Tell a white South African that you’re planning on visiting Ponte City Apartments and you’re bound to be met with incredulity: “You’ve got to be kidding me?”

There is a good deal of irony in this. In the 1970s, Ponte City and Hillbrow, the inner-city suburb in which the apartment tower was built, were among the most desirable places to live in Johannesburg. At 54 stories, Ponte City was the tallest residential building on the continent, not to mention one of its most affluent. There was just one problem: it was too damned cosmopolitan. If Hillbrow’s whites wanted to mix with blacks, the vindictive logic of apartheid went, then that was fine. The government would simply make it impossible for the so-called “grey area” to develop. The rot, as they say, soon set in.

“What followed was mass urban degradation,” Nickolaus Bauer of Dlala Nje (@DlalaNje), the tower’s community centre, told Crikey. “No money flowed in for development or maintenance of infrastructure.” Ponte City went from being the hippest address on the continent to its first vertical slum. “And then, just before the transition to democracy, the situation was exacerbated by the fact that laws formerly prohibiting people’s movements were repealed. Hundreds of thousands of people from the rest of the country flocked to the inner city en masse in search of employment.” Overcrowding and crime were soon endemic. The inner city went to hell and the tower along with it.

But that was long ago. While any mention of Johannesburg’s city centre still calls to mind the pimps and drugs dealers of the 1990s, Hillbrow in general and Ponte City in particular have begun to clean up their act. Ponte is now at the centre of the inner city’s impressive regeneration, an orderly middle-class building like any other. But the incredulity of some whites still remains.

“Growing up in Johannesburg, you’d never hear anything good about Ponte City or Hillbrow,” Bauer said, “especially if you were born in the 1980s or afterwards. It’s been a tremendous challenge for us to convince people that it’s safe to come and experience it for themselves.”

Bauer and his business partner Michael Luptak hope to change all that.

“It is essential that we change how people think about the inner city,” Bauer said. “If they don’t get rid of their fear, how will the situation ever change? The more people who realise that the inner city is about as dodgy as the suburbs they live in, the better.”

The pair’s connection with Ponte City began two years ago when Bauer, a journalist, was sent to the building to write what he calls “that typical story”.

“I thought it was going to be pretty straight forward,” he said. “Prostitution, drugs, pimps and gangsters. But I didn’t leave with the story I’d been asked to write. I left with a lease to live there. Michael moved in three weeks after me, after attending my housewarming.”

With a number of old retail spaces still vacant on the ground floor, which once housed shops, hairdressers, a bowling alley and a concert venue — there was even talk about building an indoor ski slope — Bauer and Luptak started toying with the idea of starting a business that would contribute socially and economically to the building’s community. A video arcade for local children was set up, but proved financially unsustainable. With the introduction of several immersion tours, as well as the development of a corporate leadership program, today’s much more comprehensive drop-in space — it sports pool and foosball tables, a small lending library and internet access — soon became possible, and its founders are keen for it to keep playing a role in the area’s renewal more generally.

“The renewal began in about 2008,” Bauer said. “Investors returned to the city and started buying buildings that had often become derelict. They pumped private money into private projects that begun turning around the city’s fortunes. The city authorities have been involved to an extent, giving their blessing and helping out where they can. But it has largely been private enterprise that has led the regeneration.”

Nevertheless, Dlala Nje, which means “Just Play” in Zulu, remains a for-profit organisation. Bauer and Luptak, a former strategy consultant with Ernst & Young, have little interest in the organisation becoming or being seen as a charity.

“It is essential to show people that it is possible to do good while still making a profit,” Bauer said. “For too long, it has been thought that these two things are mutually exclusive.”

Twitter plays an important role in the social side of Dlala Nje’s work.

“It’s one of the most effective ways for us to interact with our community,” Bauer said. “It’s immediate. It’s relevant.”

It also plays a central role in Dlala Nje’s two-day immersion tour, “Jozi: The Amazing Place”, which sends travellers on a kind of cultural orienteering course throughout the city armed only with a small allowance, a public transport card and a smartphone. Twitter is used to disseminate clues that the participants must crack to get from one place to the next, while the participants themselves tweet pictures from their travels in order to prove that they’ve visited each stop on the trail.

There is one other use to which Bauer and Luptak like to put the Dlala Nje account: to troll locals who are yet to face their fears. During one of Dlala Nje’s “This is Hillbrow” immersion tours—they also run “Taste of Yeoville”, a night time walking tour of a nearby suburb’s restaurants and bars — Luptak was struck by the sight of six Dutch children who were happily talking with African vendors in the suburb’s  central market. The opportunity was too good to pass up.

“He challenged South Africans to come along on an immersion,” Bauer said. “He wanted to warn them that foreign children might end up knowing more about their city than they do. Tweeting a photo of the kids on the tour seemed like the best way of doing so.”

@DlalaNje’s #FF:

*Read more of  Nickolaus Bauer’s thoughts on democracy in South Africa on the website…      

On South Africa’s budding democracy …

For the folks that were living a middle-class existence before 1994, things have gone badly since democracy arrived. Or, at the very least, mediocrity has become the norm for these people. All they can see is how the government has failed to make their lives better or easier. However, if you’re a member of the part of society that was disadvantaged before the transition, you will be largely optimistic about how things are going.

We can’t be blind to our problems or wish them away. But name one democracy on earth that doesn’t have corruption issues like we do? Perhaps they’re hidden a bit better, but they’re there. The same goes with crime. We are a developing nation and crime comes with development. These are growing pains.

Perhaps the main challenge facing this country’s citizens is a failure to see the potential we have as a nation and in Johannesburg as a city. In South Africa, the norm is to dwell on the negative, to see problems as insurmountable issues rather than as positive challenges we can overcome together. Dlala Nje plays directly to this way of thinking by trying to make people realise that positive change is possible. By bringing the haves and the have-nots together we can build an inclusive city and nation.

On gentrifying Johannesburg …

It is not going to take some gentrification project to turn Johannesburg around. Gentrification will only serve to further segregate the city. South Africa remains one of the most unequal societies on earth. The longer we couch our conversations in “us” and “them” the more the situation will be perpetuated.

Essentially, we aren’t talking about inclusive development enough. We aren’t thinking enough about what we can do together and how we can use what we already have to make the city and South Africa a better place.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
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