Ponte City Tower, the brutalist cylindrical high-rise that towers over Johannesburg, has gone from a symbol of white opulence to something far more complicated. It’s gone through very hard times, but also it’s hopeful. It’s a microcosm of the South Africa’s history, but it’s also a place that moves on. And to this day, this strange concrete tube at the center of Johannesburg’s skyline continues to play the same role for newcomers that it has for decades: serving as the diverse entry point to the city.
This is an unofficial transcript meant for reference. Accuracy is not guaranteed.
This is ninety nine percent, invisible, I'm roman Mars, back in the nineteen eighties when Louis months was growing up in Johannesburg, South Africa, his family. Go outside together without breaking the law. My father would never walk next to my mom my mother would always walk behind him wherever they went Louis was too young to understand why his parents couldn't be seen together in Johannesburg or, as everyone calls it. Joe Burke Louis saw a world that treated them differently. Got second didn't. Have a medical aid should go to a hospital out of the city where as we did you go to what is the job of gin, which was around the corner. From me, restate healthcare like, Almost everything else in South Africa was decided by race, Louise, It was white. His mother was colored the local term for people of mixed race, they ve got married in neighbouring Swaziland, but back their marriage, was against the law. When Larry was a kid, only white P,
people can move freely in cities here, live in the nicest neighborhoods or access the best hospitals, schools and jobs. This This dash inwardly he's a south african journalist, black people, on the other hand, lived in crowded outskirts, which were far from just about Breathing you'd want in a city there Trees, ruling white minority called the system. Apartheid which literally translated to separateness, Our policy is one which is poor. Afrikaans word about it. That is being misunderstood so often at could just as easily as much better be described. As a policy of good neighborliness, a party to leaders like Hendrick for foot. Claimed that segregated cities were better for everyone and apartheid. The strictly enforced police would put
neighborhoods to make sure that white people and black people went living together. If you Dinner House, but come knocking, you do, but the apart, I'd system was never air tight and people found creative ways to slip through the cracks. If you in a high rise building with five six hundred flats You know they weren't going to go through each and every fled to come and look for any legal persons. You could easily disappear into flatland. And over the years many families like Louise disappeared into one high rise apartment building, in particular a towel, Called party city, I don't think, has anybody in johannesburg- No, but you might not have been Everybody knows upon tee. Even looking at Joe Wegg Skyline. Now It is hard to miss first of all, its fifty four stories toll that makes up the tallest apart,
building on the entire african continent and it certain It makes a taller than any of the other buildings around its also completely circular if you were to from above you'd see, that the centres justice open hollow coal design, to allow natural ventilation and to let him daylight. The building looks like a massive, concrete toilet. It's also This glowing red billboard for a cell phone company wrapping around the top. Like a crown, So wherever you are in the city, you can either responded panties, larger than life architecture also comes with a larger than life reputation for many, the building, symbolizes Johannesburg, because over the past four decades and sport tunes have basically married the city's because of its scale because of its size, its chequered history. It's tough less! It's rough, less talks
They a condition that Melinda Silverman an architect. The historian, who studies Intercity Johannesburg. It has spoken to a city which goes very rapidly through cycles of decline and prosperity in decline and press. Tea party has always been kind of a vertical waiting room for admission to south african society, but it's also in a laboratory play where the city seems to try out new versions of itself years before he became a hideaway for interracial families like Louis. It attracted a much different clientele understand who first lived there and why we have to go back the nineteenth sixties. Before party was even built at the thought the sixties d upon Its system had been firmly in place for more than ten years and South Africa The economy was arising star in the world. It has just given
to a new currency, the rand, which was already stronger than the. U S dollars the countries success was largely driven by its access to cheap labour and its rich girl deposits. We were the major called producers in the world and the feeling was that if we could continue being the magical produces and keep an increasing erased of black population under control, the future was brilliant unless, of course, you are black over the next decade, foreign invest. Events in South Africa doubled but skilled work. Because we're in short supply, because the Governor TED denied the majority of the population a decent education. It had to fill the gap by road meeting single white men from all over Europe. The country's wide population increase the fifty percent between nineteen sixty three and ninety seven to these,
you come and saw a strong economy and an idyllic life for white people with a level of privilege that you probably couldn't have found in any part of the world. If you were a middle class person living in an apartment, in England, in Amerika, you probably have had to Watch your own dishes and major debates. Whereas if you were a middle class person living in South Africa, you probably had at least two people doing that stuff for you, and there was one square mile of ethnicity, Joe beg the future cited and he Tower there was a regular landing place for these european migrants in the nineteen Sixtys and Seventys. It was home, the cities most famous bars and law, music joins. A place a specialty stores sold french magazines, italian shoes and American Rock and roll it had
shiny, vibrant bohemian edge that people compared to New York's Greenwich, fully your blending Soho district, but it was also place that almost like it wasn't in South Africa at all. Like most of you bergs nice neighborhoods this era, it was zone exclusively for white people like South Africans could work but unless they were living servants they had to be out by nightfall each evening developers hardly satisfied. The demand for high rise apartments in this part of the city, buildings kept began taller, but that wasn't the only thing fuelling the development of Joe bags. New high rises, the other so driver, I would say, was logical and it was the six ordinary scenes of white tat? This was a great kind these good times this was white people wanting to make them more
Can the landscape, South Africa Margin progressive impressive place. Course. South Africa is neither truly modern nor progressive at this time It was. The era of african independence across the continent old colonies were falling like dominoes and by the mid nineties, sixties. Most african countries were black rule. This decade is a decade of african independence. The people of Gonna see their freedom as more than a local tribes are the only all african Dominion and the British Commonwealth in the new Africa one more independent country. Those data, if you can too much of the World South Africa's white government was starting to look pretty backwards and it didn't help that the country recently thrown several of the anti apartheid movements. Most powerful leaders in jail for life include.
A young lawyer named Nelson Mandela, but Joe bugs new buildings kept getting bigger and more audacious. Almost as if the gas, It was trying to prove its worldliness, but the Earl nineteen, seventeen huge skyscrapers were sprouting up across central Joe Borg, including panty panties. Doubts of being a tower around town. That's architect, Rodney Cross Cough was one. The three architects who designed the building so now imagine a game tool tower fifty four stories tool. With a whole down the middle. The whole outside of it is made out of rule country, unpainted unpolished and then at its first it's really anchorage so beautifully doubt. People on spoke Tom Seated, looks a bit like away Kay, but not everyone agreed. The building was beautiful. Some thought it looked like an ugly brutalized wedding cake.
Straight after it was built, it was voted. Is the sick? ugliest building and jams not even the honour of being the first ugliest, the second Douglas we can even the second August second ugliest or not party tower- was Popular resident, started, moving and even before the building was finished Lord by its furnished flats and panoramic city views all the units in panties both inward and outward with entrances. Roy been around the central core from one side of the building you could see the entire downtown skyline from another did catch entire rugby matches at the city's main stadium by the Time Party was pleaded in nineteen. Seventy five four hundred and seventy floods were in I demand all sorts of analogies about just gonna use as much electricity, this is as every small town and must have more people in every small town in South Africa, the developer side,
way to on panties on four, they built an elaborate shopping mall in schemed about putting a miniature ski slope in the open core. So we had restaurants, Butscha Baker, Candlestick Mica, designed in that space, and we really did see it s. It'll city, but even his party's new residents were moving in the city. Around them was cracking apart at this time to Hezbollah, in city was almost exclusively white box. South Africans, on the edges of the city in community is called townships in twelve miles, South West, upon tee in a black township called Soweto anew, against apartheid had begun wiping out as a black protest against being taught in Africa language they re it is useless and lack of their masters is now coming. Station of urban black prostration protest, escalated. And on June, sixteen nineteen. Seventy six police kill
at least two hundred and seventy six high school students. During a peaceful protest march, images of the massacre quickly circled the globe, inspiring renewed calls to end white rule as appalling. Oh prizes over this black community so rises african anticipation, your mouse. They seem minority white regimes falling or coming under greater pressure. This way to uprising also send Joe Bugs urban planning dreams crashing. The June sixty that rising and the international sanctions and boycotts that followed, helped destroyed the country's economy. It became differ, go to keep all the newly constructed high rises, fully occupied It wasn't just the crushing economy. Like many citys around the world to his work had started to experience a wave of suburbanization with white people coming out of the inner city in into new suburbs me,
Many black South Africans were fleeing from the poverty and violence of the townships for them the inner city It was an alluring option, especially panty physical, a flat say, would have been more affordable, relic good location the ability to be really near to the workplace is it still existed in the inner city. In the nineteen eighteen, it was still illegal for black, indian and colored South Africans to live in these areas, but this scheme and density of the inner city made the laws harder to enforce. I think my teeth, it really high density living offered, which meant that people could have been less conspicuous if a relief. You go. There was an italian gentlemen. Had black lady S, wife, as a french gentlemen who else interracial marriage, he's talking about some of Smet's again, whose pair
its in an illegal interracial marriage he's talking but some of the other families who also lived in poverty in the early nineteen eighties the lines between black and white began to blow in buildings like panty, so that It's called a new term for the phenomenon they called it greying for Louise Grey areas were an escape. Poverty was a play. For his family could be together freely without fear of arrest or public scrutiny, Do you remember seeing any balding raids or anything like that? You're almost had protection being in the flat land? Now because there were so many places going to a flat you're going to reflecting they weren't going to close down a whole block of flats at once, but that didn't in that they went stresses associated with life in panty police.
Regularly set up checkpoints to monitor, who came in and out of black and white areas of the city when, please, family went through these checkpoints his mother would sit in the back seat, posing as the families made she'd have to sit in the back. Claim as simple as that she sat in the back black and color people who are legally settled in the inner city also stressed, a hard bargain landlords would turn a blind eye to the color of the residents. Skin and rest This would have to turn a blind eye to rising rents and poor maintenance. They status of illegality. I think, with absolutely critical to the decline, because the minute you an illegal tenant, you have no protection of the law, so rates can be rammed then, if rain so wrapped up. How do you have fought the red he suddenly it and then the rain scrap, even
and then you, sadly, even more inside panty apartment, started to get crowded and grimy plumbing broke down trash big. To fill the open corps in the center of the building like an oversized concrete garbage. Can there were job piles of old mattresses, furniture and rubble, the venture the legend spread that the trash had piled up so high. It reads the fourteenth story of the building pretty soon banks, star issuing home loans in the area and white people kept moving out by the late. Ninety, the eighties what you thought of and the surrounding neighbourhood called Hell Brow, probably depended a lot on. The color of your skin whacked, suburban eyes would have been terrified to guide tail, and here I would have been a place of fear and blocked darkness, whereas I think for
people in the town, ships that is mostly blackened coloured people to believe in this great beacon of opportunity. Your way into the city, your way of experiencing urban, and all these changes in the inner city were foreshadowing a much bigger change. There was about to happen to all of South Africa on February. Second, ninety. Ninety, then President S, W declared went in for to parliament, to give his annual stated the nation speech today. Able to announce far reaching decisions, not just for three decades the apartheid government had banned many anti apartheid political parties there. Their members and sometimes forced them into exile. No one was expected the president to announce the end of that practice. He shocked nearly everyone, The prohibition of the African National Congress, the ban, Africanus Congress, the South African Communist Party, is being listened to
the governor, thus taken. A firm decision to release Mr Mandela unconditional. This speech would in the course of south african history a week later, for twenty seven years in prison for treason, Nelson Mandela was free, and after decades of struggle, the and of apartheid, was suddenly imminent, from all over the world exiled political activists began to return. They wanted to help a dramatically changing country. I think it was ninety ninety one, the year that we came that's Lynn, swim or hardly an anti I'll take activists to fled South Africa in nineteen eighty one like any other returning exiles lens wait took advance. The judge, the centrality and cheap rent of the inner city and move. Into a friend's twenty fourth floor apartment in panty tower panty, and the surrounding neighbourhood work,
still run down, but and so I was surprised to find the area felt a lot like the west in the cities where he had spent the past decade the music was happening. Twenty four hour food outlets that we had not seen anywhere else where there are delays were on throughout was like he'll be in New York. Some of the old european cafes from the fifties and Sixtys were still standing serving late night espressos antics nettles, but alongside them were new shops and night clubs putting one run by the famous south african trumpeter, Hugh Massacre who had recently returned from his own exile. So You wanted to find anybody around whenever stable growth
Instead, more heartily says they stay up all night. Talking about the future of any country, he is, and brandy, Tumblr Mbeki, who would later became president of South Africa, lived in the building next to party at the time of the first demo, by the collection and ninety. Ninety four one observe accounted fifty of the new members of parliament staying in anti and the surrounding area, but the end. The report I didn't represent the end of panty towers evolution, the transit the black rule in South Africa also meant the end of the country's tightly closed borders, which for decades have cracked open. Only for white immigrants and a few laborers from the surrounding countries. Throughout nineteen nineties immigrants began arriving in Johannesburg by the tens of thousands and me Many of them landed in plenty, by way of firms, and that's footage,
a film called Africa's shafted by Ingrid Martins. He formed entirely insider panties, elevators nets, It sounds like their doors opening and shutting in the background overtime. Martens film people from dozens of countries behind in the building, mostly in crowded. Parliament's shared by several families, some had come for work. Others were fleeing political persecution. But they shared one important experience with pass residence for them. Party was applied, you could start over. I just, I give my life boy delighted for the ears panty, like South Africa itself, continued to have its ups and downs by the late. Ninety, the buildings physical decline, made it a haven for criminals who mood into the building and ran it like a vertical slum but panties you still remains in place of big ideas and wild experimentation. Develop has made us
you attempts to gentrified the tower and turn it into luxury apartments again, but timidly. Those plans didn't really work. Panties It remains a lot like it was at the end of a party at home, for recently arrived immigrants from all over Africa. The a recent Saturday morning, a pair of kids, are battling it out on a freeze, bull table at the base upon tee city. You can tell us this gave rise just down the road people a crowding round a wall that's covered in hundreds of scribbled slip of paper in seven different languages, summertime one was stuck over all the ones with what's a bubble gum, it's a sort of analogue Craigs List, a message board. Newcomers searching for accommodation in poverty and around his brow, looking for a date you or rent a bedroom, more involved
one which and its metropolitan The list goes on safety through the messages to demand, feels limitless legs. Africa itself Party has from a symbol of white opulence to something far more complicated. It's hopeful and it's a little rough around the edges. It's a microcosm, The country's history. That's also place that moves on A strange, concrete tube at the centre of Joe Borg. Skyline continues to the same role for newcomers that it always has it that face the teeth the same. You know they might have been chicks, evacuees, portuguese, Italian, The Danes Slovenia Wrong then, but now the
camera rains and garlands Nigerians, Zimbabweans, Bob wins it Voice- has been your entry point into the city so did panty towers in vaguely familiar. But you can't quite put your finger on. It is because probably site or a tower inspired by in a movie, if a little epilogue about,
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And has done a lot of reporting on the place and one of things about poverty. Is pretty interesting. Is that, even though you may not know its actual his three or even no its name. You might feel it's kind of familiar as a place, and the reason is because it has been depicted in movies in different ways, and I asked riot autonomy but the point is actually made quite a number of cameos in film and other popular culture, most freeze. We in the last resident evil film as a of of a zombie apocalypse was in districts. Nine. A few years ago and the robot becoming human story chappie a couple years ago, two They became you in a number of other films to, interestingly, not always films that are set in Johannesburg, but always films that are set in places where there's something either kind of apocalyptic or just you know, sort of greedy and met Are you going on right? It has that.
I was not necessarily a Johannesburg vibe, it's the it's, the vibe of apocalypse that it gives off yeah Toto But you know you have to sort of wonder where, where did filmmakers get the idea? That country would be the scene for the apocalypse and its rooted in the kind of stereotypes that people have about the inner city of two Hennis Borg, which are and in turn you know rooted, and I think the fears that a lot of south Africans have about the city in and what its become since the end of apartheid. And is also a number of films where its not necessarily party or its on us, the Johannesburg, but there's this the idea of a tower. That's it did and of itself that is its own sort of dark place. Dread, for example, reminds me of the way that people talk about. The city is well yeah. Exactly in an interesting thing about dread is that the movie itself was filmed in Johannesburg and they didn't use panty as set. But then there is a sort of massive apartment tower
in them in the film a two hundred story, building that has a high open court? So you have to wonder you, Sir, where they got that idea right why you think it so evocative why you think it's used in this way? Are you trouble. In any way. Or are you kind of pleased when you see it depicted in? I think Way, it's come to be as a combination of two things and the one is that poverty has become this sort of metaphor for Johannesburg and for South Africa, and this kind of, size thing on the skyline onto which people can protect their fears about the city and its becoming- and I think filmmakers have just picked up on that and then the other thing is: is the aesthetic of the building is just pretty why I mean it's just the sort of fifty stories of raw brutal, concrete. It's got these kind of expense oozed, concrete ribs on the inside the chorus. Just this crazy rocky space you stare up in there's. Like fifty store,
Of windows staring back down at you in this sort of shaft of light, it's almost otherworldly, so it has this very cinematic quality to its. But I, I do find it do. You know the way it appears in popular culture troubling, because I think it sort of freezes in time. This very negative vision of Johannesburg in this vision of poverty. In plenty and Johannesburg both have changed and changing you know, sort of extraordinarily quickly. I thinking, maybe you could any city. But I think Johannesburg is a particularly unsentimentalism kind of city and its cause it was started as this sort of mining town who has it's always been a place where people just came to make money to get rich to get ahead. People have this kind. Sentimental attachment to home in Johannesburg and enter the city sort of moves on and and forgets very quickly, but then, when you have the arbiters of of popular culture. When you have filmmakers come in and create this or you know, sort of reinforced this vision of Joe Burglar panty. As these really do,
Injuries, greedy crime, rigid spaces, a kind of freezes that image in people's minds and that sort of what they think the city is like. Whether or not it still is an you live, For a time right, I did. I lived there for about a year coinciding with the coming of the resident evil movie. So I was too into a number of days of the zombie apocalypse. And literally zombies wandering through my building screaming which seemed assertive logical and point to this country metaphor my worth if panty, sort of represents the sort of chaotic wade Dennis burgers evolved since the end of a part, and in this the disarray of the city in that period I mean represents disarray more than a zombie apocalypse. Ninety nine percent, invisible was produces week by Ryan Brown. Induction moodily, with Delaney Hall Mix in TAT direction by Sharif use of music
by Sean Real, with an additional song by Jenny, calmly, Jesus John knew felt and a query foresee producer, is Katy Mingle, Kirk Colson is the digital director, but we at an to sense, including Emmett, Fitzgerald, a reach often turn and me roman Mars. Special. Thanks to Ingrid Martens, who allowed us to use audio from her film Africa shafted. We are project one point: seven K, L W in San Francisco and produced on radio row in beautiful, downtown, Oakland. California. Ninety nine percent of, as well as part of radio Tokyo from PR acts, a collective of the best most innovative shows in all upon casting where's. Where did the Knight Foundation in COIN carrying listeners? Just like you, You can find any nine percent of visible and during discussions about the show on Facebook, you can tweeted me at Roman Mars and the show at ninety nine p. I Oracle on Instagram Tumblr and read it to you, but if you want cool article by heard about fictional megacities in science fiction, you
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Transcript generated on 2020-02-14.