Ponte City in South Africa: Africa’s tallest apartment building was built as an apartheid tribute, but now it’s something more important.

What the Transformation of a Notorious Apartment Tower Says About the New South Africa

What the Transformation of a Notorious Apartment Tower Says About the New South Africa

Stories from Roads & Kingdoms
Feb. 6 2015 9:09 AM

South Africa’s Tower of Dreams

The tallest apartment building in Africa was built as a modernist tribute to apartheid. Now it’s something far more important.

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Ponte City, Johannesburg, South Africa, 2008.

Photo by Mikhael Subotzky in collaboration with Patrick Waterhouse/Magnum Photos

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JOHANNESBURG—In late 2007, a series of print advertisements began appearing across Johannesburg, showcasing glitzy new apartments for rent in a downtown high-rise. Emblazoned with the phrase “Live Your Life,” the ads featured a series of imagined occupants who looked like they’d jumped straight out of central casting for the new South Africa—diverse, middle class, and blithely hopeful.  

In one, a young Indian woman faced her parents in the doorway to her apartment, shock registering on their faces as they glanced past her to the shirtless white man asleep in the bed inside. In another, the camera bent upward from ground level to show a gay couple in pastel shirts—one man black, the other white—staring dreamily at each other in front of a concrete high-rise.

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For anyone actually familiar with Johannesburg, however, these ads simply didn’t compute. For one thing, the apartment block on offer—a 54-story tower called Ponte City—was hardly prime yuppie real estate. In fact, the tallest apartment building on the continent was by then perhaps the city’s most notorious address, the garish center point of a trio of rundown inner city neighborhoods—Yeoville, Berea, and Hillbrow—best known to outsiders for their drug trade, violent crime, and poverty.

And the tower itself was a dated offering to the gods of high modernism—a massive gray concrete tube with an open center jutting out from a hillside overlooking the city’s downtown. Courtesy of its ungainly bulk and its central geography, Ponte had been the most visible icon of Johannesburg’s blight in the years following South Africa’s transition to democracy in the mid-1990s, a reputation few had forgotten.

What the developers were demanding, then, seemed beyond audacious: They wanted the hipster middle class to drop themselves straight into the concrete heart of Johannesburg’s south Bronx, its Compton, its Anacostia.

It was also, in no small way, a call for renters to step into a time capsule. When they emerged, the ads seemed to promise, they would be standing in a multicultural update of the apartheid Johannesburg of the 1970s—urbane, well-manicured, safe. A city where those who weren’t welcome could be immediately made to leave. A place that had been utter fantasy, even when it really existed.

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Two young women in the kitchen of an apartment in Ponte City, 2008.

Photo by Mikhael Subotzky in collaboration with Patrick Waterhouse/Magnum Photos

By the time I came to stay in Ponte in April, the “Live Your Life” campaign had long ago imploded. As a financial crisis swept around the world in 2008, the money had dried up, and the developers backed away, their elaborate fantasy quickly abandoned.

But the reinvention they had promised hadn’t died, even if it had gone a little off script. When the luxury condo plan fizzled out, the building’s owners had set off on a more realistic renovation plan, cleaning up the 450 flats and common spaces and bulking up the building’s security. Ponte, which in the 1990s and 2000s had been half-filled and rumored to be rife with criminal activity, began to slowly fill. Within a few years, it had once again reached capacity—not with suburban yuppies (though there were a few of them too), but with the kind of people who had always called Johannesburg’s inner-city home: its newcomers.  

The building, along with the neighborhood of high-rises around it, had long functioned as something of a vertical waiting room for admission into urban South Africa. Adjoining the city’s largest train and bus station, it was the landing point from which thousands of immigrants, refugees, and rural migrants took their first tentative steps into Africa’s wealthiest city, and their presence made the area dizzyingly cosmopolitan. Congolese nightclubs jostled up against bootleg Nollywood film stores and Ethiopian restaurants; the knots of gossiping women gathered on street corners chattered in Zulu, Yoruba, French, and Somali.

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And for a journalist like me, Ponte seemed almost too good to be true: a building that doubled as a neat metaphor for contemporary South Africa—a carefully wrought fortress of white privilege that had fallen into disrepair and violence before emerging, haltingly, into a more inclusive but far more uncertain version of itself.

I was also particularly intrigued because the building’s flurry of renovations had run parallel to a campaign of gentrification that was busy reclaiming derelict spaces across the inner city for use of the suburban middle class, who had long considered the area a no-go zone. But while these upscale loft developments and industrial-chic weekend food markets had made for sexy headlines and great travel magazine features impressed with the area’s “Brooklyn vibe,” it seemed to me that the inner city’s most vital changes were happening in places like Ponte, which catered to a far more mainstream class of African urbanites. 

So, before coming to Johannesburg, I had emailed the building’s caretakers, an aging Afrikaner couple whom I had been warned had a paternalistic bent.

Did they know of any rooms available for a short-term rental? I asked.

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“I DON’T KNOW IF THERE IS A ROOM AVAILABLE WITH ONE OF THE TENANTS,” came the reply. “IT IS ALL BLACK PEOPLE.”

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Boys stand in the hallway of Ponte City, 2008.

Photo by Mikhael Subotzky in collaboration with Patrick Waterhouse/Magnum Photos

That statement may be self-evident now, but it certainly wasn’t always the case. When Ponte first flung open its doors in the mid-1970s, it was the crown jewel of the apartheid city, nestled in a bohemian white neighborhood packed with alternative bookstores, gay clubs, and terraced cafes. The only (legal) black inhabitants for miles in any direction were live-in domestic workers.  

The tower—along with a host of other bleak concrete skyscrapers built around the same time—had been part of a self-conscious turn in apartheid city planning. As the 1970s crested on a continent of newly independent black nations, South Africa’s white government was increasingly the odd man out. But curiously, the more parochial the country’s race politics seemed, the more imposing its architecture became. It was as though the government was literally building monuments, heavy and physical, to its own imagined worldliness.

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“I lined the walls of the penthouses with shaggy dog orange carpet—it was all very posh,” says Rodney Grosskopff, then a young partner in the architectural firm of Manfred Hermer, which designed the building. “Everyone wanted to say they’d stayed in the tallest apartment building in Africa.”

But that version of Johannesburg was living on borrowed time. Even as the final slabs of concrete were being laid on Ponte’s top floors in 1976, the city around it was cracking apart. Residents with flats facing southwest could see smoke rising from behind the yellow mine dumps that marked the edge of the city. Just beyond, the black township of Soweto was on fire.

Under apartheid law, the city was neatly sliced apart by race, and black access to the inner city was restricted to those employed there—and who were expected to make themselves scarce come nightfall. But in 1978, one local newspaper reported the beginnings of a quiet, illegal influx of “nonwhites” into the inner city from the overcrowded, increasingly volatile ghettos they were confined to on the city’s peripheries. The first to come were Indians and “coloreds,” a catchall apartheid categorization for people of mixed racial descent, who began renting flats in the “luxury Ponte block,” the paper reported.

Their presence confounded local landlords who “could not tell the difference between various race groups, as many of the coloured people appeared to be Lebanese or Portuguese.”

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“What happened in Ponte stayed in Ponte,” jokes Louis Smuts, who grew up in the building in the 1980s, the child of an English father and a “colored” mother who posed as white. “It was its own little world.”

And even when the racial differences of new inhabitants like Smuts’ mother were obvious, many landlords found it to their advantage to look the other way, since illegal tenants had little ground to complain about rent increases or maintenance issues. With that, the so-called graying of the inner city had begun.

By the time democracy arrived less than two decades later, nearly every white inhabitant was gone.

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Ponte City Core
Ponte's most unusual feature is a hollow core, designed to allow natural light into both sides of its apartments.

Photo by Ryan Brown

To change that quickly and that completely requires a city to be brusque, unsentimental, perhaps even a little heartless. And Johannesburg is all of those things. Nearly since the moment it stumbled forth from a sprawling gold mining camp at the end of the 19th century, Johannesburg (or Joburg, or Jozi, or eGoli) has been in a near constant process of forgetting and recreating itself.  

When I first came here a few years ago, the evidence of this churn was everywhere—in the downtown synagogue repurposed as a boisterous Pentecostal church and the storied Art Deco buildings that had morphed into vertical squatter camps, in the gritty industrial district papered over with hipster lofts and sushi restaurants, and a commercial drag in a historically Indian district reimagined by Somali immigrants as their own Little Mogadishu.

“Johannesburg had none of the allegiances to the past that constrain ancient cities,” South African journalist Mark Gevisser wrote recently. “Everybody came from somewhere else, and they all came for one reason — to make money.”

This was evidently true in those pockets of gentrification popping up around the inner city, where it has recently become possible to spend one’s weekend afternoons browsing artisanal cupcakes and Afro-chic designer clothes in old warehouses and converted parking garages. As a new Joburger, I’ve watched as a series of awed travel writers queued up to herald my adopted city’s “return” from the wreckage of the white flight of the 1980s and ’90s.

“Parts of Johannesburg’s once-decrepit inner city have turned into a vital gathering place,” a New York Times reporter wrote breathlessly in August 2012. “New enticements seem to pop up every few months in this fast-changing dynamo of a city.”

This was the same inner city Johannesburg imagined by the crusading developers who tried to resculpt Ponte into a middle-class urban utopia a few years earlier—clean, expensive, and exclusive.

But it seems to me that city’s more important transformations were happening just beyond these guidebooks’ reach, in nearby places like the flesh-and-blood Ponte and the neighborhoods all around it. Here, the barriers to entry were fewer and the list of those who stood to benefit longer.

The problem was that those reinventions told a story that few wanted to hear. It wasn’t one of neighborhoods descending into violence and poverty and squalor, like in the bad old days of the 1990s. Nor was it transformation in the guise of flashy, upper-crust “urban renewal.”

Instead, what was quietly occurring in places like Ponte was that they were simply becoming safer, cleaner, more stable. In short, they were growing more boring. The people I met in Ponte mostly had some toehold into the middle class—as McDonald’s shift managers and small-time shopkeepers and schoolteachers. It’s true that such a perch is often deeply precarious—only one disaster or lost job away from poverty. But in a country that by some measures has highest level of income inequality in the world, that step up is significant.

And the energy they have carried with them into the inner city must surely be among the city’s greatest untapped sources of growth. Here, after all, is a neighborhood built, almost to the person, by strivers—people who have come here because they believe they have the power to recast their own lives.

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Contact sheet from the Ponte City project, showing residents and the windows of their apartments, 2008.

Photo by Mikhael Subotzky in collaboration with Patrick Waterhouse/Magnum Photos

“This place changed my life,” a soft-spoken Ghanaian immigrant named Kofi Ansoba told me bluntly. Sitting outside the tavern he runs a few miles from the tower, Ansoba explained to me how he had arrived in Johannesburg in 2004 from Accra, Ghana, with less than 100 rand ($10) in his pocket and no plan for where he’d spend his first night in the city. But as he lugged his bags through the streets of Hillbrow, he caught a fragment of conversation in his native language. When he asked the cluster of men speaking it where they stayed, one pointed to the cylindrical concrete skyscraper nearby.

For the next two years, he’d shared a one-bedroom Ponte flat with three men he met that day, each of them putting 400 rand ($40) toward the monthly rent. He found work in a small convenience store on the building’s ground floor—and after a year had saved enough to buy it from his boss. “That I found Ponte, that I met those guys living there, it was just like a miracle,” he says.

In a city repeatedly racked by outbursts of violent xenophobia—most recently a series of attacks on foreign shop owners in mid-January—it is often unclear who, if anyone, is keeping watch over the lives of people like Ansoba. But this city and this country will ignore such entrepreneurial energy at their own peril.   

For now, however, they continue to come in droves—from Burundi and Mozambique and Malawi, from the depressed apartheid-built towns dotted across South Africa and the townships on Johannesburg’s fringes. A wall just outside Ponte’s gates is plastered with handwritten ads announcing its newest arrivals. “I’m looking for a bedroom at Ponte tower. Neat. Sober habits. South African,” reads one. “Looking for avilible space for two ladies—balconee or sitting room fine,” says another.

On one of my own first nights in Ponte, I awoke suddenly at 3 a.m. to see that the sky outside my window had transformed into a wall of gauzy red—an opaque sheet of clouds backlit by the glow of the red telecom company advertisement that circles the building’s top. It turns out this is quite a normal occurrence on Ponte’s upper floors, which are so high up they’re often swaddled in the clouds rolling across Johannesburg at night.

For me, if there is anything remarkable about life in Ponte, it isn’t the building’s cycles of renewals or the racial swing of its inhabitants since it first opened its doors. Rather, the building’s intrigue comes in moments like these, when its massive proportions seem to pull at the edges of the reality, allowing one to see Johannesburg as she never has before.