Ponte Tower is one of the most iconic buildings in Johannesburg, if not, the most.
It opened its doors in 1976 and if you resided here, you were considered one duk larni. Literally, if you told a girl or a guy you lived there, they’d drop their underwear for you.
But that was back in its heyday. I was born 10 years later.
So, what makes this building so iconic and mesmerising besides its phallic nature? Is it because Ponte is the tallest residential building in Africa? Or, that it was built in cylindrical form, on a rock foundation, with 55 floors? Nope. For me, it’s Ponte’s dark and eerie history that’s so intriguing.
I remember a ‘Special Assignment’ documentary about Ponte. It documented the nefarious acts that took place there, from addicts whoring their souls away for a fix, to the gangsters who ran the building. It just seemed to me if there was a hell on earth, this was it.
I’m pretty sure the first time I heard the word ‘blowjob’ was on that show and I asked my mom what it meant. Imagine my mother’s awkwardness. “Mommy, what’s a blowjob?” – 11-year-old Clean Cut Skolly.
Ponte Tower had evolved from one of the most affluent areas in Johannesburg to a symbol of crime and urban decay. 22 years later, I decided to do my own investigation into how this once upscale apartment block turned into a sky-scraper of darkness.
I’ve never been one for tour guides and I’ve always opted to do my own exploring (Like that one time I explored the haunted hospital of Kempton Park by myself – which was probably a dom idea) but because Ponte Tower is situated in Hillbrow — not exactly the safest area in Johannesburg — I found it wise to do the tour and diminish my chances of getting stabbed up in my poes and robbed.
Dlala Nje was the name of the tour company which means Zulu for “just play”. So basically, we were going to play where countless people had died due to drugs, murder or suicide. Jokes!
We started the tour on the 54th floor, where our guide gave us a brief history lesson. The decline of Ponte began in 1994 when apartheid was abolished, and Nelson Mandela opened the borders to all neighbouring countries (especially ones where black South African’s were granted asylum). Loads of foreigners migrated to South Africa for a chance at a better life.
Some were good honest citizens, while others were gangsters and hardened criminals. As they poured in, the once upmarket area naturally began to decay and crime escalated, which in turn drove people from the city into the suburbs. A series of buildings in JHB were hijacked with Ponte being one of them. It was dark days from then on for the infamous building.
I stared out of the 54th floor at the surrounding buildings and listened to the music of the busy streets made up of taxi’s hooting and street vendors shouting. The noise pollution consumed the air as I tried to imagine what it was like living here during those dark times.
After our brief history lesson, we were escorted to the bottom centre of Ponte. This was where things got really interesting. I looked up through the centre into the sky feeling like we were humanities last hope in a sci-fi movie based in 3020 AD.
Ponte Tower was constructed to house a maximum of 2 500 occupants which is quite a large number. But gangsters here are all about mass income and once they took control, it was home to around 10 000 people. So you had a building that was filled with drug addicts, prostitutes and gangsters that was overpopulated by 7 500 people.
And to top it off, Ponte had a real nice nickname – “Suicide City”.
I stood in awe after taking in all of this information and I wondered what evil tales this building could tell if it could speak. The screams. The cries of pain and anguish. The overdoses. The list goes on. In a fucked-up way, I wish I could have experienced it in that state. To see exactly what a God-forsaken area looked like.
In 2002, the building was declared a vertical slump and there were even talks of turning it into a prison. I mean, if you really want to let your city know you won’t tolerate crime anymore, turning the most eye-catching building into a vertical prison is one way to make a statement. Unfortunately/fortunately, that plan fell through.
Around 2007, Ponte changed ownership and a re-development project “New Ponte” was put in motion. Unfortunately, it was short-lived as the developers ran into funding issues and ownership was given back to the Kempston Group.
Today, Ponte has been revitalised into a habitable state and it’s nowhere near as bad as what it used to be. It took a total of 2 years to clean out the building. The centre was filled with waste totalling 14 stories high. When the building was hijacked, the owners cut the water, electricity and any other maintenance services, and with no one paying to take out the trash and clean up, it continued to pile up for years.
Imagine the stench that formed over the years from the multiple suicide casualties and other wasting fermenting together. It must have been kak vuil.
But things can only get better from here. And it has. Since the great clean up, Ponte has caught the attention of Hollywood filmmakers and international musicians. A few scenes from Resident Evil were shot there and even Drizzy (Drake) dropped a few bars in its centre.
But, is it habitable?
You can now rent an apartment for around R5 800 per month, which is kak cheap. Would I live there? No. The block might have been cleaned up and made liveable but as you leave the front security gate, the area around Ponte is still dodgy AF with gangs still running the surrounding areas and hijacked buildings.
But, if you already live in the CBD and are ok with those sorts of conditions, then I’d definitely say yes.
As I departed from this concrete abyss, I looked back and saw someone had thrown a plastic bag out of a window. I watched as it slowly drifted around in the air and eventually made its descent to the ground. It made me imagine a time when Ponte was known as ‘Suicide City’.