Drinking tea and coffee while gathered in a funky 2 bed-roomed 52nd-floor apartment (granite topped kitchen counter tops, tiled floor, the north winter sun streaming in through expansive windows), it is hard to match this with the dystopian scene that hits us as when we descend to the deepest basement level in the core of the same building. This building is of course, Ponte. As we duck under brut concrete lintels the jagged rocky landscape littered with the odd bit of detritus, confronts us like some apocalyptic wasteland. It’s no wonder that this location is in high demand for film-sets - a lucrative money spinner for Ponte’s owners. In a nutshell, Ponte, built in the mid 1970s as a one-stop centre of residential apartments, shops and entertainment, degenerated from a sought-after location occupied by well-heeled non-suburbanites, to a no-go zone controlled by the underworld of drug-lords and gangsters. From around 2009 to 2013, the current owners spent huge amounts of money on refurbing and upgrading the building so that in January 2014 it was fully occupied with a waiting list and strict tenant control including biometric security access (fingerprints).
Today I joined one of Dlala Nje’s inner city ‘immersions’– no not a sudden Damascian moment with full body baptism – but an introduction by Loops (AKA Mike Luptak) to Ponte and its surrounding area. Mike stresses he is not a tour guide and wants to give people insights into inner city living and culture. So he avoids the word ‘tour’ and rather wants his visitors to engage with and so immerse themselves in life around them.
Dlala Nje’s website proclaims it is ‘a games and cultural emporium at the base of Ponte City in the heart of Hillbrow’. While the pool tables, gaming machines and soccer balls all attest to this aspect of Dlala Nje, the stocked bookshelves and bank of laptops, signal that it is not only a safe place to congregate and hang out, but also one where under-resourced inner city dwellers can ‘learn, develop and debate’. While Dlala Nje’s ‘immersions’ help to fund this community centre, the broader vision is to encourage events and performances and so make it more self-sustaining. Dlala Nje’s innovative approach to inner city experiences is taken to new limits with the latest addition to their offering – a 2 day immersion where participants overnight at Curiocity Backpackers in the Maboneng Precinct. Armed (forgive the pun) with one cell phone between the group and some money for food and transport, you self-guide yourselves through inner city Joburg using all forms of public transport – buses, mini-bus taxis, Rea Vaya – interacting and engaging with those who you meet along the way. There is obviously more to it than this – but it certainly takes the notion of authenticity of the visitor experience to new levels!
After telling us about the history of both Ponte and of Dlala Nje and then leaving our view from above across the west and north of Joburg – expansive airy and light- for the infamous enclosed rocky pit at the base of the central core of the building, we moved off to start our walk through Berea and into Hillbrow. There was lots of reminiscing around Hillbrow and those icons of 70s’ and 80s’ cosmopolitan street life and culture – Café Wien, the Chelsea Hotel, Exclusive books, and Fontana for late night munchies. It’s still vibey and cosmopolitan with lots of street life but now the wares plied are fresh fruit and vegetables, roasted mielies and I even bought a beautifully crafted Zulu hat, an isicholo. Really good to see were the several large blocks of flats which only a couple of years ago were derelict and either stood empty or were illegally occupied. Now, like Ponte, these buildings have been upgraded and refurbed and are fully occupied with paying tenants. Amazing how it seems Hillbrow is slowing turning around.
We ended our ‘immersion’ with drinks in a bar where we were initially identified as Swedish or ‘maybe English’. Great surprise to discover that all but one were native Jozi-ites. We were embraced (sometimes literally) by fellow patrons who were just hanging out and shooting the breeze- and a bit of pool.
So – all in all, highly recommended for an insider view of that distinctive marker on our eastern skyline and for some exposure to street life in Hillbrow. Dlala Nje can be contacted through their website on www.dlalanje.org