Hillbrow, Johannesburg – once a mixed, cosmopolitan and progressive area that by the late 80-ies sadly was in a downward spiral towards becoming an urban slum. By the dawn of democracy, the decay was unstoppable and Hillbrow became a notorious no-go area riddled with crime, poverty and despair. In the midst of this is Ponte City, the highest residential skyscraper in Africa with 52 floors and over 400 apartments. Ponte City, like Hillbrow, went from being a highly desirable address to becoming a symbol of violence, decay and innercity wasteland. Think of any kind of vice, and it was available here. The hollow core of the building filled up with waste as high as the 10th floor, adding to the unsanitary and dangerous environment.
But now, with downtown Jozi being revitalized by a new, upward mobile, arty and educated generation, Ponte City has once again changed its identity. Through painstaking removal of waste and crime, and refurbishment of the apartments, Ponte City is metamorphosing towards becoming a beacon of hope in a neglected and deprived area. These days, the building is occupied not by criminal gangs and brothels but by people, South Africans and immigrants, with hopes and dreams of a better future.
Dlala Nje is a non-profit organization started by residents of Ponte City to provide the children in the area with an alternative to the streets: a chance to play (Dlala Nje means Just Play), or try their hands at art, music or acting. A place to congregate, learn, develop and debate. Dlala Nje’s director Mike – a driven and enthusiastic young professional who left Sandton to take up residence on the 50th floor of Ponte City last year – also organizes guided tours of Ponte and Hillbrow. The tour is an eye-opener from the word go; starting with a breathtaking bird’s eye view of Jozi from Mike’s apartment while he tells you about the history of the building and the area, followed by a meander through Hillbrow that is often interrupted by joyful greetings – Mike is one of Hillbrow’s best-know uMlungus (zulu for white person) – and a spot of shopping for vegetables and other local foodstuff (think mopane worms and vast arrays of beans, nuts and roots) on the Pretoria Street market. The tour then comes to an end at a local shebeen (bar), where you will share a beer and a banter (and some pigs-trotters if you are that way inclined) with the locals.
I cannot recommend this tour enough. Not only do all proceeds go to Dlala Nje’s amazing work with the local kids, but you will also leave having learned so much about life in the innercity: challenges, progress, expectations and aspirations. Trodding around Hillbrow without the company of someone that knows the area is not advisable, but with Mike – a well-known and respected member of the community – we never felt even remotely uncomfortable. So why not open your mind, and face your fears and prejudices, to experience a new dawn in the innercity and contribute towards positive change at the same time!
Dlala Nje: www.dlalanje.org