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Hillbrow building hijackings hit the big screen

Inspired by building hijackings in Johannesburg, the new SA movie Jerusalema tells the vivid story of the harsh realities of living in Hillbrow

If you have never seen a building being hijacked, then it’s time you see the new South African movie, Jerusalema which opened at cinemas last Friday.

I found it quite intriguing that the huge camera crew spent weeks filming the movie in dilapidated buildings, some with people inside and even at night clubs with patrons partying the night away. caught up with the writer/director of Jerusalema, Ralph Ziman, who talked about the movie and the idea behind shooting in Hillbrow.

Now living in Los Angeles, in the United States of America, Ziman was born in Hillbrow and wanted to showcase something authentic about Hillbrow that people don’t often see.

Ziman said the idea of Jerusalema in Hillbrow resulted from hearing that someone had tried to steal a high-rise building in central Johannesburg. “How do you steal a building?” he asked at the time.

In 2004, Ziman started researching the issue and even spoke to several building hijacking syndicates who gave him insight into what was then a multi-million rand property business in the inner city.

 “From my research, I gathered that syndicates were making anything between R1m and R3m on hijacking several buildings while the rightful owners were left powerless to do anything,” said Ziman.

He said the syndicates spilled the beans on how carefully they set out to steal high-rise buildings in the inner city and made huge profits out of the business.

Ziman said the syndicates stole information about landlords and tenants and posed as managing agents and illegally collected money from tenants.

Sadly, they didn’t use the money to pay rates and taxes or even bother to maintain the buildings – which led to further decay.

He said some slum lords he spoke to during his research went through the legal route, buying some high-rise buildings for anything between R60 000 and R200 000.

They would then bring in their construction crew, guards armed with AK47s and demand rent from tenants on the spot.

“Even when tenants would have paid rent to the rightful owner of the building, to avoid being kicked out, they would fork out more money to stay in the building,” said Ziman.

The movie was shot in Hillbrow, the core inner city itself, Soweto and Germiston in squatter camps.

Some of the run-down buildings featured in the movie include Idlewild Court, on Kaptein and Claim streets, Benvista, Margate Court, Chelsea  Hotel – and well-known spot and the focal point for a big show-down among the main actors in the film, Ponte -City (now called The New Ponte) in Berea.

The shooting lasted for 11 weeks in 2006 and the crew base camp was the Moulin Rouge parking lot (also another popular night spot in Hillbrow).

 “Jerusalema explores the will of the entrepreneurial spirit to assert itself in the face of degradation and decay,” said Ziman.

The main character, Rapulana Seiphemo of the Muvhango and Isidingo soapies, plays the character of Lucky Kunene.

Kunene sets up Hillbrow People’s Housing Trust, promising tenants a better deal in return for their rent.

On getting the money, he ruthlessly negotiates with landlords and effectively takes over their properties from under their noses and expands his operation.

What is it about Hillbrow that prompted the film?

Born in Hillbrow in the 60s, Ziman said so much has changed and he wanted to tell the story of his city of birth.

“Hillbrow is full of potential, an entry point to the city of Johannesburg and a land of promise too,” said Ziman.

He said what makes the movie genuine is the fact that they used real residents within buildings in shoots and, at night clubs, they continued with their work while strippers and prostitutes were filmed working.

Ziman said he remembers Hillbrow as a very vibrant place, the best spot to hang out in town on weekends and sample music.

From what residents told him during his research and filming, things haven’t changed – Hillbrow is still vibrant, except it’s in a different way.

“Some people said rentals are cheaper and affordable as such, they stay until something better comes along,” said Ziman.

Moffat Dube, once a former resident of Hillbrow said he stayed for nine years and there have been many changes to this city on a hill.

“I lived in Hillbrow while waiting for something better to come along and now I have moved to the East of Johannesburg in the township of Tembisa,” said Dube.

 “Some say it is safe but you have to be brave to stay in Hillbrow. It’s a jungle out there and only the fit survive,” said Dube.

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