Ponte City Tower

Roman Mars: This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Back in the 1980s when Louis Smutz was growing up in Johannesburg, South Africa, his family couldn’t go outside together without breaking the law.

Louis Smutz: My father would never walk next to my mother. My mother would always walk behind him wherever they went.

RM: Louis was too young to understand why his parents couldn’t be seen together in Johannesburg, or as everyone calls it, Joburg. Louis just saw a world that treated them differently.

LS: You know, If your mother got sick and didn’t have a medical aid, she’d go to a hospital out of the city, whereas when your dad you go to what is the Joburg Gen, which was around the corner from where we stayed.

RM: Healthcare, like almost everything else in South Africa, was decided by race. Louis’s father was white. His mother was colored, a local term for people of mixed race. They had gotten married in neighboring Swaziland, but back home their marriage was against the law.

Dhashen Moodley: When Louis was a kid, only white people could move freely in cities here, live in the nicest neighborhoods, or access the best hospitals, schools, and jobs.

RM: This is Dhashen Moodley. He’s a South African journalist.

DM: Black people, on the other hand, lived in the crowded outskirts, which were far from just about everything you’d want in a city. The country’s ruling white minority called this system Apartheid, which literally translated to separateness.

Speaker 4: Our policy is one, which is apartheid, and I’m afraid that has been misunderstood so often. It could just as easily, and perhaps much better be described, as a policy of good neighborliness.

DM: Apartheid leaders like Hendrik Verwoerd claimed that segregated cities were better for everyone, and apartheid was strictly enforced. Police would patrol neighborhoods to make sure that white people and black people weren’t living together.

LS: If you lived in a house, they’d come knocking on your door.

Roman Mars: But the apartheid system was never air tight and people found creative ways to slip through the cracks.

LS: If you lived in a high rise building with 500, 600 flats in it, they weren’t going to go through each and every flat to come and look for any illegal persons. You could easily disappear into flat land.

RM: Over the years many families like Louis’s disappeared into one high rise apartment building in particular, a tower called Ponte City.

LS: I don’t think there’s anybody in Johannesburg that doesn’t know Ponte. Might not have been there, but everybody knows Ponte.

DM: Even looking at Joburg skyline now, Ponte is hard to miss. First of all, it’s 54 stories tall. That makes it the tallest apartment building on the entire African continent, and it certainly makes it taller than any of the other buildings around it. It’s also completely circular. If you were to look at Ponte from above, you’d see that the center is just this open hollow core designed to allow natural ventilation and to let in daylight. The building looks kind of like a massive concrete toilet roll.

RM: It’s also got this glowing red billboard for a cell phone company wrapping around the top like a crown so wherever you are in the city you can easily spot it.

DM: Ponte’s larger than life architecture also comes with a larger than life reputation. For many, the building symbolizes Johannesburg because over the past four decades its fortunes have basically mirrored the cities.

Melinda Silverman: Because of its scale, because of its size, its checkered history, its toughness, its roughness, talks to a very Joburg condition.

Roman Mars: That’s Melinda Silverman. And architectural historian who studies inner city Johannesburg.

MS: It has spoken to a city which goes very rapidly through cycles of decline & prosperity & decline & prosperity.

RM: Ponte has always been kind of a vertical waiting room for admission into South African society. But it’s also been a laboratory, a place where the city seems to try out new versions of itself. Years before Ponte became a hideaway for interracial families like Louis’s, it attracted a much different clientele. And to understand who first lived there, and why, We have to go back to the 1960’s. Before Ponte was even built.

DM: At the start of the 60s, the apartheid system had been firmly in place for more than 10 years, and South Africa’s economy was a rising star in the world. It had just given birth to a new currency, the Rand, which was already stronger than the US dollar. The country’s success was largely driven by its access to cheap black labor and its rich gold deposits.

MS: We were the major gold producers in the world. The feeling was that if we could continue being the major gold producers, and keep an increasing the rest of black population under control, the future was brilliant.

RM: Unless of course you were black.

DM: Over the next decade foreign investment in South Africa doubled, but skilled workers were in short supply. Because the government had denied the majority of the population a decent education, it had to fill the gap by recruiting single white men from all over Europe. The country’s white population increased by over 50% between 1963 and 1972. These newcomers saw a strong economy and an idyllic life for white people.

MS: With a level of privilege that you probably couldn’t have found in any other part of the world. If you were a middle class person living in an apartment in England, in America, you would probably have had to have washed your own dishes and made your own beds. Whereas if you were a middle class person living in South Africa, you’ve probably had at least two people doing that stuff for you.

DM: And there was one square mile of inner city Joburg, the future site of Ponte tower, that was a regular landing place for these European migrants in the 1960s and 70s. It was home to the city’s most famous bars and live music joints, a place where specialty stores sold French magazines, Italian shoes, and American rock and roll. It had a shiny, vibrant Bohemian edge that people compared to New York’s Greenwich village or London’s Soho district.

RM: But it was also a place that felt almost like it wasn’t in South Africa at all. Like most of Joburg’s nicest neighborhoods, this area was zoned exclusively for white people. Black South Africans could work there, but unless they were live-in servants they had to be out by nightfall each evening.

DM: Developers could hardly satisfy the demand for high rise apartments in this part of the city. Buildings kept getting bigger and taller, but that wasn’t the only thing fueling the development of Joburg’s new high rises.

MS: The other sort of driver, I would say, was ideological. It was this extraordinary sense of white confidence that this was a great economy, these were good times, this was white people wanting to make their mark on the landscape, South Africa as a modern, progressive, impressive place.

DM: Of course, South Africa was neither truly modern nor progressive at this time. This was the era of African independence. Across the continent old colonies were falling like dominoes. By the mid-1960s, most African countries were black ruled.

Speaker 6: This decade, is the decade of African independence.

Speaker 7: The people of Ghana see their freedom as more than a local trial, for they are now the only all African dominion in the British commonwealth. In the new Africa, one more independent country, the state of Uganda.

RM: To much of the world, South Africa’s white government was starting to look pretty backwards. And it didn’t help that the country had recently thrown several of the anti-apartheid movements most powerful leaders in jail for life, including a young lawyer named Nelson Mandela.

DM: But Joburg’s new buildings kept getting bigger and more audacious. Almost as if the government was trying to prove it’s worldliness. By the early 1970s, huge skyscrapers were sprouting up across central Joburg including Ponte.

RG: Ponte starts off being a tower, a round tower.

RM: That’s architect Rodney Grosskopff, who was one of three architects who designed the building.

RG: So now imagine again, this tall tower, 54 stories tall with a hole down the middle. And the whole outside of it is made out of raw concrete and painted and polished. And then at its foot, it’s really anchored so beautifully down. People once upon a time said it looks a bit like a wedding cake.

RM: But not everyone agreed the building was beautiful. Some thought it looked like an ugly, brutalist wedding cake.

RG: Straight after it was built, it was voted as the second ugliest building in Johannesburg.

RM: Not even the honor of being the first ugliest.

RG: The second ugliest. I mean can you even? The second ugliest.

RM: Second ugliest or not, Ponte Tower was popular. Residents started moving in even before the building was finished. Lured by its furnished flats and panoramic city views. All the units in Ponte faced both inward and outward, with entrances wrapping around the central core.

DM: From one side of the building, you could see the entire downtown skyline. From another, you could catch entire rugby matches at the city’s main stadium. By the time Ponte was completed in 1975, its 470 flats were in high demand.

RG: There were all sorts of analogies about how it was gonna use as much electricity as an average small town and it’d have more people than an average small town in South Africa.

RM: The developers saw it that way too. On Ponte’s ground floor they built an elaborate shopping mall and schemed about putting a miniature ski slope in the open core.

RG: So we had restaurants, butcher, baker, candlestick maker designed in that space and we really did see it as a little city.

RM: But even as Ponte’s new residents were moving in, the city around them was cracking apart. At this time, Johannesburg’s inner city was almost exclusively white. Black South Africans lived on the edges of the city in communities called townships. In twelve miles southwest of Ponte, in a black township called Soweto, a new revolt against apartheid had begun.

Speaker 7: What began as a black protest against being taught in Afrikaans, a language they regard as useless and that of their masters, is now the manifestation of urban black frustration.

RG: Protests escalated and on June 16th, 1976 police killed at least 176 high school students during a peaceful protest march. Images of the massacre quickly circled the globe inspiring renewed calls to end white rule.

Speaker 7: As a pall of smoke rises over this black community, so rises African anticipation. Throughout southern Africa, they see white regimes falling or coming under greater pressure.

Dhashen Moodley: The Soweto uprising also sent Joburg’s urban planning dreams crashing. The June 16th uprising, and the international sanctions and boycotts that followed helped destroy the country’s economy. It became difficult to keep all the newly constructed high rises fully occupied.

Roman Mars: And it wasn’t just the crashing economy. Like many cities around the world, Johannesburg had started to experience a wave of suburbanization with white people moving out of the inner city and moving into new suburbs. Meanwhile, many Black South Africans were fleeing from the poverty and violence of the townships. For them, the inner city was an alluring option, especially Ponte.

MS: First of all, the flats they would have been more affordable. Really good location, the ability to be really near to the workplaces that still existed in the inner city.

DM: In the 1980s it was still illegal for Black, Indian, and Khaled South Africans to live in these areas, but the scale and density of the inner city made the laws harder to enforce.

MS: I think the anonymity that really high density living offered, which meant that people would have been less conspicuous if they’re illegal.

LS: There was an Italian gentleman, had a Black lady as a wife. There’s a French gentleman who also had a colored wife.

DM: That’s Louis Smutz again, whose parents were in an illegal interracial marriage. He’s talking about some of the other families who also lived in Ponte in the early 1980s. As the lines between black and white began to blur in buildings like Ponte, South Africans coined a new term for the phenomenon. They called it “graying.”

RM: For Louis, gray areas were an escape. Ponte was a place where his family could be together freely without fear of arrest or public scrutiny.

LS: I don’t even remember seeing any building raids or anything like that. You almost had protection being in the flat land because there were so many places. Just go into a flat here, go into a flat there. They weren’t going to close down a whole block of flats at once.

DM: But that didn’t mean that there weren’t stresses associated with life in Ponte. Police regularly set up checkpoints to monitor who came in and out of black and white areas of the city. When Louis’ family went through these checkpoints, his mother would sit in the backseat posing as the family’s maid.

LS: She’d have to sit in the back. It was as plain and simple as that. She sat in the back.

DM: Black and colored people who were legally settled in the inner city also struck a hard bargain. Landlords would turn a blind eye to the color of the residents skin, and residents would have to turn a blind eye to rising rents and poor maintenance.

MS: The status of illegality, I think was absolutely critical to the decline because the minute you are an illegal tenant, you have no protection of the law. So rents can be ramped up, and if rents are ramped, how do you afford the rent? You sublet. Then, the rents go up either further and you sublet even more.

RM: Inside Ponte, apartments started to get crowded and grimy. Plumbing broke down, trash began to fill the open core in the center of the building like an oversize concrete garbage can. There were giant piles of old mattresses, furniture, and rubble. Eventually legend spread that the trash had piled up so high it reached the 14th story of the building.

DM: Pretty soon banks stopped issuing home loans in the area and white people kept moving out. By the late 1980s, what you thought of Ponte and the surrounding neighborhood called Hillbrow probably depended a lot on the color of your skin.

MS: White suburbanites would have been terrified to go into Hillbrow, and Hillbrow would have been a place of fear and blood, darkness. Whereas, I think for people in townships …

DM: That is mostly black and colored people.

MS: … Hillbrow would have been this great beacon of opportunity. You’re way into the city, you’re way of experiencing urban life.

DM: And all these changes in the inner city were foreshadowing a much bigger change that was about to happen to all of South Africa. On February 2nd, 1990, then President F.W. De Klerk went in front of parliament to give his annual State of the Nation speech.

F.W. De Klerk: Today, I’m able to announce far reaching decisions. Legislations [crosstalk 00:16:24] …

Roman Mars: For three decades, the apartheid government had banned many anti-apartheid political parties. They arrested their members and sometimes forced them into exile. No one was expecting the president to announce the end of that practice. He shocked nearly everyone watching.

F.W. De Klerk: The prohibition of the African National Congress, the Pan Africanist Congress, the South African Communist Party is being rescinded. The government has taken a firm decision to release Mr. Mandela unconditionally.

RM: This speech would change the course of South African history. A week later, after 27 years in prison for treason, Nelson Mandela was free. And after decades of struggle, the end of apartheid was suddenly imminent. From all over the world, exiled political activists began to return. They wanted to help shape a dramatically changing country.

Lensway Mohatle: I think it was 1991. The year that we came back in.

DM: That’s Lensway Mohatle, an anti-apartheid activist who fled South Africa in 1981. Like many other returning exiles, Lensway took advantage of the centrality and cheap rent of the inner city and moved into a friend’s 24th floor apartment in Ponte Tower. Ponte and the surrounding neighborhood were still run down, but Lensway was surprised to find the area felt a lot like the western cities where he’d spent the last decade.

LM: That’s where the music was happening, 24 hour food outlets that were not seen anywhere else were there. So the lights were on throughout. Yeah, it was like being in New York.

RM: Some of the old European cafes from the 50s and 60s were still standing serving late night espressos and thick schnitzels. But along side them were new shops and nightclubs, including one run by the famous South African trumpeter, Hugh Masakela who had recently returned from his own exile.

LM: So if you wanted to find anybody who were around … we never used to sleep.

DM: Instead, Mohatle says they stayed up all night talking about the future of their new country over beers and brandys. Thabo Mbeki, who would later become President of South Africa, lived in the building next to Ponte. At the time of the first democratic election in 1994, one observer counted 50 of the new members of parliament staying in Ponte and the surrounding area.

RM: But the end of apartheid didn’t represent the end of Ponte Tower’s evolution. The transition to Black rule in South Africa also meant the end of the country’s tightly closed borders, which for decades had cracked open only for white immigrants and a few laborers from the surrounding countries.

DM: Throughout the 1990s, immigrants began arriving in Johannesburg by the tens of thousands and many of them landed in Ponte.

Speaker 11: I’m from Malawi.

Speaker 12: Zimbabwe.

Speaker 13: Nigeria.

Speaker 14: I’m from Zambia.

DM: That’s footage from a film called, Africa Shafted by Ingrid Martens. She filmed entirely inside of Ponte’s elevators. That’s why it sounds like there are doors opening and shutting in the background all the time.

Roman Mars: Martens found people from dozens of countries living in the building. Mostly in crowded apartments shared by several families. Some had come for work, others were fleeing political persecution, but they shared one important experience with past residents. For them, Ponte was a place where you could start over.

Speaker 15: I just want to give my little boy the life that I never had.

RM: Over the years, Ponte like South Africa itself continued to have its ups and downs. By the late 90s, the building’s physical decline made it a haven for criminals who moved into the building and ran it like a vertical slum.

DM: But Ponte still remained a place of big ideas and wild experimentation. Developers made a few attempts to gentrify the tower and turn it into luxury apartments again, but ultimately those plans didn’t really work. Ponte today remains a lot like it was at the end of apartheid, a home for recently arrived immigrants from all over Africa. [crosstalk 00:20:56] On a recent Saturday morning, a pair of kids are battling it out on a foosball table at the base of Ponte city. You can tell it’s a close game. Just down the road, people are crowding around a wall that’s covered in hundreds of scribbled slips of paper in several different languages. Some are torn or stacked over older ones with wads of bubble gum. It’s a sort of analog Craigslist. A message board for newcomers searching for accommodation in Ponte and around Hillbrow.

Speaker 16: I’m looking for a lady or a guy to rent a bedroom or a balcony at 1801 Metropolitan [inaudible 00:21:33] and I ask a man to share the man with me …

Dhashen Moodley: And the list goes on. Sifting through the messages, the demand feels limitless.

RM: Like South Africa itself, Ponte has gone from a symbol of white opulence to something far more complicated. It’s hopeful and it’s a little rough around the edges. It’s a microcosm of the country’s history. But it’s also a place that moves on. And the strange concrete tube at the center of Joburg’s skyline continues to play the same role for newcomers that it always has.

MS: The diversity’s the same. The amount of Czechoslovakians, Portuguese, Italians, and Danes living in Hillbrow then, but now the Cameroonians, and [inaudible 00:22:17], Nigerians, Zimbabweans, etc. etc. It always has been your entry point into the city.

Roman Mars: So did Ponte Tower seem vaguely familiar, but you can’t quite put your finger on it? It’s because you probably saw it or a tower inspired by it in a movie. We have a little epilogue about Ponte’s life onscreen after this.

——

RM: Even though we only heard Dhashen Moodley’s voice in this episode, it was reported by two people actually. The second reporter is Ryan Brown and she was a resident of Ponte Tower and has done a lot of reporting on the place. And one of the things about Ponte that is pretty interesting is that even though you might not know its actual history or even know its name, you might feel like it’s kind of familiar as a place. And the reason is because it has been depicted in movies in different ways, and I asked Ryan to talk to me about that.

Ryan Brown: Well, Ponte has actually made quite a number of cameos in film and other popular culture. Most recently in the last Resident Evil film as a site of the zombie apocalypse. It was in District 9 a few years ago, and the robot becoming human story, Chappie a couple years ago too. And it’s made a cameo in a number of other films too. Interestingly, not always films that are set in Johannesburg, but always films that are set in places where there’s something either apocalyptic or just sort of gritty and messy going on.

Roman Mars: Right, it has that vibe. It’s not necessarily a Johannesburg, it’s the vibe of apocalypse that it gives off.

Ryan Brown: Yeah, totally. But you have to sort of wonder where did filmmakers get the idea that Ponte would be the scene for the apocalypse? And I think it’s rooted in the kind of stereotypes that people have about the inner city of Johannesburg, which are then in turn, I think, rooted in the fears that a lot of South Africans have about the city and what it’s become since the end of apartheid.

Roman Mars: And there’s also a number of films where it’s not necessarily Ponte, or it’s not necessarily Johannesburg, but there’s this idea of a tower that’s a city in of itself that is its own sort of dark place. Dread, for example, reminds me of the way people talk about Ponte City as well.

Ryan Brown: Yeah, exactly. And an interesting thing about dread is that the movie itself was
filmed in Johannesburg and they didn’t use Ponte as a set, but then there’s a sort of massive apartment tower in the film, a 200 story building that has a hollow open core. So you have to sort of wonder where they got that idea.

Roman Mars: Right, why do you think it’s so evocative and why do you think it’s used in this way? Are you troubled by it in any way or are you kind of pleased when you see it depicted?

Ryan Brown: I think the way it’s come to be is a combination of two things, and the one is that Ponte has become this sort of metaphor for Johannesburg and for South Africa and this kind of outsized thing on the skyline onto which people can project their fears about the city and what it’s becoming. I think filmmakers have just picked up on that. And then the other thing is the aesthetic of the building is just pretty wild. It’s just this 50 stories of raw, brutal concrete. It’s got these kind of exposed concrete ribs on the inside. The core is just this crazy, rocky space. You stare up and there’s 50 stories of windows staring back down at you and this shaft of light, it’s almost other worldly. So it has this cinematic quality to it, but I do find the way it appears in popular culture troubling because it sort of freezes in time this very negative vision of Johannesburg and this vision of Ponte. Ponte and Johannesburg both have changed and are changing extraordinarily quickly and maybe you could say that about any city, but I think Johannesburg is a particularly unsentimental kind of city and it’s because it was started as this sort of mining town. It’s always been a place where people just came to make money, to get rich, to get ahead. People don’t have this sentimental attachment to home in Johannesburg. The city moves on and forgets very quickly, but then when you have the arbiters of popular culture, when you have filmmakers come in and create this or reinforce this vision of Joburg or of Ponte as these really dangerous or gritty, crime ridden spaces, it freezes that image in people’s minds and that’s what they think the city is like, whether or not it still is.

Roman Mars: And you lived there for a time, right?

Ryan Brown: I did. I lived there for about a year, coinciding with the filming of the Resident Evil movie. So I was treated to a number of days of the zombie apocalypse, and literally zombies wandering through my building screaming, which seemed a logical end point to this Ponte metaphor.

Roman Mars: In what way?

Ryan Brown: Well, if Ponte represents the chaotic way that Johannesburg has evolved since the end of apartheid, and the disarray of the city in that period, what represents disarray more than a zombie apocalypse?

Credits

Production

Producers Ryan Brown and Dhashen Moodley spoke with Ponte City resident Louis Smuts; Melinda Silverman, an architectural historian who studies inner city Johannesburg; and architect Rodney Grospkoff who was one of three architects who designed Ponte City. This episode also featured footage from a film called “Africa Shafted” by Ingrid Martens.

Music

Original music by Sean Real
Additional Music by Jenny Conlee Drizos, Jon Neufeld, and Nate Query

Comments (5)

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  1. Alex

    I wonder if the writer of the recent high-rise film were inspired in part by this building. There are a number of things in this episode that made me think about that movie.

    1. Keaton Belliston

      Are you thinking of the movie Dread?? Very similar!!!

  2. Doug

    I always loved the concept of Ponte City Tower but was never a huge fan of the aesthetic. I wonder why nobody has attempted a more modern and improved upon version of the design.

  3. John B

    The intermittent plink plink background music stops me hearing the speakers, and is very distracting

  4. Heidi

    Late to the party but…

    I think the use of Ponte Tower in apocalyptic films has less to do with people’s conception of South Africa/Johannesburg (especially if we’re referring to American movie-going audiences, who are most likely unfamiliar with the look and layout of the city, making it really hard for them to make the association of the location with racial/political tension), and more to do with people’s conceptions of prisons (which for many Americans does have a racial/political association). The building is really similar to Bentham’s panopticon prison design, which has been adopted in many counties prison layouts, thus associating it with negative feelings you would want visually in a film set: over-crowding, containment, monitoring, oppression, disease, etc. which are often also included in dystopian films. Combine that with the immense size and cold, grey concrete, and mostly shadowed center/courtyard area and you got yourself a loaded visual symbol.

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