As mass protests against apartheid built in intensity and violence on the city’s fringes, many black South Africans who could afford to began illegally migrating into the inner city. There, they found landlords all too willing to look the other way on the legality of the arrangement—as long as the new tenants didn’t complain about details like massive rent hikes. To make up for the high prices, residents packed in, sometimes two or three families to a single flat. Meanwhile, without care from management, their buildings decayed briskly. Within a decade, most white residents had fled. By the 1990s, as Nelson Mandela walked free from prison and millions of black South Africans lined up to vote for the first time, Ponte hovered above a neighborhood gently described as “transitioning.”
There was always another side to Ponte, however. Even in its darkest days, the place was mostly prosaic, a large apartment building that was home to a decidedly undramatic cast of families, students, and migrants toiling on the edges of South Africa’s middle class. Although that might have been the dominant experience of residents, it’s a side of Ponte’s history that rarely made it into newspapers—and it certainly didn’t touch the kind of popular imagination that would soon turn Ponte into an international film set.
There’s a simple reason for that, says Zahira Asmal, a South African researcher who writes frequently about the country’s cities. “Throughout Johannesburg’s history, it’s been as if the inner city doesn’t exist when white people—specifically white men—aren’t looking at it, as though its life and legitimacy depend on people in power paying attention,” she says. What outsiders saw when they did turn to look at Ponte and the inner city—now mostly black and increasingly international—was their own fears about what Johannesburg had become, she says.
That has held for filmmakers too, says Alexandra Parker, the author of Urban Film and Everyday Practice: Bridging Divisions in Johannesburg. “Most filmmakers in South Africa are still white, so films do often track white perception of the inner city, not necessarily the personal experiences of people living there,” she says. And international filmmakers have largely picked up on that same imagery to cast the city as a seedy underworld. In recent years, meanwhile, Johannesburg’s actual inner city has changed rapidly, a combination of intensive efforts at gentrification, old-fashioned clean-ups, and better policing. But “the city changes faster than its films,” Parker says.
Still, the long half-life of perception—and the way film seems to freeze in amber a version of the city many are trying hard to forget—means that Johannesburg still struggles to recast its image. “Every time I start a tour I ask people what they know about the inner city, and every time, the answer is the same—this place is full of crime, drugs, prostitution,” says Franck Leya, who runs tours of Ponte and the inner city with a company called Dlala Nje. “And when I ask how people know that, they tell me it’s what they’ve seen [in movies and television].” Ponte in particular seems to be a mythological site for many of his visitors. And when they recount what they know of the building’s history to him, Leya says their choppy horror stories often seem to blur together real-life details with cinematic fictions.