It is hard to believe that the Hillbrow district, in downtown Johannesburg, was a progressive and cosmopolitan neighborhood in the 1970s before international boycotts of the 1980s led to an exodus of multinationals and prosperous professionals from the neighborhood. Hillbrow soon turned into a metropolitan slum with a violent reputation. Empty office buildings and homes were quickly occupied by criminal gangs and throughout the 1990s Hillbrow became the symbol of urban problems during the uncertain transition to democracy in South Africa: high crime, unemployment and poverty.
If Hillbrow was the neighborhood that symbolized the decline of a city, Ponte City Towers is the building. This circular 54-storey apartment complex, designed by architect Rodney Grosskopff, was presented in 1974 as the most modern and luxurious home for white people in the city. Fifteen years later, the building was hijacked by gangs who were engaged in robberies, drugs and prostitution.
Today I joined a walking tour through Hillbrow with local guides from Dlala Nje, a non-profit organization based inside Ponte Tower. It is therefore not surprising that the building is prominently featured on the tour. There is something magical about Ponte. Its history is fascinating but the design is remarkable as well: all the flats are centered around a gaping open core and the height of the building gives it amazing views over the city. From all parts of the city, Ponte Tower is visible as a landmark in the skyline of Johannesburg, its recognition enhanced by the large, red branding of telecom company Vodacom in the top.
Ponte Towers is notorious, and this reputation is made worse by a collection of stories and anecdotes. Since there was no waste collection, no electricity and no water in the 1980s, everything was dumped into the open core of the building. At one point, the debris reached up to fifteen stories high and not only garbage but anything from electrical appliances or car parts to living rats and, as was whispered, human bodies, either murdered by gangs or the remains of those who had thrown themselves from their balcony straight into the core. Even after the fall of the Apartheid regime, Ponte Towers remained a no-go area for many years.
A few years ago the building was reclaimed by its owners. How? Everybody seemed rather tight-lipped about it but it is plausible that a heavily armed private squad team was involved. Meanwhile the apartments have been renovated to accommodate families from the lower middle classes. In order to live there, one must have permanent employment as proof that the rent can be paid. The apartments generally cover one floor (instead of the original three), with two bedrooms, a living room and a kitchen. There are two families in each apartment, each with a maximum of 3 people. So if a family decides to have a second child, one of the families has to move.
The area around Ponte is still unsafe, and the entrance to Ponte Tower is secured with a fingerprint system, large metal turnstiles and 24 hour surveillance. In addition, the rules are strict. No guests are allowed after 21:00. If an overnight visitor is caught, a fine will follow. Yet there is a waiting list for families who want to live here, precisely because of the strict safety requirements. For children, the tower is a safe place and an organization like Dlala Nje ensures that children do not roam around the neighborhood after school but have a place to play under adult supervision.
Hillbrow and Berea are not easy places to walk around as outsiders, especially in the evening. There are still many empty buildings, often illegally occupied, and the atmosphere can be grim in some places. But the city walk with the local guides did change my perspective. We walked together to a local market and had lunch and drank a beer in a local pub, and there was plenty of opportunity to chat with the locals, many immigrants from neighboring countries such as Zimbabwe. James, one of the Dlala Nje guides, grew up in Ponte Tower after his parents arrived in South Africa from Congo. On the market in Pretoria Street, James proudly pointed at a DVD of the movie “Jerusalema”, a gangsterflic from 2008 that was filmed in Hillbrow and in Ponte. I decided to buy it as a souvenir. It is probably illegal.
IMDB: Jerusalema (2008)
About Dlala Nje
Dlala Nje offers children from the inner city of Johannesburg a safe place to play and learn after school. To finance these activities, they organize walking tours in notorious neighborhoods such as Hillbrow and Yeoville. They call it “immersion experiences”, experiences where you will have the opportunity to talk and interact with local residents.
More information Dlala Nje