Jo’burg and I have always had a strange relationship. In the weirdest ways, I’ve learnt to love the inner city, daring to go into Braamfontein and Newtown when my friends tended to cringe at the idea when I was a student. At times, the city has made it difficult for me to love, and at others, it feels like a first love so desperate that I don’t want to let its loveliness out of my sight.
As a traveller, I also think Jo’burg is seriously underrated. Besides the incredible buildings, the parties, the bands and everything else going on in our urban paradise, it’s actually quite an attractive city. We have trees in excess, heritage buildings exquisitely preserved and the best collection of people that a traveller could wish for.
When a friend of mine moved into the infamous Ponte Building all I could think was ‘he has lost his mind’, because truthfully as much as I love the inner city, I don’t think my comfort range extends that far just yet. I like my suburban conveniences more than I currently dislike the pretense of the suburbs, neatly put.
Visiting Nick for the first time at Ponte was quite a trip. The parking lot is sketchy, I’m not going to sugarcoat that. When you’re up the first flight of stairs and standing outside Dlala Nje however, it’s a whole other world. This part of the city is relatively untouched in terms of new builds, so the buildings drag you back into the 70s while juxtaposed against a group of teens wearing what I would imagine one would class as ‘swag’.
Dlala Nje, or ‘just play’, is a community centre for the kids of what is now called Ponte City. Nick and his friend Mike (who we shall call Loopy as that’s what he’s actually known as) moved in and saw the need for a space where the hundreds of kids in the building could go to play, learn and just generally be kids. Playing on the concrete slabs outside has its limits for mental stimulation I can assure you, so I get what they saw in their vision. The centre itself is a great space filled with colourful graffiti murals, pieces of artwork from kids and local artists too, computers, a foosball table and a few other bits and pieces.
The idea behind the centre really is to make it sustainable through offering classes and activities to the kids at a small cost, and running walking tours of Ponte itself and the surrounding area of Hillbrow to bring in extra cash. This isn’t another charity case. This is two guys trying to create something that works towards community upliftment; it’s not about relying on government grants or poverty pleas to keep the doors open. The idea is beautiful really, and I do believe it sustainable, but I also believe that the idea is a long way from being at its peak.
I’ve had the chance to go on two walks, with both Nick and Loopy. While the story is the same, it’s worth catching the walk with both as they both have different anecdotes to add to the mix. Loopy loves to throw in the occasional ‘fuck’ and his charm lies in his disregard for protocol, while Nick tells the story as the journalist he is, throwing in seedy tidbits that he’s picked up from people he’s met who share a history with the building and making girls swoon with his fluent Zulu.
The walk through the building in itself is fascinating, the never-ending spiral of the core is great for a photo opportunity and a chance to see how little of the rumour of this place is true. Seeing the view from Nick and Loopy’s apartments is pretty epic and helps you fully understand why this building has such a looming presence over Jozi, you’re way up in the clouds and the wind can sound scary up there, trust me.
Once you leave the building and head into Hillbrow central, the walk takes on a whole new flavor. It’s exciting to be in a part of the city I’ve been warned about my entire life, meeting people and hearing the stories of the place, but it’s also a little scary and the reality of its problems aren’t coated in candy floss and tucked away like some cities.
As you wind your way down busy streets, remember to take the time to greet everybody and near the end when you stop at the market, spend some money on the fruit and veg. It’s perfectly good for you and your money will go much further spent in this community than at Pick ‘n Pay. Also, the tour ends with beer, and that’s a sole reason in itself to go.
If you’re keen to go on a tour with Dlala Nje, then here are a few tips to keep in mind:
- Wear comfortable shoes, the walk is pretty far
- Carry some water, or better yet, buy some along the way
- The tour can take up most of your morning, try not to rush through it
- It’s safe enough to carry your phone or camera, but rather just take a small bag or none at all
- Ask before you take pictures of people
- It doesn’t hurt to take along a toy or book for the centre if you have spare
- Poke Nick until he tells you some dodgy tales of the building
Book your tour online at Dlala Nje.