Johannesburg’s Ponte Tower is infamous, notorious and really really interesting. It embodies the former decadence, ensuing decay and current regeneration of the City of Gold. It’s a brutalist, concrete hollow cylinder of a building in the city’s Central Business District (CBD). The tallest residential building in Africa, it rises 55 stories tall and along with the Telkom tower is an instantly recognisable feature of Joburg CBD’s skyline.
Glamour: Ponte started life in the mid 1970’s as luxury real estate dubbed the ‘Vegas of Africa’, where the plushest apartments spanned three floors and had built in jacuzzis. To see a smattering of photos from those bygone I only found this one article: Buildings are Geological Agents. There are only a couple of images and you have to scroll most of the way down through the post.
Garbage: When decay set in and the original hipster residents moved out, the empty buildings were broken into and hijacked. Ponte became a complete no-go zone. It was an overcrowded den of iniquity with a direly severe rubbish problem in the 90’s. There was no running water, no electricity and when the rubbish collections stopped, residents would lob their waste into the central void. Unfortunately, there it stayed until it rose a festering 14 stories high (or 2 or 3 or 5 – I’ve read different things and I’m not sure which is factually correct, but 14 is the number given by our guide on the day). Ponte was a slum in the sky.
Gritty Regeneration: In recent years, Ponte has changed again. The illegal tenants evicted, the rubbish has gone and the building has been refurbished to a good standard and is now home to a mixture of families, students, working and middle class residents. It is possible to tour both the inside (marvelling at the views from the top) and the eerie core with a circle of sky high above.
Inside the core: Once the squatters were evicted, the enormous rubbish pile was cleared. During the process they reportedly found 23 corpses!!!!!!
Now ‘clean’ and corpse-free, the core is still a tad smelly and it’s littered with broken glass and other small oddments, so it’s sensible to wear closed-toed shoes. The floor is sloping and uneven, but it’s bedrock rather than rubble.
The other less serious ‘peril’ of the core is the obligatory ‘core-selfie’ which serves to highlight quite cruelly any hint of a double, triple or quadruple chin. Of course one can look up to avoid the chin shot, but at the risk of replacing it with an up-the-nose one.
At the top: The views are spectacular.
At the bottom: It’s quiet, eerily so and a chilly wind whips about the base. Our group was advised to not linger too long on the main concourse at the tower’s foot, as some current residents aren’t averse to throwing the odd nappy or other unwanted item out of the window. We spotted various unidentified splatters and an empty pilchard tin. At best this could be a deeply unpleasant hazard, at worst downright dangerous.
Within the grounds there is the ghostly outline of former tennis and basket ball courts, now given over to washing lines. There is also a well maintained pool, although it’s not clear how much it’s used as we were told it’s often only open in the winter months.
Security to get in and out of the building is tight. There are strict visitor rules and fines for unauthorised overnighters.
The general neighbourhood: Surrounding streets are a mishmash of quite clean and pleasant looking buildings, surprisingly tidy streets and dilapidated buildings or complete shells with rubbish strewn about.
Is it safe? Community spirit has apparently been more effective in reducing crime in the area than police intervention, manifesting itself in the form of mob justice. A shout of “thief” means the perpetrator will likely be caught and beaten perhaps to within an inch of his life or further. Pickpocketing is a potential issue, so keep a hand and an eye on your bag and don’t wear flashy jewellery.
The tours have been running for a number of years and participants are usually encouraged to make small purchases from local vendors, contributing to the local economy ensuring further that it is in the interest of the local community that their visitors stay safe. We certainly didn’t have any problems on the tour, although we got some curious looks.
Lunch: You’ll work up an appetite with all that walking. Don’t worry, the tour finishes with lunch at a shebeen, with generous bottles of beer and a filling set menu including mielie pap and fried chicken.
Who should go? Most visitors tend to be international tourists and I can’t help thinking it must also be of great interest to local photographers and anyone connected to architecture with all those interesting concrete curves. I understand that for older Johannesburgers there is often reluctance to go back to any part of the CBD and see it in its current state when they remember its halcyon days, but it’s also clear that many younger South Africans have barely set foot in many parts of the city – ever – but are perhaps hesitantly eager to do so.
It was interesting to note that the (I think 3) South Africans on our tour were probably even more fascinated than the foreigners and were full of eager questions. Since the tour I have shown my photos to South African friends who were completely unaware that it is possible to visit Ponte and curious to learn more.
How do I book a tour? Currently, the only way to visit Ponte is by taking the half day tour including the tower, surrounding streets and lunch with Dlale Nje’s Inner City Adventures. Please check out their website or Facebook page and book yourself in. It’s an eye-opening experience designed to take you outside your comfort zone and challenge your perceptions. It certainly does that.
p.s. I spotted this building on the way home. It looks so similar to Ponte (Petit Ponte?), but much smaller. Are they connected? Is it similarly hollow? I’d love to know.