‘Are you sure you trust me?’
It’s the first question he asks us, and while there’s a twinkle in his eye, there is some depth to our guide, Gil’s question. We are, after all, about to walk into Johannesburg’s most notorious building – the 54 storey Ponte City Tower.
The round, hollow tower is infamous for lots of things – its nickname of ‘suicide central’ for all of the people who have ended their lives through its windows high above the Johannesburg skyline; its status as a hijacked building, run by gangsters, and the 14 storey high pile of rubbish that once filled its hollow core, created by the 10,000 people who once lived in the tower with no access to water, electricity or waste removal.
It’s a part of Johannesburg that has, until 2012, been totally off-limits to visitors, and many locals would still never dream of going inside. Surrounded by some of the city’s most dangerous neighbourhoods – Hillbrow, Yeoville and Berea – it’s a place that bears almost no resemblance to its former glory: in the 1970s it was Johannesburg’s most exclusive apartment building.
We learn all about its history from the 52nd floor – a three-bedroom apartment repurposed as an event venue for the local organisation, Dlala Nje (meaning just play in Zulu). Our guide, Gil, is a Congolese born South African, who moved to Johannesburg with his aunt when he was nine and spent much of his life living in the tower. Now he runs walking tours through Ponte and its surrounding neighbourhoods, the proceeds of which fund the Dlala Nje’s community centre on the ground floor, which aims to provide a safe learning and socialising environment for local children and youth.
“I am here to break down your preconceptions,” Gil says purposefully. He wants to know what we’ve heard about the Ponte tower, and then tell us the full story – from a local’s perspective.
It’s a trend that’s becoming more and more popular in tourism – real experiences, led by locals. To me, it’s a great example of responsible tourism*, and since this is both my passion and profession, it’s fantastic to experience it first-hand right here, in South Africa’s economic epicentre and melting pot of the continent’s cultures.
After being given the full Ponte rundown by Gil in the 52nd floor room with a view, we take a rather dark staircase to the rocky core of the building to get some perspective of how high the famed 14-storey rubbish dump really was. It’s repugnant to think that people living on the 12th and 13th floor had to go upstairs to dump their rubbish, as the space outside their windows would have already been blocked with waste. Even more revolting is our newfound knowledge that amongst the 14 storeys of rubbish were at least 23 human bodies, all of which were pulled out by hand – together with their decomposing surroundings – when the building was cleaned up to be liveable again in the early part of this decade.
Minds full of this knowledge and phones full of upward-facing selfies (the view to the top of the building from the inside is dizzying), we make our way back up to ground level through the underground carpark, where residents busy washing their cars greet Gil with friendly hellos.
Once outside of Ponte, Gil advises us to keep an eye on our belongings, as our walk from here will take us past many people who ‘work hard at being pickpockets.’ We walk through busy streets – Berea first, and then into Hillbrow, all the while being mostly ignored, but sometimes eyed off, by the suburbs’ many residents. It feels like rural Africa here, or a city less developed. Buildings are mostly intact but the streets are dirty; women walk by with their babies strapped to their backs and others stride past in uniforms, heading home from churches and from workplaces.
We feel safe with Gil and another Dlala Nje team member who has come along to keep an eye on things, and it actually feels like a privilege to be in this part of a city which often carries such a dire reputation. We’re taken through a local market and encouraged (but never pushed) to purchase some of the freshly washed and laid out vegetables, not because of any backward deals but because it will help the local community.
At the end of the tour we are taken to a local shebeen (pub), where we are sat down at a long table full of locals drinking beers and watching the rugby. We’re given beer bottles the size of which would make any German proud and a lunch pack wrapped in Styrofoam: it’s filled with delicious fried chicken, kale, slaw and a whole lot of other delicacies – the kind of food which tastes amazing and so foreign, you know you could never fully duplicate the flavour if you tried to ever recreate it elsewhere. As we leave, the owner of the shebeen hugs us all individually – the grin on his face, and the photos he asks us to take with him in them, speak volumes more than his words probably could. You can tell it means a lot to him to have visitors from ‘the outside’ coming to enjoy his generous hospitality.
As always in this continent, Africa’s heart beat is most clearly felt through the warmth of its people.
I love this continent’s energy, its contrasts and its vibrance. I am so excited to be back in South Africa – one of my favourite places in the world – and can’t wait to see what lies ahead for us in these next 3 weeks.
*Responsible tourism is based on the idea of making better places for people to live in and better places for people to visit. More info here.