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"We are just two guys with a dream"

New beginnings at Ponte tower

Nick Bauer and Mike Luptak live in Ponte, take groups on tours of Hillbrow and run Dlala Nje, a community centre for the 800 children who live in the building. They told us their story, and Jono Wood documented it in photos.

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Nick Bauer and Mike Luptak. Photo by Jono Wood

- How did you guys find yourself in Ponte?

Nick: I'm a journalist by trade and I came looking for the story that everybody hears about Ponte. Drugs, sex, prostitution, crime — the underworld. If you grew up in Johannesburg you would never have heard anything good about this building. I came here and found something completely different. People are just trying to get by. A community that is working against a lot of negativity and a lot of challenges. To be quite honest, I decided to move in for shits and giggles. I was going to stay for 6 months, and it's been a year for us now. I moved in with another journalist next door, Malcolm. And Mike moved in two weeks later.

- Do you like living here?

Nick: Ponte is very different to the rest of Hillbrow. It's a lot safer, and security is much tighter.

Mike: Nothing has ever happened here. Touch wood, I haven't had a single bad experience no have I felt threatened. You see the biometric system and yes — it's a great security feature, but at the same time, if people don't pay up, their fingerprints are deleted. So they are essentially kicked out of the building, just like that. It might be a harsh way of dealing with them but from a business perspective it makes absolutely perfect sense. The owners need to generate a return from the building — they renovated the whole thing. The top floors they've made really nice, with porcelain tiles and chandeliers. They started on the first floor and ended on the 54th, quite recently.

  • Edit 06 Ponte tower. Photo by Jono Wood
  • Edit 07 Kids at Ponte tower. Photo by Jono Wood

— How did you come up with the idea of Dlala Nje?

Nick: There is a whole bunch of retail spaces at the bottom. We had the original idea of opening up a pie shop to make money — very easy. But then we thought "What will we actually be doing besides making people fat? Let's try something different". That's when the idea of a game shop came up. At any given point in time Ponte has from 800 to a 1000 children around. And there has never been a place to play which has disastrous consequences. These kids are running through a building that is still dangerous in many ways — never mind the height, it's very old and the electric wiring is bad. Every couple of months you hear about an accident. So we created a place for the kids to play, though it's not solely about that. Dlala Nje is about changing the perception of this building in the eyes of the rest of Johannesburg. That's why we have tours every weekend and have special events in the surrounding areas. It's about changing the way people not only view Ponte but they way people view the inner city. There is a massive metamorphosis going on. Everyone is coming back to the city. It's great. It's awesome. But it's not just coming back to the city — it's about bringing something different into it. It's not like people are arriving here and integrating themselves. They're changing it. Whether that's good or bad is debatable. I think there are good and bad aspects to it. I'm not saying that what we are doing is right. But gentrification is not the way to save Johannesburg. Maybe only a part of it.

"There is a massive metamorphosis going on. Everyone is coming back to the city"

— What do you think Johannesburg should be saved from? 

Nick: Maybe "save" is the wrong word. 'Insuring a future' is better. For a long time Joburg has been seen as a place only fit for the desperate and needy. People with no other place to go would live in the inner city. It just wasn't popular and it wasn't safe in many ways. So it's not a question of saving the city. It's a question of providing a sustainable future for it. Unfortunately at the end of the day, a sustainable future depends on how much money and effort is put into the city, At the moment there is a lot money, but not much effort shaping what is to be done with it. Mike, help me if I'm talking shit? 

Mike: No, you're 100% right. But you know what the problem is? I think there needs to be a fine distinction between people finding opportunities here and people creating an integrated society. A lot of people would come here for the money: throw parties in the city, for example. Things like that are happening more and more often now because the city is becoming a cool place to be, and a cool place to be seen. This is a brilliant thing for a lot of what's happening here. But is it sustainable? Is it going to create some kind of livelihood for the next 20 years? We don't know. But I think it's definitely a start. I think we may not have the same monetary aspect that other people have when they come here. We just saw an amazing opportunity to create a kind of an integrated society, and as far as we concerned, in a very small way we've already done a part of that. For instance, there is Desire, an artist that is currently showcasing his works at Dlala Nje. He was staying here on his own, he was going to a design school, and we realized that he had the most amazing artistic potential. So we linked him up with the Inthuba Arts Fund that provided funding for him to be an artist and to live like one. Also, we do a lot of things for the kids and a lot of times it's at no expense to them, such as the movies we screen and the workshops we hold.

  • Edit 01 Nick is playing with the kids at Ponte. Photo by Jono Wood
  • Edit 05 Game time at Dlala Nje shop. Photo by Jono Wood.

— Are you planning to make Dlala Nje profitable?

Nick: In the long run — yes, but the goal now is just to make it sustainable. We don't know if we're entrepreneurs with philanthropic tendencies or philanthropists with entrepreneurial tendencies. We didn't get into it to make money but later on we won't punch ourselves in the faces if we do.

Mike: What we both strongly believe is the fact that there is a business model out there that allows us to cater for growth within communities and still make money at the same time. At the moment the whole business is independently funded by us, we haven't looked for support from anyone. At times it's a very difficult thing to do — I mean, we've got to dig deep sometimes, you know, to keep this thing alive. We've created jobs, and those people need salaries at the end of the week.

Nick: It's important to know that for far too long in South Africa the "haves" — people who have things — were much more keen to go from 10 to 11 rather than help a stranger to go from 1 to 2. And that's what we are trying to change. At the same time, we haven't asked for funding because we don't want funding. We want people with skills on board. We want to become a part of what is happening here and thereby change the way people view this place.  

"We don't know if we're entrepreneurs with philanthropic tendencies or philanthropists with entrepreneurial tendencies"

— How do you change the perception of safety? Is it safe to go do your groceries in the neighborhood? What to do with trash on the streets? 

Mike: It's circumstantial — people have been brought up in a certain way. When I had a problem with math at school, who did I go to? My dad, my teacher, my friends — I had an influx of resources that I could go to at any time. But if you come from an underprivileged or previously disadvantaged background, and you have a math problem, your dad being a gardener — where do you go? So I think the problems in Hillbrow, in Yeoville, in Berea — all these inner-city "slums", as people like to call them — a lot of those problems are just something that happened over time, and it's not going to change by us bringing a van in and cleaning the trash every day. It's an inherited educational thing that has to come from within. A lot of the times it's dirty, and it's messy, there is crime and there are prostitutes, but it's changing. That's what we want to emphasize. 

— So you want to educate the new generation and show them another way of living? 

Nick: Yes, exactly. But in my opinion the only way you can do that is to get the people who have things now to share. I'm not talking about sharing money but helping other people develop themselves.

  • Edit 04 Photo by Jono Wood.
  • Edit 02 Photo by Jono Wood.
  • Edit 03 Photo by Jono Wood.

— How do you see it in practice?

Mike: I can give you a very simple example. The Vodacom signal is very, very bad here — it's terrible. At the same time there is a massive advertising sign on top of the building that costs the company thousands of rand a month. How can this be? How can there be a building which houses 3000 people and leave them without a cellphone signal? The kind of initiatives we're after is people like Vodacom coming here and saying: "Why don't we empower this building by boosting the signal and giving free wi-fi to these people?" One could go on the craziest marketing campaign and generate so much exposure by the good being done in the under resourced areas and giving them a tool to educate themselves. These are the kinds of things we're after. We're not asking people to way our rent or even to give us money so that Nick and I would be able to run this business full time. We're looking for people to take what they're good at and bring that to the party.

Nick: Another example. Say, there's a photographer. He comes one Saturday afternoon and teaches the kids about photography. He takes them around the city, shows them the tricks. Fair enough: it's not going to change overnight if someone comes and does just one class. But then another photographer comes along and does the same thing. This type of thing helps people to develop. We want to try and become the agents that allow that to happen.  

— Is there a demand in the local community for that?

Mike: To be honest, I don't think a lot of them know the potential and opportunity out there for themselves. Just try and picture living like that for one day. When your parents are struggling to put food on the table. Your dad is drunk and your mom is a prostitute. Where do you look for opportunity? Where do you look for inspiration? There is a huge element of us bringing those opportunities. We are just two guys with a massive dream.

— What is that dream?

Nick: When we thought about opening Dlala Nje, we dreamed about having a place in which you could bring people together and not be judged by the color of your skin, not judged by your background, by what you do, by how much money you have — you're only determined by your character, by who you are. That's our goal. To make South-Africans realize that we can get along and help each other. Let's be honest — we sound like ideological hippies, but this is what we truly wish for.

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Author Jono Wood
Date 26 June 2013

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