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How Africa's most dangerous skyscraper became a popular tourist attraction

The turning point came with the Football World Cup: “Africa's most dangerous high-rise” is becoming a tourist attraction for Germans

The circular Ponte Tower rises like a lighthouse in misery from Johannesburg's high-rise backdrop. For many South Africans, it is considered a no-go area in which the crime thrives. Tourists, on the other hand, discover it as a hip destination – the Federal President has also been there.

Dangerous, chaotic, littered and neglected: Johannesburg's Ponte Tower was long considered a kind of "gangster paradise", supposedly the most dangerous high-rise building in Africa. An almost apocalyptic place where the German author Norman Ohler once settled Nigeria's drug mafia in his book "City of Gold".

After a complete renovation, it is now becoming a popular tourist attraction in the former gold mining town of Johannesburg. Even Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier was here at the end of 2018 and enjoyed the breathtaking view there.

"Almost 95 percent of our visitors are tourists"

"Almost 95 percent of our visitors are tourists, many of them from Germany, France or the USA," says Gilbert Mwapé, who leads the visitors around. South Africans are rather rare, says the Congolese native and says: "We are still working on prejudices."

From the 52nd floor, the view sweeps far over to the Sandton suburb, where, at the turn of the year, Africa's tallest residential building was completed with the 234-meter-high Leonardo Tower. It is a kind of counter-design to the Ponte Tower: Johannesburg's financial world built its new high-rise backdrop there after the end of apartheid.

Once a vertical slum on 54 floors

The circular Ponte Tower, which opened in 1975 and is 173 meters high, can no longer keep up. Today it stands more for the changing history of the Cape State. As a landmark that can be seen from afar, it looks like a lighthouse in the concrete misery of the Hillbrow district, which was very popular during apartheid times, and which became the center of a new lawlessness in which chaos, dirt and violence still flourish.

Ponte Tower – that was initially a small town with swimming pools, restaurants and boutiques for a white elite. But during apartheid times, the building turned into a vertical slum on 54 floors. The garbage was sometimes stacked up several floors in the hollow interior.

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Unscrupulous gangsters had the block of flats under control, which had almost everything from sex to drugs to weapons. After the fall of apartheid, the building designed for a maximum of 3500 houses up to 10,000 people, who were instructed by so-called slum lords to sleep in the abandoned apartments.

The turning point came with the World Cup

The soccer World Cup ten years ago brought about a turning point and made the round tower a symbol of hope. The garbage was removed, the apartments were renovated and security was drastically tightened. The way inside with scanned fingerprints and security gates is like going into a heavily secured fortress.

The aid organization "Dlala Nje" by the journalist Nickolaus Bauer has had an office in the Ponte Tower for several years and tries to reverse its negative image and at the same time to give orientation to the children and young people. She also organizes tours through the skyscraper. "So far we have had more than 20,000 visitors," estimates Bauer, whose ancestors once emigrated from Austria to South Africa.

Only personal protection prevented Harry and Meghan from visiting

The idea for the skyscraper tours came after filming one of the many films in the skyscraper, in which there was a lively demand.

Although the organization hardly advertises it, these tours are no longer an insider tip. Most of the visitors come from abroad: "Many young people, but also pensioners," explains Bauer and sighs: "Prince Harry and his Meghan actually wanted to come when they visited South Africa – but the South African personal security was too skeptical."

The tower is now even in demand as a party location

Frenchman Damien Régnier is just finishing his first South Africa tour in the Ponte Tower. "We found out about it in our travel guide," he says. Shortly before departure he and his partner Laetitia Oodoomansaib enjoy the farsightedness on the 52nd floor as far as Sandton, which today is considered the most expensive mile in Africa with its shopping centers.

The Ponte Tower, like the once dilapidated but now hip Maboneng district, is profiled as a kind of alternative to Sandton. And for the weekend there are also party guests. "We have a lot of inquiries from companies about how to start the weekend with a sundowner here," says Mwapé.

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til / dpa

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