The comeback kid

Johannesburg is a city beleaguered by memories of its glorious past. There are just too many people who knew it back in the good old days. And like the city that houses it, the fabulously sophisticated past of the landmark Carlton Centre and hotel complex is spoken about with similar reverence.
The present just can’t compare.

Built in 1971 the 50-storey structure was once the tallest building in the southern hemisphere and remains the tallest in Africa.

The Carlton hotel was once Jo’burg’s premier hotel, hosting rock stars and heads of state. Movers and shakers used its posh bars and restaurants to meet and mingle with high-flying businessmen and tourists. Its towering office block and distinctive hotel came to symbolise a city booming with economic optimism and gleefully displaying its European aspirations.

I grew up in the Carlton Centre. My Aunty Barbara became the hotel’s first black reservations manager in 1978. Her position there endowed on us children a sense of entitlement about the place, which at that time was reserved for foreign tourists and whites only.

It was also a convenient meeting point for commuters in lift clubs travelling to the far-flung dormitory townships created by apartheid. We lived in Nigel, on the far East Rand, and my uncle would collect us at the Carlton to begin the long trek home at night. Homework was usually done on a bench in the Carlton Centre, where we’d watch tourists browsing and strolling as if on the Champs ElysÃ

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