Nickolaus Bauer describes what it's like to live in Ponte City, one of Jo'burg's most iconic - and notorious - buildings.
Ever since I moved into Ponte City — the iconic 54-storey cylindrical residential skyscraper that soars into the Highveld sky from the edge of Hillbrow in Johannesburg — I’ve struggled to get people to visit me.
No matter how hard I try to dispel the misguided perceptions about inner-city living, the grey tower on the Jo’burg skyline remains taboo.
“Ah, I don’t know — is it safe?” is a common refrain. Or the more rudimentary: “No thanks, dude. I don’t think my insurance covers me if I’m jacked in Hillbrow.” Sometimes I just get a blank stare.
I moved into Ponte six months ago after doing a story on it. I couldn’t resist it after discovering this haven in the city’s clouds that outclassed my shoebox in hipsterville (the Maboneng precinct, if you must know) in every department. It was a no-brainer — I had to move. Where else could I wake up and have the entire city laid out before me as I sipped my morning coffee? Now I live in a plush 120m2 two-bedroom pad on the 51st floor, complete with granite counter tops and a sunken bathtub, all for only R4 500 a month.
The view alone is worth my rent. On a clear day, I can see the silhouette of Unisa’s main campus in Pretoria. And waking up with my apartment engulfed in cloud is truly amazing.
Of course there are challenges in staying in any high-rise building — and specifically in Ponte.
Like the times you gag as you boot away flotsam lobbed out of a window as you make your way to the entrance. Sometimes it’s a foul-smelling nappy, a blood-soaked sanitary pad or a used condom. And you haven’t really lived at Ponte until you’ve narrowly escaped a serious head wound from a flying missile that shatters on the ground centimetres away. Just the other day I had a close shave with what looked like a guava-flavoured ice lolly that exploded on the walkway.
“You know some people will never learn,” says Ria, co-caretaker of Ponte who, with her husband, Oom Jaap, has run the building since 2008. The couple aren’t always popular with the residents. They run a tight ship and rules are applied without fear or favour. There’s round-the-clock security and diametric-fingerprint access points at all entrances to the building. If you’re having visitors, they have to sign in and leave their ID or driving licence at reception and be out by 9pm. Then there’s the R50 fine you’ll incur for having overnight visitors without making prior arrangements with management.
But their administration, as rough around the edges as it can be, has managed to reign over what is, at times, a tough crowd.
Ponte is a fortressed island of relative peace and quiet in one of South Africa’s most dangerous suburbs. The approximately 3 000 residents are a slapdash community born more out of necessity than want, and they all come with their own story of how they ended up there.
“You must live a charmed life, Nickolaus,” Christopher, an extremely orthodox Christian from Abuja, Nigeria, often tells me when he catches me ferrying a six-pack of beer up to my apartment. “Don’t turn your back on God. It’s never too late,” he adds, even though I’ve tried to explain my atheism during the sometimes lengthy elevator journeys.
Christopher’s been a Ponte local since 2000, just after “the real bad” period. “You are lucky to stay here now when it’s nice,” he reminds me. “When I moved here it was a horrible, ungodly place.”
When Christopher, like many of the longer-term residents, arrived in the late 1990s, Ponte was little more than an urban slum. It may have been the crème de la crème of city living when it opened its doors in 1975, but by the mid-1980s and throughout the 1990s, it was a lair for the nefarious activities of the Johannesburg underworld.
Residents of that era claim the 11th and 12th floors were stripped bare and, along with the downstairs parking lot, were nothing more than spots to score. Both floors were informal brothels and were used as a thoroughfare for those in search of anything ranging from an acid trip to a blow job.
In 2001, Kempston — the current owners of Ponte — managed to drag the building back from oblivion. Their cleanup led to a safe, low-cost living space boasting a 97% occupancy.
Then, in 2007, developers David Selvan and Noor Addine Ayyoub arrived on the scene with big plans. They wanted to transform Ponte into luxury sectional-title apartments, and they went ahead knocking out and stripping floors 11 to 34, and moving 1 500 residents out as they began renovations. But the pair’s lofty ambitions came crashing down in little more than a year, and several contractors, as well as a handful of investors, were all left out of pocket. Kempston took back the building in 2009, beginning its own refurbishment — a process that lasted a little more than two years.
Although Ponte’s dark past is history, many still see it as a thoroughfare — a place to stay but not to live.
“I don’t want to stay here long. I’m sharing with lots of people in my flat,” Morrisette, a seamstress from Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo, tells me in the lift one day.
Morrisette is unemployed and has been since arriving in Johannesburg at the beginning of the year. For the moment she will accept any work. “I will cook and clean, whatever you want. Please help me get a job,” she’s asked me on several occasions.
Morrisette is just one of the residents that Kgalogelo, a handyman from Rustenburg in the North West, who’s hellbent on forming a residents’ association, fails to convert to his dream of a united Ponte. “People must treat this place like a home, not a hovel,” he says. Almost on a daily basis you’ll see Jacob engaged in heated debate with residents, trying to explain to them the benefits of being a collective. “We don’t have to live like this. There are dustbins on every floor, why do you need to throw things out the windows?”
I’ve bought into his idea. Along with my neighbour, Michel, we’ve opened a community centre at the base of Ponte’s ground-floor retail area. When it comes to sustainable change, actions always speak louder than words.
My favourite Ponte resident is Michael. A bright-eyed teenager, mostly clad in ill-fitting school clothes, he lives on the 42nd floor with his parents. He’s always keen to hear about my day when we run into each other. “You busy, hey? When I finish school I must also be busy. It’s not nice to have nothing to do,” he says.
Michael is usually just after a few coins for a cold drink or a packet of chips, but his enthusiasm for life is worth the change in my pocket.
I might still be largely seen as an outsider, a white guy hailing from the suburbs of the West Rand among a mishmash of mostly immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa, but things have changed vastly since I first arrived.
After about three weeks in my new home, I remember a mother trying to console her wailing toddler in the elevator as I headed skywards to my apartment. “He’s surprised,” she said. “He didn’t know whites lived here too.”
I get less stares from the children nowadays. “Yebo umlungu!” (Yes, white man) they’ll say. “Yebo, abantwana bami!” (Yes, my children) I say back.
People ask me why I stay in Ponte, and it’s simple to answer: Why wouldn’t you want to stay in a place that’s on the frontline of the city’s urban transformation?
But my favourite part about living in the big concrete tube in the sky has to be staring at the stars while lying on my back at the jagged bottom of the notorious core, where piles of rubbish and trash were once piled storeys high. There’s something special about contemplating life at the centre of a building that was left for dead, written off by the city’s citizens as a place fit for only the desperate or drug addled.
I realise how different the building’s reality could have been if an attempt hadn’t been made to rescue it from oblivion. I think about how lucky I am to stay in one of the icons of Joburg’s past, present and future — and I’m strangely content. And for me that’s enough to stay and be part of the change.