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  • In South Africa, Ponte means something. It’s a word steeped in history, and the working definition is a slum, a ghetto. Ponte means danger.

    I don’t know what Ponte actually means-- likely it was simply someone’s name. Now, it is the name of the Vodacom building, the North Star of the Johannesburg skyline. For those of us who live in the suburbs, the tower is always there at our backs to tell us which way is home.

    I moved to Johannesburg about 30 years too late for the notorious parties of the late 70s and early 80s that took place immediately after Ponte opened. Not too long into the 80s the building’s reputation deteriorated due to crime, and with it, the building itself. Rumor has it that when crews came to clean up the building in the early 2000s, the garbage in the center courtyard was stories high.

    As the tallest residential building on the African continent it is home to the best views of the city. Johannesburg is not a skyline city. Without the spindly Carlton Center and cylindrical Ponte City it would be but a spread of unidentifiable concrete.

    For me, Ponte would have been just a building in the sky were it not for a fellow journalist I befriended soon after arriving. He invited me to his fifty-something floor apartment for dinner one Sunday. My roommates were aghast—“you’re driving to Ponte now, alone?” they asked me. I was only beginning to understand the vocabulary of South Africa, and without the context for the history of Jo’burg, I didn’t have the sense of dread that many of my friends did.

    So I drove to Ponte, that night and others, and I waited for the rickety elevator and I rode that elevator toward the sky, and I ate dinner with a friend, overlooking the lights of a city with a bark far worse than its bite.
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