From Patrick Waterhouse & Mikhael Subotzky's "Ponte City."
A version of this essay was originally published in June 2013 in N+1.
Ponte City is an apartment block on the outskirts of central Johannesburg. It’s commandingly hideous, in the manner perfected in the early ’70s: a vast cylindrical barrack, fifty-four stories tall, made vaster still by the ridge on which it’s built and the enormous red billboard that glows, siren-like, from its top.
There’s been talk of the building in the South African press recently, and the big news is this: it’s an okay place, “workable.” The people inside pay some rent and live there; they make some food and sleep there; they wash themselves and flush there. Kids play in the corridors. Neighbours ask one another to keep it down.
That this mundanity is newsworthy will tell you most of what you need to know about Ponte, going in. There’s the building, which is one thing, and then there’s everything the building has come to represent. It’s our great haunted house, a concrete structure that accommodates all the abstract terror we’re so adept at generating. Few people in Johannesburg have been inside Ponte, or even near it, but everyone knows about it. They know that its hollow inner core was once filled with trash, debris, decomposing cats. They know that Ponte is home to gangs and brothels and "Nigerian drug lords." They know that it’s the suicide building, even if they haven’t heard of a single suicide; they know that it’s the crime building, even if they can’t recall one crime.
There’s a story to how Ponte came to earn its menacing status. To begin with the end, the inner city is, at present, slowly moving back into money again. Horizontal windowpanes are making their glacial way over old gutted and abandoned buildings, weekend markets are selling macaroons and mojitos. People who didn’t dream of going there five years ago are looking for “investment properties” in “development zones,” and people who could afford to rent there two years ago are looking elsewhere.
But this gentrifying wand has yet to touch Hillbrow, the dense neighbourhood of high-rise apartment blocks with which Ponte is synonymous. In the 1970s, when Ponte was built, Hillbrow was South Africa’s version of Greenwich Village. (If the Village was a whites-only neighbourhood in an apartheid state). The building went up with audacity: it was then the tallest apartment block in the Southern Hemisphere, and it remains the tallest in Africa. Size is a favourite sort of accomplishment. The ground floor sported, among other amenities, a concert venue and a bowling alley. The interior fell victim to shag carpeting. The six penthouses came fitted with wine cellars, saunas, patio braai areas, roof decks, and (could it be?) a tennis court. The initial plans included a “skateboard ski slope.” Only white people were legally allowed to live there, except the building’s staff, who occupied the top floors—the very highest point in the city—with tiny windows that were impossible to see out of. “We had some mad by-laws in those days,” Rodney Grosskopff, one of Ponte’s architects, recounted over email. “The sills had to be above six foot so that they [the black staff] couldn’t look out at the white apartments.”
Ponte was legally a whites-only block, but the law was quickly broken. Hillbrow was one of the first neighbourhoods in South Africa to tentatively begin racial integration. A 1978 article from the Citizen reported that “hundreds of coloureds and Indians were flooding into the white flatland” and living in “the luxury Ponte block” under assumed names like Papadopoulos. “Landlords said they could not tell the difference between various race groups as many of the coloured people appeared to be Lebanese or Portuguese.” At the time, Hillbrow genuinely was home to an array of newly arrived Europeans taking the apartheid government up on its fawning immigration policy for whites. The neighbourhood’s main roads were a Contiki Tour unto themselves—Café Pigalle, Café Zurich, Café Wien, Café Florian—and they were as close as many young South Africans came to an outside world. In 1980 the minister of community development declared Hillbrow “a scandal and a slum,” which is to say it was the best place to be: a fairly cosmopolitan den of iniquity in a country otherwise so conservative that television was banned until 1976.
By the time I reached the age of observation, in the ’90s, this version of Hillbrow was long gone. Hillbrow is the most densely populated area in the country, and it’s almost all for rent. It beckons whichever population in Johannesburg is unsettled and new, who in turn frighten the previous unsettled and new population out. It is a place of anonymity and transience, where the country’s cellular activity is most rapid, and where we’re either about to begin our metamorphosis into some grand new being (that yearned-for and much-evaded rainbow melting pot), or fall victim to another societal cancer.
White flight from Hillbrow began in the 1980s, amid a frenzy about crime levels, blamed, inevitably, on the clandestine black population. In response to this frenzy, the apartheid government decided to stop overlooking all the Papadopouloses and began mass evictions on the basis of the Group Areas Act. Landlords had been happy to break the law for a profit, often charging higher rent to illegal tenants, but now their buildings stood half-vacant. Ponte, running at a loss, dropped its rents and drastically reduced upkeep as the building’s value began a steep plummet. In just a few years it went from a coveted address, advertised as “Heaven On Earth,” to the makings of Africa’s tallest slum.
In 1990, with the unbanning of the ANC, the leader of the Conservative opposition, Andries Treurnicht, claimed that Ponte had been acquired by the party to house “2,000 terrorists” returning to South Africa in anticipation of democracy. It would be the great ANC terrorist epicentre, from whence they would plan the eradication of all whites. (Like all quality fear fantasies, this one began with a whisper of truth: some returning exiles did stay in Ponte, meaning that the building boasts, as previous residents, some of the most powerful politicians in the country.) At this time, around the abolition of the Group Areas Act in 1991, Hillbrow was becoming home to young black South Africans, who were entering the city proper after a lifetime restricted to the surrounding townships. The area, already long in decline—municipally neglected, overcrowded, and increasingly dangerous—began to fall, and then after democracy, in the late 90s, it hit bottom. Hillbrow succumbed to the sepia of neglect, and Ponte began to settle into its new role: the place where everything unknown and hostile is imagined to reside and flourish; where all your fears go to celebrate, after a long night of traumatising you, and amuse themselves with gratuitous violence and spreading VD.
The next of Johannesburg’s unsettled and new were immigrants from Africa, who sought prosperity in the free country, and like those before them, they moved to Hillbrow. As early as 1994, it was considered common knowledge that Ponte had been “taken over” by immigrants, “mostly Zairians,” although according to management at the time Congolese made up only ten percent of the building’s population, and the majority were still South African. By 2000, our prejudices shifted, and it was understood that Ponte was “mostly Nigerian.” The fear of the unknown “terrorists,” who were now the familiar politicians, was replaced by a much broader fear of the unknown immigrants, specifically Nigerians. “At every crime they say it’s Nigerians,” a Ponte resident laments in a recent documentary about the building, Africa Shafted. “A Congolese is a Nigerian. Even sometimes a Zulu guy is a Nigerian. A Xhosa guy is a Nigerian.”
At the time, crime in Hillbrow was on an extraordinary rise. Per the Citizen in 2002: “A staggering 59,000 crimes were committed in Hillbrow between 1999 and 2001, including 640 murders, 988 rapes, 7521 assaults, 6775 robberies with fire-arms, 7689 other robberies, 3523 vehicles stolen and 18717 other thefts.” This is all in one neighbourhood, of only a kilometre or so squared. Reports from residents around this time (from Alan Morris’s Bleakness & Light) expose a population horrified with one another. “In the township I come from people will come and help if you get mugged,” one resident, Vivian, reports. “In Hillbrow it’s a different story. People will just walk past you.”
The crime surge coincided with a chronic prison shortage. Under intense public pressure, the government requested proposals to rapidly increase the nation’s prison capacity. A flurry of ideas came forward, of which three were taken seriously. One was to fill ships with inmates and have them loll offshore somewhere, maybe Simon’s Town. Another was to transform unused mineshafts into prisons for inmates whose crimes were, in the words of the correctional services commissioner, “so barbaric . . . they did not deserve to live above ground.” The third, and the one that got the furthest, was a public-private partnership to transform existing buildings into prisons.
American architect Paul Silver was invited to the country for his prison-spotting acumen and reportedly spent months looking at sites, although Ponte really was the obvious choice. “I went and took a look and realised it was absolutely perfect,” Silver told the press. “It’s a lousy apartment building, but a perfect prison.” This phase in Ponte’s beleaguered history is now remembered, if at all, only as a passing suggestion. But the proposal was serious, and for a time ardently pursued. Ponte’s owner, Vincemus Investments Ltd., submitted an application to rezone the building into a correctional facility. Then Minister of Correctional Services, Sipo Mzimela, held a press conference in February 1998, announcing that construction would be underway within the year. The Ponte Justice Centre would be privately run, and invoice the state for each prisoner; the prisoners, in turn, would sit staring out at a view of the urban Highveld obstructed only by miles and miles of accumulated haze. They say views are very calming for inmates. Finally, dissent slowed the process, and eventually stopped it. A local architect, Henning Rasmuss, summarised the case against the tallest prison in the world coming to dominate the city’s skyline: "At a symbolic level it sucks.”
You can only visit Ponte if a resident signs you in. In search of such a resident on Gumtree (South Africa’s Craigslist) I found the following: “Join our vibrant community living the high-life on top of the tallest residential building in Africa. Ponte City has been rejuvenated and we are enjoying simply the best residential deal in the city. Incredible views, in a huge fully furnished flat. Rent is all inclusive with a maid once a week. You need to be chilled-out, you need to be able to enjoy a party, you need to leave your prejudices back in the suburbs.”
I could probably find a sitter for my prejudices, I reasoned, and emailed the poster. He said I could come over and look around, but he was only available after 7 PM. It was winter and the sun was setting early. “Any evening’s fine by me,” I said cheerily. While I’m pretending to be someone in public, I guess I pretend to be someone who isn’t afraid of going into Hillbrow at night.
Fear is loaded. Scared of what? Scared of who? The dance between fear and prejudice is real. It is, after all, in the lexicon of fear that apartheid started to sound reasonable, even obvious, to a bunch of people no more inherently monstrous than any others. Fear acts as its own justification. The scared person doesn’t need to worry about anyone but herself. To be afraid is to adopt a worldview in which you are vulnerable, innocent, as opposed to the depravity of other people. Fear forgives what we do (I was afraid, so I just shot) and what we fail to do (I wanted to help, but I was too scared). We consider improbable a character who in fact is entirely predictable: the frightened perpetrator.
It goes without saying that there have been many modes of fear in post-apartheid South Africa (I have already tried several). And there is, presumably, something like the exact right amount of fear: felt in proportion to legitimate danger, which changes as the danger changes, and is justified simply by its veracity. But there have also been, one feels, major surpluses, and even some deficits, which open themselves up to interpretation: those who make hyperbolic claims to victimisation (the "white genocide"), or those who go on about how “thrilling” it is to live here rather than in the supposedly tedious West, with all its safety and regulation. Somewhere along the line, at times more deservedly than others, the Johannesburg identity has gotten entangled with danger, and your relationship to that entanglement is inevitably fraught and revealing.
When I read the recent news reports about Ponte being so okay, I thought the building had entered some new phase of reform. But reports like this turn out to be something of a genre. For twenty years now, journalists have been visiting Ponte and confirming that it is remarkably like an apartment block. “Ponte City Starts to Hold its Head High,” reads a headline from 2002, announcing that “Africa’s tallest residential building is taking a turn towards respectability.” A piece from only the year before talks about “a spectacular turnaround of the once-notorious Ponte building.” In 1998 the Mail & Guardian visited the building to find a bunch of students living in the luxe penthouses, saying that they were very happy there. In 1996 the Saturday Star reported, in alliterative delirium, that “Hillbrow’s high-rise human hive buzzes with life.” A 1994 City Press headline reads “We Love Ponte” and describes the building as a beaming microcosm for the New South Africa (“Viva, powersharing, Viva!”). Another 1994 article, this time from Beeld, interviewed residents who’d been living there since shortly after it opened; one declared (this is translated from the Afrikaans), “We definitely feel it is now safer here than earlier.” During some of this time, Ponte actually was the site of its share of trauma: a highly-publicised murder, a kidnapping, a drug syndicate, an arms cache. The building was radically run-down and partially squatted, not to mention the incessant rumours of brothels and shebeens on some of its floors. But apparently it has never been bad enough for us: it couldn’t reach our low expectations.
Ponte inevitably seems paltry in comparison to what it isn’t: all the things it once was and no longer is; everything it’s imagined to contain and doesn’t. And finally, all the things it was hoped to be and couldn’t become. This last aspect concerns, especially, the aspirations for Ponte around 2007 and 2008. Two property developers, David Selvan and Nour Addine Ayyoub, planned to transform Ponte into a middle-class building, more middle-classy than it had ever been before. The uncanny valley of architect sketches shows a modern skyscraper, a home for upmarket Sims with a penchant for city living, with a neon-green core and icy glass exterior.
Unlike the prison proposition, this fantasy actually got underway. A renovation commenced, with the building mostly evicted, and a parade of showroom suites was constructed on one of the central floors. Rooms would be available in a variety of themes—Old Money, Moroccan Delight, Zen-like, Glam Rock, Future Slick, Global Fusion—decorated with “a sophisticated mix of indulgent velvet and satins mixed with neo-classical pieces.” The core was reconceived as a climbing wall.
“When I bought Ponte one of the things I tried to do was to get it insured,” Selvan recounted from his lounge in Parktown. “I called up the guy at my bank and said I wanted him to come and see the building. And he refused to come from Sandton. He said it’s too dangerous.” Among the trials of the development, the battle of perceptions was the most formidable. Perception is not ephemeral folly: these are the myths which win against the truth every time, and if they’re based in some truth then they win all the better. To test whether middle-class people would actually venture into Hillbrow, Selvan organised a rappelling day. “The more adventurous white younger family people were prepared to come back and jump off, and people actually sky-dived off it. But as a plaything, not as a real living thing,” he recalled. “And then there were people catching my imagination: ready to come and live there, provided it was a safe environment, which it was going to be. Very, very secure. People who said, Yes, let’s be there, let’s take a big breath and live there.”
New Ponte targeted young gay couples as a prime demographic. One of the ads shows a trendy interracial gay couple, dressed in pastels, clutching an enormous bunch of proteas; they look into each other’s eyes, hold hands; the white guy’s adjusting the collar on the black guy’s linen blazer. "Live Your Life," it says. “New Ponte.” Except, in the picture, taken at a massively low angle, it is not the New Ponte towering in the background but the Old: dark, severe, untransformed, and perhaps untransformable.
“It’s a tardy process,” Selvan said of the inner city’s rejuvenation. “It’s much slower than I thought.” Tardiness alone might’ve been enough to cripple New Ponte; as it was, the world also conspired against the development. In a news report from the time, a real estate agent selling units takes a call during her interview. “This call was from a young gay, who sounds white,” she says. “He just got a job in the city and doesn’t want to spend three hours a day driving from and to the northern suburbs.” Allegedly there were buyers for almost every unit. Then the financial crisis hit, and all the white-sounding gay guys couldn’t get mortgages anymore. The renovation stopped in its infancy, with just a few showrooms lingering improbably in the midst of the grand old beast; some strange satin-Moroccan-glam remnants of an incomplete bourgeois mutation.
On the ground floor, I walked down a dark passage, past a laundromat and a drab convenience store, the height of its shelves dwarfing the small haul of its stock. In the 1970s this was the “Ponte City Shopping Centre,” where the bowling alley was. Later there was a nightclub here, blasting Kwassa kwassa, and then an Ethiopian restaurant and hair salon. The prison was going to have its courts here. Selvan envisaged a bustling emporium of coffee shops and art galleries, a lobby pianist playing. I arrived at the entry turnstiles, which were in constant motion as people headed out and returned for the night; their passage regulated by a fingerprint recognition system, and overseen by a guard. The notice board in the entrance hall gave a list of rules and penalties: visiting hours are over at 9 PM; it costs R50 for someone to stay the night. My Gumtree host arrived to sign me in and we clunked through the turnstiles into the neon-blue light that bathed the lift area, lending the whole operation an implausible high-tech aura.
To live in Ponte is to cultivate some Zen about the lifts. That night two were out, leaving six on the job. They came and went like packed subway cars. We stood with the other commuters, forming loose lines. When our brigade entered we began with the traditional lack of mutual acknowledgement. We lurched upward, the doors opening pointlessly every now and then, exposing small splices of life: a man stirring tea in a large glass mug, a woman applying her lipstick. The lift commute in Ponte is so lengthy that it soon becomes more uncomfortable to stay silent than to talk, especially since the topic of conversation presents itself so readily: talk about the lift.
“We don’t know even today if it’s going to finish,” a commuter says in the Africa Shafted documentary. The film was shot exclusively in the lifts between 2006 and 2008 and ends with most of the residents being evicted for the New Ponte effort. The message of Africa Shafted is at once Pan-African jollity (“Here we are like one family”) and a sinister foreshadowing of the xenophobic attacks of May 2008, which began in Johannesburg and spread around the country. “I don’t have to hide that, no offense to anyone,” says a young South African woman, surrounded by offended anyones. “I don’t like that they come into our country, they start selling drugs. They’re noisy. They’re actually rude. To me the way they all behave is the same.” In another scene a woman, getting out of a lift, says “South Africans . . . They’re not good people, actually. They like discrimination too much.” The cameraman asks, “What are you? Are you South African?” The door is closing on her as she answers. “Yes.”
Up at my host’s apartment I drank some rooibos tea and spoke to his roommates. They told the story of a base jumper who smashed back into the building but survived, and the stray cat that keeps shitting by the lifts. They complained that there's no cellphone reception, even though they live just a few floors beneath the largest billboard in the Southern Hemisphere, advertising Vodacom: one of South Africa’s top mobile networks. One guy claimed that if you so desire, you can sit on the top of that enormous glowing billboard, as in some magnificent adolescent fantasy, and no one will stop you.
Of all the Ponte mythology, I am most persuaded by the falling, pushing, jumping stories. The most alarming feature is the windows. Inside the core and out, all the way up, there are windows that can fly right open, break with a fist. You’ll hear that more suicides have occurred off Ponte than any other building in the world, and you’ll hear that there have never been any. What we lack in facts we compensate for with baseless extremes. (The only concrete number I could find came from an interview with Ponte’s manager in 1996: “I have been running this building for six years and in my term there have been three suicides,” he said, before adding: “If I wanted to do that, I would probably pick Ponte because then I would be reasonably sure of my success.”)
A skyline is incomplete without an eyesore. It must be introduced so that the view can otherwise be thought of as perfect. So that we may fixate and lament. Driving away on Lily Avenue, toward the suburban forest, I looked back at Ponte, cluttered incongruously with satellite dishes. It was Sunday night and our fears were exhausted: they were having a quiet night in, watching a little TV. By the time I got home Ponte was once again a red speck in the vast night. Maybe it seemed a little demystified, a little duller. I don’t know. It takes such a long time to learn anything. It’s a tardy process. It’s much slower than I thought.