Friday, 01 March 2013 11:37


A Tall Story


In 1968 the apartheid government, in their infinite wisdom, decided to honour Mr J G Strijdom, a man who had served them well, as Minister of Posts & Telecommunications, and as Prime Minister, by pouring 269 metres of cold concrete power, in his name, right into the middle of inner city Johannesburg - Hillbrow - then the aspiring flatland of a middle-class, predominantly European immigrant community.

It was referred to as the South African Post Office Tower and officially called the J G Strijdom Tower.  I wonder: was this the first spectacular sign of what Achille Mbembe now calls the crisis of imagination in South Africa?


Image and Copyright David Goldblatt, 1968


When he gave me these images to use for the telling of The Tall Story, David Goldblatt told me that he recalls that those who created the monstrosity wanted the tower, a microwave signal facility, to be located at the highest point of Johannesburg, and that they had identified this part of Hillbrow as the highest point above sea-level. Anyone who knows Joburg knows there were higher points, on Linksfield and the surrounding Observatory Ridge. But they didn't care about that. They were staking their claim and drove it, relentlessly, 40 metres into the ground and then almost 300 metres above it, as a sign of their preoccupation with size and ownership of our hearts and the sky.


Image and Copyright David Goldblatt, 1971


Today, if you want to see cranes in the sky in Johannesburg, you must travel North to Sandton Central where the currents and the currency flowed as early as 1976 when the riots against apartheid education in Soweto sparked a national response and a big white fright that gave impetus to property developers to begin building a new 'edge city' away, they thought, from fear, and towards, they hoped, the politics of making extraordinary amounts of money, more than anyone, you would think, could ever wish for. A politics that has prevailed right through apartheid and into the new, improved South Africa.


Image and Copyright David Goldblatt, 1971


My friend and social raconteur Herby Opland, told me he grew up in one of the flats opposite. He said he watched them build it twenty-four hours a day for two years. Until, he said "It stole the sky."


Image and Copyright David Goldblatt, 1971


When he said we have a crisis of imagination in South Africa, the other day at the New Imaginaries Symposium at the Goethe Institute, Achille Mbembe also said, that unless we recognise the crisis and do something about it we are doomed to repeat ourselves.


Image sourced off the web and found, photographer unknowndated 1975, at and used here without permission (though it is sought) and with thanks.



In those days, if you were white and had 20c you could ride the high-speed lift at 6 metres per second to one of the six public floors where there were viewing decks, bars, a fancy grill room, event facilities and this revolving restaurant called Heinrich's where you be wined and dined and violined while looking at the view. I remember going up and looking through a telescope, though the image in my head is in black and white and blurry. For all I know the memory is not true and is only a picture in my head. I do know for certain that soon after it was built, most people called it The Hillbrow Tower and still do.

The public in South Africa was, then, the white public. If you were black you could go up if you worked there, and most likely you had to use the staff lift which I understand was slow in comparison. The public is a difficult notion for power in South Africa. I think it might always have been.

In the 1980s, during one of a series of States of Emergency, when the bombs were going off in the dustbins in Joburg, the government declared the building a National Keypoint and closed the tower to everyone, no matter the race they were running in.


Image and Copyright Johannes Dreyer, February 2013


Under the same draconian apartheid law, the National Keypoint Act, one that also keeps our current President's home, Nkandla, from public view, the building remains closed. I believe this used to be the main entrance door.


Image and Copyright Johannes Dreyer, February 2013


Here I am the other day, just after knocking on this ridiculous door. I think a lot about what is public about this public building. And our sky. Achille Mbembe was speaking to my heart which for twenty, increasingly odd years, has been determined to facilitate a project to use the tower as a canvas for a public arts initiative that will give us, as the late great Sowetan sculptor Ezrom Legae said, "something beautiful to look up to." Instead of this:


Image and Copyright Johannes Dreyer, February 2013


I beg your pardon, I mean this:


Image and Copyright Johannes Dreyer, February 2013


Recently, after knocking my head against the concrete for all these years (yes, I am dented), the corridors of current power turned and have decided they think the idea is amazing. They say we must do it. They share our confidence that the public art project will catalyse an imaginative approach to genuine inner city development in Hillbrow. They have managed to ring-fence a budget for an urban upgrade of the precinct around the tower's circumferance, including funds for the arts within the city's streets. Significantly, they have agreed that we can approach the entire project as a neighbourhood initiative and push the local labour involvement to the max.

This means we won't be creating a piece of jewellery in the sky in the midst of the deriliction and chaos that currently surrounds the tower. It means the least sexy part of the budget has been raised and we are left to seek only brave budget for the tower itself. Together, we envisage a public competition in which families, especially children, are encouraged to imagine what they want their sky to look like, as well as a professional artists design competition, one with a strong technical brief (there are limitations to what we could and should do).


In the meantime, thank goodness for the brilliant photographers who have helped so far - David Goldblatt, Johannes Dreyer and now Nadine Hutton - whose brilliant image and visualiation is here:


Image and Copyright Nadine Hutton, February 2012


I just presented this project at TED2013 in Long Beach, California where I hope to reach the heart of a wealthy person(s) who is feeling sad inside and wondering why. For this purpose wealthy people are defined as:


1. People or organisations with financial resources they find challenging to put to good use.

2. People with less who want to live a full life and be part of The Tall Story.

3. Either or both of the above.


Either way though we seek, people who want to take a risk on the crisis of imagination in South Africa, because it is obvious to them - and us - that reasons for living are staring us in the face.


Who owns your view? And, what is your view?



Watch this space for more current and future musings on A Tall Story or email This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it if you want to play or pay or both.









Last modified on Tuesday, 07 May 2013 16:09
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