Ponte City, Johannesburg: a history of appropriation and the appropriation of history

McKay, Harriet (2021) Ponte City, Johannesburg: a history of appropriation and the appropriation of history. In: Appropriated Interiors. Routledge, London and New York, pp. 131-150. ISBN 978-0-367-67519-6


Johannesburg (eGoli, “place of gold” in isiZulu) has been the subject of rumour and myth from its days as a gold-mining camp in the 1880s. In the 1990s it was known as one of the most dangerous cities on earth. This discussion of the tower block that dominates Johannesburg’s skyline, Ponte City apartments, aims to get behind the stories that have also dogged the life of this infamous building. This discussion of Ponte City (1976), located just outside Johannesburg’s Central Business District in the notorious, so-called crime-ridden Berea/Hillbrow districts, demonstrates the way lives lived there have been clouded by truths and untruths frequently not of their inhabitants’ making and very frequently the stuff of hyperbole. This chapter frames Ponte as synecdoche for the wider metropolis and aims to get behind the building’s reputation as both “Tower of Terror” and the architect’s original vision that it be a bridge (pontem in Latin) to heaven.

Still Africa’s tallest residential building, the 54-storey block was conceived as a luxury ‘whites-only’ tower block. As such it represents appropriated inner-city space and can be read as a monument to apartheid largess for the minority. Ponte is known, however, for having been quickly abandoned following the Soweto Uprising in 1976, after which it was reappropriated by black squatters—drug lords, pimps and gang bosses. Thus, Ponte was transformed from heavenly white vision to black hell. Or so the urban myths that the building attracts would have us believe.

This account of Ponte City attempts to lay bare the building’s history and the way versions of this have variously been deployed to “script” the building according to differing (often racial) agendas and offers a more realistic account of the lives lived within this extraordinary tower block and its neighbourhood.

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