This iconic tower built in the 1970’s has been on a roller coaster ride all of its own. We can proudly say that its again risen to its former glory. Once the most desirable address in Johannesburg where only the crème de la crème of society lived it had an about turn in the 1980’s when turned into an Urban slum.

Designed by architect Rodney Grosskopff, who also designed the Johannesburg Theatre Complex, it is said that building was complete in 1975. The entire building is made of concrete, the rough look is called is called hacked concrete and is in a style referred to as New Brutalism. The larger than life red wrap around advert that lights up the night sky and has become a landmark of its own, it is said to bring in R500 000 a month for rental of the space.

This building known as the tallest residential building with 54 floors in South Africa if not the Southern Hemisphere was initially home to the elite whites of Johannesburg, many of them being from abroad at the time. Slowly with the politics at the time the area around Ponte was declared a “ grey area “ and all municipal services were cut off. This lead to the disintegration of the surrounding neighbourhood and the magnificent Ponte turned into a vertical slum. What was the melting pot of cultures became a lair of underground activities.

There were 6 penthouses which were 3 floors high and they had wine cellars, saunas , a patio with a braai area and sundecks. At the time only white people where allowed to live in the building. The black staff that worked in the building could stay there but in very uncomfortable conditions such as staying on the very top floor with tiny windows so they could barely see anything. Now if you have been in Ponte on a windy day the wind howls and howls. It is also said that the window sills had to be above six foot so that the staff couldn’t look out at the white apartments.

The entire concept of Ponte was to build a city within a city so Ponte was not only a residential building, it also had a swimming pool, bowling ally, shops, hairdressers and a concert venue. Sadly investment in the area of Hillbrow, Berea and Yeoville started to dry up in the 1980’s and by the 1990’s Hillbrow had become a slum. With this was the mass exodus of the residents of Ponte. So the demographics of the area changed.

Thousands of migrants were flooding to Johannesburg in the hope of finding a better life in the city of gold. They needed a place to stay while they earned minimum wages, with this came a new lifestyle that involved gangs, prostitution and drugs. The gangs took over the 11th and 12th floor . Now prime residence was on the bottom floors and the cheapest was the top floors because the lifts no longer worked and the rubbish was piling up in the middle. It reached up to the 14th floor eventually. Imagine walking around 50 floors every day and smelling that stench.

Kempston the trucking and logistics company bought the building in 1995 hoping to restore it to its original beauty. This was easier said than done. This vertical slum had become impossible to govern, there was an idea of turning it into a prison at one time also by the government but this idea was rejected. The many sad stories inside led to multiple suicides. The woman were known to jun into the core and the men to jump out of the windows. The building was nicknamed “ suicide central “ at one point.

Then in 2001 there was eventually some light at the end of the tunnel when Kempton employed the services of Elma and Danie Celliers who was a former cop. This husband and wife management team undertook the monuments task of cleaning up the building. The core had to be cleaned out by hand as no machinery could fit in to do it. Dead animals and humans were discovered in the layers of decay.

By mid 2002 it was cleaned up and Ponte was once again a safe place to stay. With rentals aimed at the middle class . In 2007 David Selvan and Noor Addine Ayyoub arrived with big dreams ahead of the soccer world cup. They wanted to turn Ponte into a luxurious accommodation haven for visitors, so they set about moving out the 1500 residents from the 11th to 34th floor. Their dreams were shattered in 2008 with the financial global meltdown and they returned to their country of origin with many people having lost money after investing in their dream.

Kempston once again set about restoring the building, but this time they put everything into it. The 8 lifts that were decades old were replaced, the building was rewired and security became a priority. With 24 hour security and diametric finger access people could no longer just wonder in out. Visitors are required to leave their ID when visiting someone and nobody may sleep over. If they do a R50 spot fine is given. With a notice board and newsletters residents are kept up to date with goings on.

Dlala Nje which means “ just play “ in Zulu was created by Nicholas Bauer and Mike Lupak. The idea behind it was to support the children living in Ponte. There are between 500 – 700 children living in the building at any given time. The brightly coloured recreation centre is a place for children to gather and participate in various activities ranging from reading, sport games like football and swimming lessons in the summer months. Dlala Nje also offers walking tours of the surrounding Berea and Hillbrow. With the hope of educating people and throwing away some misconceptions and allowing everyone to witness the metamorphose that is taking place with their own eyes. Other activities are offered within Ponte like the stair running challenge. August 2018 saw Jesdel winning the challenge completing the 900 plus stairs in 5 minutes 27 seconds.

This middle class suburbia is once again a desirable address in the city of gold. Lets hope it it stays this way for years to come

For more info on tours of Ponte and Hillbrow: