Joburg's iconic tower mirrors city's ups and downs

2015-03-12 19:04
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Johannesburg - Visible from almost anywhere in Johannesburg, the 54-storey Ponte Tower is reputed to be the tallest residential building in Africa. The distinctive circular tower was once a symbol of this city's modernism, then its decay and now its struggle for regeneration.

The building's architects placed the striking glass and concrete tube on Johannesburg's Hillbrow ridge in 1975 when the city was striving to show that, despite racist policies, it could rival the world's major metropolises.

After apartheid, Johannesburg's downtown became eroded by crime and neglect and so did the Ponte Tower.

Following a number of attempts to reclaim the building's glory, a new strategy focusing on security, rather than luxury, is restoring confidence in the building.

On a Saturday morning, about a dozen tourists gather in the ground floor courtyard, eager for a look inside the once notorious 167m tall skyscraper.

"My memory of the building was that it was a really dangerous place to go to," said Christine Louw, a Dutch immigrant who lived in South Africa during the building's rise and fall.

The tour is led by Nickolaus Bauer, a journalist and resident of the building since 2012, who has become an advocate for the tower's renaissance.

He guides visitors from Europe, the United States and South Africa to the top floor and down to its hollow core. As part of the tour, Bauer shares the sweeping view from his own apartment.

"Where else am I going to wake up and have the whole city laid out before me," he said, boasting that on a clear day he can see Pretoria, nearly 60km away. He pays about R6 635 per month for a two-bedroom flat.

Inner-city living

The tower's Hillbrow neighbourhood is crime-ridden and Bauer admits that he rarely wanders around at night.

While pockets of Johannesburg's inner-city have been cleaned up by gentrification, Hillbrow has not. It is densely populated, with many immigrants from other African countries as well as from rural towns, and its streets are teeming and chaotic.

Bauer is nostalgic for the building's past when he could have enjoyed Hillbrow in its heyday, when residents sipped espresso while playing backgammon in one of the country’s first gay-friendly areas.

Then, the Ponte Tower featured three-storey flats, which sometimes boasted saunas and carpeted walls, chic at the time.

The tower and Hillbrow attracted international residents and inter-racial relationships were common, although illegal under apartheid.

The regime responded by cutting off basic services to Hillbrow, and as the neighbourhood deteriorated, so did the Ponte Tower, which became known as a vertical slum.

Gangs took over the building, stripped the 11th and 12th floors and turned them into a circular brothel and drug den.

An unknown number of people committed suicide by leaping down the building's hollow centre, according to the Sapa.

"Although it had a bit of a trying past, bricks and mortar wise it was still a solid structure," said Jason Kruger, spokesperson for the Kempston group.

Refurbishment process

Kempston, a trucking company, bought the building in the early 1990s, and began a two decade-long refurbishment process.

Initially, the vision was to return the building to its 70s-era glory, but now the group is focusing on basic security, aiming to attract "happy families”.

Ria and Jaap Breedt "manage the building with an iron fist with a very thinly veiled glove," said resident Bauer.

Ria Breedt, 64, who monitors the security screens from her ground floor office, regularly conducts surprise inspections in the apartments and demands that all overnight visitors are registered. Johannesburg's centre is a hub for immigrants, both illegal and documented, and Breedt insists that foreigners provide proof that they have a visa and makes a note of each document's expiration date.

"That is what the people are looking for, that their children are protected and even they are protected," says Breedt. When the Breedts began managing the tower in June 2009, only 79 out of nearly 494 units were occupied. Now the building has a waiting list.

Desire Seko moved into the Ponte Tower in 2011 and shares a three-bedroom flat with another single man, and a young couple with two children.

Seko, 24, moved to Johannesburg in 2006 from a rural village, eager to be a photographer. At first he squatted in some of the city's crumbling apartment blocks but now he has begun to build a life, with the renewed order of Ponte Tower as a foundation.

"It's strict, but I can't move out," he said, saying that he has found a community within Ponte Tower's walls.

 Seko runs a photography studio on the ground floor, where a supermarket, a hairdresser and a restaurant have also set up shop, confident that they are safe within the confines of the tower.

Next, he plans to rent a studio apartment of his own and is already on the waiting list.

For Seko, Ponte Tower is a symbol of success in the big city.

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