constant vigilance from community members and the dealers’ representative claiming that they tried and failed to initiate talks – the feeling was that strife was imminent.
THE CLASHES BEGIN
At 7am that Saturday morning residents formed a wall at the top end of O'Reilly Road, The Sands, famous for its resilience and 24-hour dealers.
Even the World Cup clean-ups of 2010 were unable to shift its dealers and mayor Herman Mashaba’s war against drugs achieved few results.
But, on that Saturday, from pavement to pavement residents linked arms and marched down the street. An elderly woman led chants of “Nyaope must fall!” and “Out with Nigerians!”.
They brandished sjamboks and broomsticks, lashing out at anyone in their path.
The street dealers vanished almost immediately. Those who remained stood behind police vans and joked with the officers.
NOWHERE TO RUN A homeless man in Hillbrow tries to hide behind a dustbin in an alley. Hillbrow is notorious for drug dealers and users.
The street dwellers who sleep along O'Reilly Road bore the brunt of the attack.
They were beaten while trying to collect their things and later watched from a distance as their mattress sponges, backpacks and plastic bags of meagre possessions were piled on to bonfires and turned into ash.
By 7.30am the Hillbrow police and metro police had barricaded both ends of O'Reilly, letting no one in or out.
The community members took over, but the street dwellers fought back, making quick attacks with bricks and stones, trying to reclaim what was left of their sponges and plastic bags.
Hillbrow police did nothing, relying on their presence alone to keep the violence from escalating. The community sang songs and danced in victory; their fires grew higher and so did their confidence.
They sent a few impis to attack street dwellers, chasing them for blocks.
Just after 9am a public order policing van pulled up and out jumped three policemen in riot gear, armed with teargas guns and rubber bullet rifles.
They fired warning shots and advanced on the community who stood firm. But when they fired the first hail of rubber bullets, the residents dispersed.
The emboldened street dwellers began throwing bricks at those in retreat.
But then the guns turned on them. One man was left on the tarmac, bleeding from a gash on his forehead, where he was hit.
The Hillbrow police parked their Nyalas at the lower end of the street and prison vans were lined up and filled with community members, dealers and street dwellers.
The police remained all night and all of Sunday. And the community brigade maintained small groups at both ends of O'Reilly Road.
They sjambokked and chased anyone suspected of coming to buy drugs.
BURNING DRUG DEALERS
News emerged early on Sunday that one of the alleged dealers was grabbed by the community group and forced into a bonfire and set alight. The face of Unche*, a Nigerian, was covered in bandages, the evidence of his fiery attack.
“There was no warning. There is nothing we could do; now we must find a new place to work.”
After sunset that Sunday the warring factions diminished but did not disband.
By the following Wednesday morning they were still on patrol. All drug trade moved from O'Reilly Road into the park on Hadfield Road, a block away.
GETTING FIXED A group of homeless nyaope addicts smoke drugs on the streets of Hillbrow. The streets are a haven for drug dealers and addicts.
By Tuesday afternoon concerns spread to Hillbrow’s other drug den, Cape Agulhas.
Trading stopped. Dealers said they had to “watch out” and were “in talks”.
On Wednesday morning word was that the price of crack cocaine was up, from R40 to R50 a hit, because of the “danger”.
Cape Agulhas dealers believed the community was gearing up for a similar assault on them the following weekend and had hired private security to guard their building.
Saturday’s standoff was hampered by heavy rains, but the street drug trade went undercover.
The street dwellers of Agulhas were left alone too, mainly because they live behind a security fence and are seen as untouchable.
Hein*, a white street addict who was badly beaten by the community group the previous weekend, said: “You can still buy, but you have to be sneaky. They’re no longer trading in the park but rather in the street. Things have changed, it’s all different now.”
JB*, a Nigerian who identified himself as “one of the bosses here”, tried to walk down O’Reilly Road to see if his corner was safe.
After standing in his usual spot for “less than a minute”, a glass bottle was flung from one of the upper windows of Duchess Court and narrowly missed him.
Late that Monday afternoon, a splinter group of 15 young men led an attack on another group of street dwellers, mostly older people, not all addicts, on the “Old KFC” corner.
The street dwellers were herded into a tight group and made to watch as their belongings were burned.
A Hillbrow police van pulled up soon after the fire was set, but the officers didn’t get out and drove off shortly afterwards.
Any of the street dwellers who tried to rescue their belongings were sjambokked.
LAST SUNDAY’S ATTACK
Last week on Sunday the mob, much larger this time, attacked again.
The previous night, on the corner of Fife and O'Reilly, Bad Boys Security attacked the dealers.
The guy selling cigarettes, the guy selling skants (small R2 parcels of marijuana used to make nyaope), the guy selling chocolates and tin foil, and heroin dealers outside The Sands were whipped and beaten with golf clubs.
Two went to hospital.
Early on Sunday morning a group of people in ANC T-shirts stood on Soper Road, a block away from the trouble. A police Nyala stopped near them at about 9am.
The mob barricaded Primrose Terrace and began marching the three blocks to Cape Agulhas.
They burnt street dwellers’ makeshift camps. Among them was an elderly couple, Rasta and Nomsa.
He washes cars near the Highpoint Spar; she begs, using her crutches and the abscess on her leg for sympathy, on Claim Street.
Nomsa watched her papers burn, her temp ID, her disability papers, a small list of phone numbers of distant family members, lost and gone.
At 11am the mob, escorted by metro police, rushed down Primrose Terrace.
The dealers now trading on lower Fife melted into CJ’s nightclub. The street dwellers scattered and again their belongings were set alight, leaving 60 homeless with nothing.
On Sunday observers arrived. Two black Mercedes, occupied by well-dressed children and women in ANC headscarves, parked and watched from a distance.
They ate out of skaftins, picnic-style, shouting “Hit HIM! Hit him!” when an addict was chased down the street. A young man next to me said: “I haven’t seen this much action in Hillbrow since xenophobia 2008.”
Later that day boys in a red Yaris arrived to watch.
And a bunch of men drinking beer in a 4x4 drove with the mob, taking pictures and shouting encouragement.
The police did not do anything as people were beaten and bottles thrown. People were left bleeding.
On Sunday afternoon the addicts vanished, the dealers melted into CJ’s, but still the mob ran, beating bystanders and shouting: “Why are you not running from us?”
The response was: “What have I done? What have I done?” A small boy of about 11 who ran with the mob had a large gash in his arm.
The mob retreated to the back of Primrose Terrace. They hit CJ’s at 9pm, quickly reducing it to ash. No more would the dealers hide there.
But on Monday morning, with most of the mob back at work, street dealing began again, further along the road.
On Tuesday morning the community brigade attacked the Soper Lodge hotel, a block above O'Reilly. They looted the bar and soon the public joined in.
Crates of beer flew out the door.
The police circled Hillbrow in convoys with lights flashing.
But they did not do anything.
*Not their real names