I have never heard a good story about Ponte – that Vodacom tower – that’s become a landmark in the Johannesburg skyline. It has always seemed to be the epitome of inner city grunge and decay: a hijacked tower where one could find all things underworld – drugs, sex and fast living – with an enviable view as the only reminder of its former self.
Then came the wave of urban regeneration. We were supposedly moving back into our city, taking back the streets and frequenting places like Jeppestown. In reality, we were indulging in the vibey nightlife of Braamfontein, running a 10km route organised by Nike, and buying some preserves at a market in the Maboneng Precinct, then driving back to the suburbs often heading straight for the highway in an effort to avoid driving anywhere near the actual city centre.
It comes as no surprise that most of suburban Joburg has yet to experience inner city areas such as Hillbrow, Berea and Yeoville – areas that have become synonymous with drug-dealing Nigerians, building hijackings, prostitution and a dog-eat-dog mentality. The fact is, attempts at urban renewal and even a renovated Ponte City haven’t been enough to convince people that walking the streets of these places would not be a serious error of judgement or a risk to our self-preservation.
In the passed two years I have begun to fall in love with Johannesburg. It has grown beyond Sandton City, 4th Avenue Parkhurst, 7th Avenue Melville and the Zoo Lake Bowling Club. Johannesburg is now 44 Stanley, Juta Street, Fox Street and Vilakazi Street. It all sounds pretty bourgeois, huh? It’s been a good run but recently I’ve become disenchanted by the monotony of my social experiences. So, in true bourgeois fashion, I decided to take a tour of Hillbrow (just to spice up my mundane existence, you know) despite cautionary words from my family.
‘This is Hillbrow!’ is a walking tour organised by Dlala Nje, a community centre and organisation that was founded in 2012 and operated from at the base of Ponte City. Nickolaus Bauer, a journalist, co-founder of Dlala Nje and resident of Ponte City (who was initially sent to Ponte City for a story but ended up leaving with a lease and a unexpectedly normal story) herded a group of us around Ponte City and through Hillbrow as we took in the sights of the real Hillbrow.
I drove away from the Vodacom tower feeling very enlightened and quite disappointed. Hillbrow was nothing like I had imagined. No one offered me drugs, snatched my phone from my hands while I took a picture or grabbed me inappropriately. The movie I had played out in my head so many times was exactly that, a figment of my imagination. Like every other city, it’s not all good or all bad. In reality, Hillbrow is home to people just trying to get by.
I won’t divulge anymore because everyone needs to do this tour. If you appreciate new experiences that challenge preconceived ideas and make you ask more questions, this is just what you need. Even better, some of the proceeds of the tour go to Dlala Nje, which helps the Ponte City community. Dlala Nje is also doing some other cool things in our city, so follow them on Facebook, you’ll be a better person for it.