Ponte, the tallest residential building in Joburg and probably Africa, is full at last, perhaps because it is run a little like a military camp. But this camp is loved by its residents who wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.
One resident told me: “It’s nice here, it’s safe and quiet and secure.” He has lived on the 48th floor for five years, and with arms in all directions to express his enthusiasm, he said: “You’ll love it, you should move here.”
This marvellous cylindrical building that perhaps best encapsulates the dreamers us Joburgers are, stands on the rocky edge of Hillbrow and is home to a whopping 3 500 people, 500 of whom are kids. Residents include lawyers, journalists, students, doctors and businesspeople.
With 484 apartments, it defines the Joburg skyline, together with the Hillbrow tower. Soaring 173 metres and 54 floors into the sky, it was designed in the New Brutalism style, using “hacked concrete” to line the outer walls. It has seen several reincarnations over the past dozen years but now the owners must be pleased that it is full, and with a waiting list.
I went to take a look at Dlala Nje, a refuge for children in the building and the surrounding suburbs of Yeoville and Berea. Dlala Nje means “just play” and it seems a good name for kids living in all that hacked concrete. Founded in 2012 by Michal Luptak and journalist Nicholas Bauer, who live in two of the apartments on the 52nd floor, it is billed as a kids’ emporium, where they have their own space to play computer games, select a book out of a small library, play foosball and arcade games, get homework help, have access to the internet, get up on the stage and perform, or just hang out.
“Ponte isn’t really a place where kids can be kids. Except at Dlala Nje,” notes the website. I spoke to some of them. A bunch of young teen girls were smiling and chatting in a corner, happy to tell me how they enjoy coming to the centre, some even from three kilometres away.
Twenty-five-year-old Godfrey Tshivhase runs the centre. He has an IT diploma and comes from Limpopo. Tall and bearded, with a hat perched jauntily on his head, he stands with the boys at the desk of laptops, helping them navigate their way around the internet. He used to live in the building, running a business fixing people’s computers, but was forced out because he offered competition to the IT shop on the ground floor. But his heart obviously belongs to Ponte. He lives in the block of flats next door, and he is passionate about the children and Dlala Nje.
“I come with something to make it better,” he says. Around 60 kids ranging in age from 4 to 18 years attend the centre. “We take kids out of bad things out there. They are very comfortable to come here.” He says the kids and him are getting to know one another, and creating a community.
A foundation has been set up. Luptak says: “We have set up a Dlala Nje Foundation with a purpose of quantifying the impact that we make in our communities. Until today, we merely provide an exposure platform for kids to be kids with activities that stimulate young minds.” The idea is to “create a development centre for youth in our area and the greater CBD, to ultimately provide opportunities through education, infinite curiosity and fun”.
And to fund the project, Luptak and Bauer do tours of Hillbrow, where locals and visitors can immerse themselves in what many might consider a war zone. The idea is to break down those horror stories of the suburb, take people out their comfort zones, and get them to taste life on the other side for a few hours. It starts with a tour of Ponte, from standing on the rocky foundation of the building and taking in the spectacular view up 54 floors to the sky, then taking in another spectacular view from the top of Ponte. The tour ends with a drink in a Hillbrow tavern.
Back at Ponte, Ria Breedt, the office manager, who lives in the building with her manager husband, Jaap, says: “There are strict rules and regulations – if they don’t like it, they can move out.” After 10pm no noise is permitted in the building. She conducts a monthly inspection of flats. “They never know when we’re coming.”
With a thumb print security system, residents can have visitors for one night only, and that person has to leave their ID. Called Gogo by residents, she says Ponte is “a happy place with a quiet, peaceful atmosphere”. She says there has been a big change in Hillbrow, with the police more active in the area, and the nearby buildings having been renovated. When her and her husband took over in 2009, there were only 79 flats occupied.
They spent some time sprucing up the apartments. The penthouses were refashioned into single-level living spaces, creating 14 more flats. Rentals are more than reasonable: ranging from R2 500 for a bachelor flat, to R5 600 for a three-bedroom, two-bathroom penthouse, excluding utilities.
A few years beforehand, in 2007, it was being reshaped as Ponte City, where Joburgers were invited to buy apartments with the slogan “Live your life”. In an ambitious project by two developers, Nour Addine Ayyoub and David Selvan, who purported to have bought the building, potential owners could choose to buy a furnished apartment in one of six different styles: glam rock, future slick, Moroccan delight, global fusion, Zen-like, and old money. The 32nd floor had been renovated in these styles, and on the show day 300 people turned up, with 80% sell on the day. Supposedly R100-million was being pumped into the re-invention, with apartments going for between R400 000 to R938 000.
The developers had moved quickly – in a short time they’d managed to relocate the present tenants to nearby buildings, clearing 12 floors, with another seven floors vacant by the end of November of that year.
But the scheme vanished as quickly as the flashing red Vodacom ad on the top of the building vanishes into the night. The developers hadn’t actually bought the building, and the plans came to nothing.
But this wasn’t the lowest point in Ponte’s 40-year history. It opened in 1975 as one of the most desirable places to stay in the CBD, described by newspapers as “heaven on earth”. Its six penthouse apartments were on three levels, with a sauna, bar and rooftop braai area. But by the late 1980s and through the 90s its fortunes had tumbled down and down, with drug lords and criminals making it home, until it reached its lowest point in 1998 when the ANC Youth League suggested that it be turned into a prison, an idea quickly discarded.
Now, at 40, Ponte has found itself. It’s a home for kids, it’s a home for immigrants, it’s a home for locals. It’s a home for “hipsters, other scribes, jocks, philanthropic types and other curiosities from the middle class”, in Bauer’s words. It’s a place to be.