The Ponte City apartment tower in Johannesburg was built for high-flyers before becoming a violent slum ruled by gangsters. Its rebirth as respectable, affordable housing is a model of community renewal. By Linda Jaivin.

Ponte City, Johannesburg

The interior of Ponte City, Johannesburg.
The interior of Ponte City, Johannesburg.
Credit: Linda Jaivin

Looking up through the hollow core of the 54-storey concrete-and-metal tube that is Ponte City, the Johannesburg sky is a distant and glary white circle. The building’s core, with its curved inner walls banked with factory-like windows and concrete struts, could be an exit chute on the Battlestar Galactica. But look down and it seems as if the spaceship has crashed onto an inhospitable planet: its subterranean base, where I’m standing, is a rough and unevenly sloping, rubble-strewn rockface – brutalist chic, or brutalist cheek, depending on your perspective. I understand why the makers of Resident Evil: The Final Chapter filmed the zombie apocalypse here. Ponte City also appears in the dystopic visions of Chappie, District 9 and Dredd.

The building’s history is a match for any fiction. “Is it true,” I ask, recalling something I’ve heard, “that when they came to clean this place up, the rubbish was piled 14 storeys high and contained 28 dead bodies?”

“No, no,” my guide, Michal “Loopy” Luptak, answers in a not-this-old-wives’-tale-again tone of voice. “The rubbish came up 10 storeys at most, and there weren’t that many dead bodies.”

Ponte City represented the ultimate in Johannesburg inner-city living when it opened in 1976 – for white folk at least. They were the only ones allowed to live in the CBD under apartheid’s Group Areas Act. Blacks and “coloureds” could work in the city but had to return to the townships at night. Ponte’s residents enjoyed their own upscale shopping centre, floodlit tennis courts and swimming pools. The penthouses boasted in-home saunas and orange shag carpet. Best of all, Ponte was part of Hillbrow, a hip neighbourhood with a vibrant nightlife, alternative bookshops, cool cafes and gay clubs. Its first residents moved in just in time for their panoramic views of the city to take in the sight of Soweto burning.

It would take almost two decades of struggle before apartheid finally ended and democracy came to South Africa. But white flight to the suburbs, including those across the Indian Ocean in Perth, began. Mixed-race couples, meanwhile, found they could escape harassment and arrest in the relative anonymity of Ponte, where racial exclusion laws were hard to enforce: black or coloured spouses posed as maids or servants. Who could keep track of comings and goings in a building designed to house 3500 people? Blacks fleeing violence and other trouble in the townships found they could disappear in Ponte or other parts of cosmopolitan Hillbrow. Inevitably, criminals found haven here, too.

In 1994, Nelson Mandela became South Africa’s first black president. Apartheid was over. Mandela opened the nation’s borders and both African National Congress exiles and immigrants from other parts of Africa flooded in. Hillbrow’s population swelled, as did that of Ponte City, whose 464 flats eventually housed some 10,000 people. Drug lords and other gangsters “hijacked” the building; the landlords retreated. Essential services ceased. The lifts became death traps. No one collected the rubbish, so people just chucked it into the core.

Loopy points to the 13th and 14th floors. “Those were brothels,” he says. “The whole two floors.” Crime flourished, drugs were everywhere, violence was endemic. Africa’s tallest residential building became a 173-metre-high no-go zone.

Hillbrow and Berea acquired the reputation of being the most dangerous neighbourhoods in a city that had become one of the most dangerous in the world. South African journalist Verashni Pillay has described Hillbrow’s “narrative”, from the 1990s through to the first years of the new millennium, as that of the place “where you get hijacked, raped and murdered” and “the middle class dare not tread”.

The government briefly considered turning Ponte City into a giant panopticon prison. Then, as programs for urban renewal got under way, the building’s owners began a herculean clean-up, including of its criminal elements. The goal was to transform it into safe, affordable housing. In 2007, in advance of the 2010 FIFA World Cup, other developers dreamed of restoring Ponte to its former posh glory, but the 2008 global financial crisis put paid to that idea.

Loopy, who immigrated to South Africa with his parents from Czechoslovakia in 1989 at the age of four, moved into Ponte City in 2012. A chartered accountant by profession, he was taken with the area. He began inviting friends and acquaintances who’d never previously dared step foot in Hillbrow to come see his new neighbourhood for themselves. Realising that one of Hillbrow’s problems was that kids had few safe places to play, learn and study, he co-founded the social enterprise Dlala Nje (“just play” in isiZulu) with a journalist friend, Nickolaus Bauer, funding it with the tours he’d started for fun.

I learned about both Loopy and Dlala Nje from David, a young Frenchman working for the Four Seasons Westcliff in Joburg (“No one says Johannesburg anymore,” David advised.) It was my first time there. I’d read the travel advisories and wished I hadn’t seen the carjacking videos on YouTube. My ears rang with the anxious warnings of friends to stay in the “safe areas”. I had no intention of doing otherwise, though the “safe areas” were a dispiriting sight: all high walls topped with electric wire and plastered with signs warning of “armed response”. David promised that a tour of Ponte would radically change my sense of the city, which was “rejuvenating”.

Which is how, on a Friday morning, I find myself in an Uber with David’s colleague, the hotel’s PR manager, Natalie Harrison. Natalie has never been to Ponte City either.

As our Uber driver brings us into the CBD, the walls come down and the streets open up. Lining them are a mishmash of commercial and residential buildings in various states of dilapidation and repair, shops advertising cheap clothing and haircuts, grocery shops. There are people everywhere – shoppers, street vendors, people in a hurry, people hanging out. Tiny Hillbrow squeezes a population of 74,000 into 1.08 square kilometres. There’s a lot to take in, but my eyes begin to adjust to the normality of it. I realise that I’ve been so spooked by Hillbrow’s reputation as, among other things, the murder capital of Gauteng province, that my shoulders are glued to my ears. I ease them down, hoping that neither Natalie nor our driver has noticed my nervousness. The car drops us about half a block from the upwards-spiralling ramp that leads to Ponte City – down which a smiling Loopy is strolling to meet us.

Loopy walks fast and talks faster. My notebook is full of scribbled fragments: “a fucking rock star” (describing Romy Stander, who designed the giant multihued chandelier made from found objects that we watch being installed in Dlala Nje’s new office and exhibition space in the Ponte courtyard); “Afropolitan” and “Charity is dead”. Dlala Nje takes no money from government or the private sector. The multiracial group, which works to change both the realities and perceptions of inner-city Joburg, continues to fund itself through tours – “we use the city as a classroom” – as well as ticketed events, such as jazz nights. They also offer “curated experiences for businesses”, by which, Loopy explains, “we create discomfort in private-sector leadership by immersing them face to face with real inner-city inhabitants”, many of whom are “their own customers”, to encourage “socially cohesive decision-making”. He shows us a space by Ponte’s entrance-level courtyard that once served as a Nigerian-run bar. The collective’s members are busy converting it into a youth centre, from which they’ll also operate a culinary school for young people. There are kids everywhere.

Tower residents use a fingerprint recognition system to get through the full-height security turnstiles leading to the lifts. To live here you need to have a job and a bank account. They pay about R7000 (A$645) a month for a three-bedroom, three-bathroom flat – a fraction of the cost of renting anything comparable in the upscale suburb of Sandton.

Not all the lifts are in service, but we get in one that zips us up to the 51st-floor flat that houses Dlala Nje’s cafe and event space. The place has a funky recycled/industrial minimalist vibe, with gobsmacking views of the city, tables covered in repurposed detergent labels and stacked beer-crate stools topped with brightly patterned cushions. There’s a rack of streetwear by Malume, a label whose website boasts that it was “born on the streets of the infamous inner-city neighbourhood of Hillbrow”.

I’m overwhelmed with respect for the work, fortitude and sheer bloody optimism of Loopy, his co-workers and all the other locals who’ve so warmly welcomed us here. As we stroll back down the ramp – me regretting there’s no time to see more of Hillbrow – one of Dlala Nje’s top local guides, Gilbert, a Congolese who also leads tours in French, invites me to take a walking tour he does at night where you sample the different African cuisines brought here by migrants. Hillbrow by night – that would take the adventure up a notch. But I’m flying out that evening. Next time, I say, and I mean it.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 15, 2018 as "Tower of strength".

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