Fridges might fly and beds fall from the sky as residents in Johannesburg’s Hillbrow district see in the New Year by throwing broken furniture onto the streets below.
South Africa’s police will send in helicopters, armored vehicles and special units tonight to patrol the unruly area, which has earned a reputation as a trouble spot at the turn of the year.
Every year a dozen-odd people among those who dare to venture outside on Dec. 31 are hit by crashing objects thrown out of high-rise apartment blocks — everything from televisions to kitchen appliances.
“We throw the old stuff because we got new stuff,” said computer repairman Dickens Patwell, a 24-year-old Zimbabwean, who had himself once tipped a bed over his balcony.
People toss “many things, like electrical stuff,” added his friend, fellow Zimbabwean James Thomas.
“Microwaves, broken stoves, televisions ...” the 26-year-old welder said in a bustling Hillbrow street, as minibus taxis hooted loudly for passengers and vendors sold vegetables on the sidewalk. “We don’t throw things during the year, we can’t afford to buy new things then.”
Two years ago an 11-month-old girl was seriously injured after being struck on the head by a brick — one of nine people hospitalized during New Year celebrations in the district that year.
The following year, locals opted to hurl stones rather than furniture at police patrol vehicles, but emergency services still treated 14 people, including one man who had been hit over the head with a bottle.
In its heyday in the 1980s, Hillbrow was the gateway to Johannesburg for cosmopolitan whites.
People from other race groups gradually moved in and it became known as the “Latin quarter,” where black and white South Africans could live together, despite the apartheid regime’s laws against racial mixing.
The cafes and music shops were popular haunts of celebrities and musicians, but at the start of the 1990s rental prices fell, crime increased and the bookshops and music outlets closed. Restaurants moved to other districts and gradually, whites moved away.
Today, thousands of immigrants from other African countries live in Hillbrow and surrounding areas.
South African Beauty Dube, who has lived in Hillbrow for 16 years, said she would be staying indoors with her family to keep safe, but Thomas said the objects were not supposed to hurt people — it was just an easy way to get rid of possessions that did not work anymore.
“We know nobody’s gonna be out. We’re creating jobs for other people,” he said, echoing a popular belief that debris creates employment for street sweepers.
“Those who get hurt are drinkers,” who stay outside too long, Dube added.
Officials are hesitant to blame the violence on foreigners for fear of inciting South Africans against immigrants.
Police believe the main culprits are people who have forcibly taken over buildings, provincial spokesman Tshisikhawe Ndou said.
This year, he said, officials planned an aggressive approach to curb the violence.
“Various units will be deployed — dog units, the flying squad, the equestrian squad, public order police and the technical response team,” he added.
Authorities have also set up base camps in the surrounding area where victims can get emergency medical care.
Meanwhile, Thomas does not want to say what he will cast away at this year’s party, but it seems he will not be able to exchange the goods.