I found this gorgeous little creature in the core of The Ponte, one of Johannesburg’s iconic buildings, and I decided to use her for the collaboration I’ve been asked to participate in for a project called Portraits by an artist called IMPREINT.
Basically, the artist is working with portraits of people holding a common item – in this case a balloon. This unites all the people whose pictures are shared in the project. The balloon is an equaliser. It ensures that no matter what normal dividing factors there are – age, race, social status, healthy, class – there is common ground symbolised in the balloon. The artist paints beautiful balloons in a variety of colours. The project is a global one, and can be viewed on:
So I thought I’d share a little history of Johannesburg’s famous tower, The Ponte, which has also been symbolic of all sorts of turmoil, but also levelling and regeneration.
The Ponte, designed by Manfred Hermer, was completed in 1975. It stands at 173 meters tall and at 54 stories is the tallest residential building in Africa. It is cylindrical in shape, with an open core, which allows light into the apartments from inside and out. During the 1970s and early 1980s, this building was prime retail in Johannesburg – and the well-to-do of Johannesburg scrambled to get hold of the luxury apartments. Some of these were three stories high, boasting sauna rooms, floors dedicated to entertainment, and all with them most spectacular views of Johannesburg. Of course, the well-to-do of Johannesburg were wealthy white people.
Sadly, with the fall of the old National Party regime in South African (the fall wasn’t the sad thing, what happened to The Ponte was!), residents of The Ponte got scared of the influx of black people into Hillbrow from all over Africa. Apartheid had done its job in dividing the hearts and minds of people. You see, white South Africans didn’t really mind immigrants from Europe – that was their heritage anyway – and Hillbrow was a melting pot of all sorts of white immigrants before; it was the black immigrants that frightened them. Apartheid had taught white South Africans to be afraid of “Die Swart Gevaar” (the black danger), had dehumanised black people in the minds of white people through serious propaganda and Christian National Education to such an extent that the thought of having black people as neighbours was unthinkable to many.
In terms of The Ponte, this saw wealthy residents depart en-masse and a vacuum left behind. The owners of the building had no control over what went on next. Entrepreneuring pimps, drug dealers and gangsters hijacked the building (along with several others in downtown Johannesburg) and set up shop. Apparently the first two floors of The Ponte were stripped bare of all fittings and doors and were used as an open whorehouse. Desperate people were charged what seemed to them a manageable fee to live in subdivisions of the apartments above.
The City of Johannesburg was unable to establish any control over the building either, and instead of waiting to claim the millions of rands of outstanding water and electricity bills, they simply cut off supplies of these necessities to the building. Still the desperate continued to live there. Of course, the elevators no longer worked. Imagine climbing 54 flights of stairs to get to your room, and then having to go to the shop? Never mind climbing back down to take out the trash. People started to throw their rubbish into the core of the building and the elevator shaft. Rats found a happy place to live. The Ponte was a diseased cesspit. At its worst, there were 13 floors of rubbish in the core. Thirteen stories of rubbish!
There were all sorts of discussions held about what to do with The Ponte. There was talk of demolition, or turning it into a correctional services facility. A couple of failed business deals down the line, and the current owners took over. They systematically took control of the building, floor by floor. They cleared out rubbish that remained in the core and discovered truly unspeakable things. But they continued, driven by the military precision that they learned in their previous incarnation as security services.
Each apartment was renovated and restored. The owners chose not to go for the opulent three-story apartments of before, but rather comfortable, one or two bedroom, one-story flats. These still boast the same amazing views of the city of Johannesburg. This regeneration of the building coincided with the regeneration of the city of Johannesburg, with investors and pubic/private partnerships intent on restoring her to her former glory, whilst embracing the changes that the city has seen. The Ponte is now prime retail again, but not for the same target market as before. Now, its population is made up of all sorts of people who work in the city – journalists, domestic workers, factory workers, artists. This mighty skyscraper has become a great leveller.
Johannesburg is no longer a whites-only city where black people were allowed to work but not live. Nor is she a blacks-only city where white people feel afraid to venture. There is a lot more work to be done, but the citizens of Johannesburg are working alongside investors (who are seeing the opportunity to make a quick buck) to embrace Johannesburg and make her a multi-cultural, multi-national hive of activity. Dlala Nje (translation: just play) is a shop on the ground floor of The Ponte dedicated to providing a safe place for the children of The Ponte to play and learn. They have books, foozball, musical instruments, games and regular workshops with drama groups and musicians to entertain and develop the children. They rely on the goodwill of others to do this and, from what I can see, they are thriving. The Ponte is thus symbolic in so many ways of the collaboration of Johannesburgers to fix our city.
There is still much work to be done, on the building itself and especially the surrounding suburb of Hillbrow, but The Ponte has shown us that even when problems look insurmountable, when chaos reigns and relief seems far away (in the northern suburbs, or Australia) there is always hope, and if we have the heart and the will to make things right, just about anything is possible.