Whose Ponte is it?

2014-10-02 13:45

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On one of my first days in Berea’s Ponte tower, I looked out my 45th-floor window just in time to witness a surreal site: an empty pair of trousers falling past me, disembodied legs kicking in the wind as they zig-zagged gently towards the concrete below.

In the next room, I could hear the grunts of the WWF wrestling match the Zimbabwean family I rented from was watching on TV, mingling with the noises from the city around us: the tinny thump of Beyoncé’s Drunk in Love straining against car speakers, the urgent hoot of a taxi, the sharp shrieks of children playing basketball in the court downstairs.

This is Ponte as I know it — a place of fantastical proportions and terrifically ordinary lives, at once dizzyingly cosmopolitan and quintessentially Joburg: chaotic, entrepreneurial, perpetually unsettled.

But it is hardly the Ponte I saw reflected when I read Boris Gorelik’s feature on the building, “Hope for Hillbrow” (City Press, September 14 2014).

In his story, Gorelik walks us through the tired conventional wisdom about Ponte: that the 54-storey tower was a “prestigious” Joburg landmark in the 1970s, before the whites moved out and it fell into disrepair and became the city’s “ungodly Tower of Babel”. Only, of course, until new management cleaned it up again, “pointing the way to a better future for Joburg’s inner city”.

To be sure, this is an alluring narrative. That’s probably why it’s been written again and again, unchanged in essence, for more than two decades.

Indeed, one need only dip into historical news coverage of Ponte to find a seemingly never-ending queue of awed suburban reporters ready to explain how the city’s “glimmering architectural showpiece” (2007) became a “Tower of Babel” (2002) and a “den of iniquity run by drug dealers and thugs” (2012).

But, as these reporters are always quick to point out, it’s not all bad news: the building is “leading the way” to a revitalised inner city (1994), with the “emerging and middle classes?…?moving back” (2012).

“We definitely feel it is safer here than it was before,” one long-time resident told a Beeld reporter in the mid-1990s. The building “has become a pleasant place to live”, a Sunday Independent piece declared in 2002. “This is a great place to live and it’s getting better,” a resident told the Mail?&?Guardian in 2012.

Blur out the dates and all these stories, including Gorelik’s, could basically stand in for one another, a damning clue that the sordid reputation of Ponte has always been as much invented as observed.

What is perhaps most disturbing about this narrative is the way it lends the physical changes inner-city Joburg has undergone in recent decades a moral and racial hue.

Across the course of the 1980s and early 1990s, the story goes, whites moved out, blacks moved in, and then, to quote Gorelik, addresses like Ponte were “suddenly not so prestigious any more”. But this telling of Joburg’s transformation completely misses the point.

The area changed not because blacks began settling there, but because white landlords, financial institutions and municipal authorities first treated them unscrupulously then abandoned them outright.

But on a broader level, the idea that the prestige of Ponte and the Joburg inner city dimmed is true only if the only people whose ideas of prestige we’re willing to entertain are white suburbanites.

For it was certainly a proud address for the middle class coloured and Indian families who broke apartheid laws to rent flats there in the 1980s.

And Ponte was held in high esteem by the returning political exiles who, in the 1990s, gazed out from their flats in the tower on to a city and country they’d been forced to leave years before.

And for many of the migrants from across South Africa and the continent who live there today, Ponte is a literal sign that they are scaling upwards towards a better life. “That place changed my life,” one resident, a migrant from Ghana, told me.

“From there, South Africa began for me.” Indeed, if there is one thing remarkable about Ponte, it’s not how much it has changed since it was constructed, but how utterly little – even as an incredibly dramatic urban transformation churned all around it.

When the building flung open its doors 40 years ago, those who flocked in were fledgling urbanites: the newly married, European immigrants, university students and beatniks from the region’s small towns and suburbs.

Today, Ponte is filled with young families, African immigrants, technical college students, and social climbers from South Africa’s rural hinterland.

Indeed, if there is one thing about Ponte that is timeless, it is this: the building – and its neighbourhood – give us a constant glimpse of just who is currently attempting to scale the walls of urban South African life and who is taking the first step to claim this city as their own.

Brown is an American journalist living in Joburg

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