Perched on a hill, the highest residential building in South Africa seems even taller than its 54 stories as it looms over one of the most feared neighbourhoods in Johannesburg.

Yet the Ponte City tower began life as one of Johannesburg's most desirable residences before it spectacularly fell from grace, becoming a notorious shanty town in the sky, lorded over by gangsters where anything illegal was available at the right price.

If you think the exterior is menacing, it's nothing on the building's core, which once housed a pile of rubbish which rose 14 storeys high.

"Parents would tell their children, if you're a failure in life, this is the building you end up in," says local guide James Mangunza.

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James works for Dlala Nje, a local community group which provides tours of the Ponte tower and the surrounding suburb of Hillbrow.

Like the rest of central Johannesburg, once shunned by many of the city's inhabitants and tourists alike, the tower is trying to turn its image around.

Used to be affluent

It was all so different in 1975 when the doors to Ponte first opened.

"When it was built it was for the most affluent people and Hillbrow, back then, was a very cosmopolitan with a fun filled lifestyle," Mangunza says.

Three-storey penthouses crowned the circular tower boasting saunas, jacuzzis and patios with views across Johannesburg's CBD.

"If you stayed in Ponte in the 1970s it was the crème de la crème of lifestyles," he says.

But the building opened just as South Africa's racist apartheid era laws were being hardened, forcibly splitting the country by race.

The neighbourhood around Ponte was a designated whites-only area but, says James "the people of Hillbrow were very open minded so you had blacks, whites, Indians, blue people, green people, all mixing and mingling".

Hijacked building

The government didn't like this defiance and after fruitless attempts to control who lived there, the authorities washed their hands of Hillbrow and labelled it a "grey area" where blacks and whites could mix.

The price for such defiance was the entire suburb had its power cut off and policing withdrawn. The structures they left behind became so-called "hijacked buildings".

"A group of gangsters see an empty building, rip down the chain and fill it with people," Mangunza says.

"Ponte was built to house no more than 3500 people. When it was hijacked it was estimated over 10,000 people were living within its walls."

Even when apartheid came to an end in the early 1990s, Ponte remained out of control. Its huge bulk, visible from across Johannesburg, made it the most potent symbol of the city centre's lawlessness.

"Everyone was too scared to come into Ponte because obviously it was not the most lenient of gangsters who had hijacked one of the tallest buildings in South Africa," Mangunza says.

"At that point you could come into Ponte organise yourself an acid trip, a gun, an illegal passport all within a period of five minutes."

An illegal and lucrative brothel took up one of the lower floors.

Fourteen storey high pile of rubbish

Invisible from the outside, within the building's foreboding hollow core, was a massive pile of rubbish that reached almost a quarter of a way up the skyscraper.

Garbage collection was not high on the gangsters' list of priorities.

"If, on Monday morning, you're dressed in your Sunday best and on your way to work would you walk 51 floors down to empty your rubbish?" Mangunza asks.

"They just chucked the rubbish into the core and there was 14 stories of trash.

At one point there were plans to turn the building into a prison in the sky. But it took the 2010 soccer World Cup, hosted by South Africa, to kick start refurbishment plans.

As the tower of rubbish was removed their were reports of "rats the size of cats", and even dead bodies, found in the fetid mound.

Today, the tower has been reopened and its almost 500 apartments have all been improved.

The inside of the 54-story Ponte Tower building in Johannesburg. Photo / AP
The inside of the 54-story Ponte Tower building in Johannesburg. Photo / AP

The change at Ponte mirrors that happening across Johannesburg's CBD.

Just a few minutes away, in nearby Braamfontein, that process has begun in earnest.

"In 1993, this place was an un-walkable slum," says Josef Talotta, who works for South Point, a company turning disused office blocks into student accommodation.

"Now Joburgers are coming back."

Like in the equally hip arts quarter of Maboneng, abandoned buildings have been painted with bright colours and murals, cafes and fashion shops are popping up and museums and galleries have taken root in warehouses.

Nike, Mac and Clinique have all opened branches on the main street of Braam - their first in South Africa outside a mall.

Spice to the soup

It looks a lot like gentrification, and concerns have been raised that former residents - mostly poor immigrants from Southern Africa - are being forced out of some parts of the city while developers make a handsome profit buying old buildings cheap and converting them to ritzy apartments.

Josef disagrees that's the case in Braamfontein. Some of the previous retailers and residents remain while others have been given grants to tart up their shops to be in step with the area's new aesthetic.

They are "place making", he says, keeping the best of the old but creating "the best possible urban environment".

A man abseils from Ponte City, one of the most famous landmarks in Johannesburg, South Africa. Photo / AP
A man abseils from Ponte City, one of the most famous landmarks in Johannesburg, South Africa. Photo / AP

"It's not gentrification, it's regeneration adding spice to the soup but not changing the soup," Talotta says.

Gentrification

Aidan Mossleson, an expert on urban regeneration at Johannesburg's Witwatersrand University, tells news.com.au the changes in the city's CBD are not uniform.

"What is happening in inner-city Johannesburg is more complex than yet another form of gentrification, although there are very palpable and worrying aspects which do tie in with processes of gentrification experienced elsewhere," he says.

"Hillbrow is very different from Braamfontein."

Mossleson notes some developments are being led by commercial interests while, in other areas, the focus is on spatial and racial integration.

Destitute to des res

Certainly Hillbrow, markedly more bustling than Braamfontein, is unlikely to become an immediate tourist hotspot.

It's a working place and the crime rate is still one of South Africa's highest, although far less than a decade ago.

Change is happening but it's a more subtle regeneration - one that is focused on maintaining the existing population in the area but bringing the housing stock up to modern standards and providing better local amenities for families.

There is still work to be done and Ponte tower is unlikely ever to regain its status as South Africa's most palatial skyscraper. But with its modern flats and tight security, it's turned a corner from destitute to des res.

And if you want to move to a once hijacked building, good luck, says Mangunza.

"Ponte tower is fully occupied and there's actually a waiting list to move in."