Carlton Centre - Africa's tallest building

Monday, September 16, 2013
Amukelani Chauke

Johannesburg – As the elevator took off from the upper ground level of Africa’s tallest building, the security officer looked at me and said: “It only takes 45 seconds for this lift to reach the top floor.” What a thrill - I was inside the Carlton Centre or “The roof of Africa” as it is popularly known.

The skyscraper - which houses both offices and shops and offers venue facilities – is one of South Africa’s well known buildings.

As I got out of the lift on the rooftop, Johannesburg’s skyline stretched out before me.

To my right, in the building’s southerly direction, a school child peered through a mini telescope in a bid to magnify the detail of the commercial and run-down buildings, the M2 freeway and the Crown Mine dumps – which form part of the origins of Johannesburg.

It is these telescopes that are situated at various points around the building facing in different directions that gives a visitor a “big brother” view of the city that was built on a gold mine.

I feasted my eyes on the visuals – first the telescope magnified the north-easterly parts of Johannesburg. I zoomed in to one of the city’s most visible landmarks - the Ponte Tower in Hillbrow. It felt like I could reach out and touch it.

I then used the telescope to zoom into Johannesburg’s famous developments such as the Nelson Mandela Bridge which links New Town to Braamfontein; Sandton City; Constitution Hill – where former South African Republic (Transvaal) President Paul Kruger built a prison to house notorious criminals and well-known anti-apartheid prisoners.

For only R15 I had been given access not only to Africa’s tallest building, but an eagle’s view of the beautiful city – South Africa’s economic hub.

It realised why it made sense for Mbongeni Ngema, a celebrated anti-apartheid writer, composer and director, to shoot the music video of one of his famous love songs Stimela Sase Zola at Carlton Centre.

In the song, Ngema, a Grammy award nominee who is well-known for the late 1980s award-winning production Sarafina, sang of how he got onto an E20, a minibus taxi that was manufactured by Nissan, at Carlton Centre along Commissioner Street to go visit the love of his life in Zola, Soweto.

This romantic song, which I first heard him sing in the 1990s, played in my head as I ventured around the top floor of this historic building.

Carlton Centre was first built after Anglo American Properties demolished the Old Carlton Hotel in the 1960s. After several years of construction and excavations, the centre was re-opened in 1973.

The building is currently owned by transport parastatal Transnet after they purchased it in 1999. Carlton Centre remains Transnet’s head office and now houses roof-top facilities for conferencing and events. It was reminded of what the lady on the ground floor said to me and two of my friends when we paid the cover charge to go to the rooftop minutes earlier:

“Please try to be as quiet as possible. The north-Western section of the building has been booked out for a conference today.”

So I softly hummed Ngema’s song as I walked past the meeting area to another telescope, which showed me more mine dumps in the southerly direction and the rides of the nearby Gold Reef City theme park.

A building with a view, and mining

History tells us that 1886 marked the famous gold rush after the discovery of a rocky outcrop bearing gold-reef on the corner of Main Reef Road and Nasrec, an area that is today known as Riverlea. It is here Johannesburg started out as a mining camp, with thousands of black labourers being brought in from rural areas to mine the most sought after mineral resources.  

Within three years, Johannesburg, or eGoli (place of gold) as black labourers later called it, had grown into a fully-fledged town, and then a city that had a population of over 100000 residents by 1899. It was in 1899 that the Second Boer war broke out when the Boers resented the presence of foreigners who had been attracted into Transvaal – now known as Gauteng - in response to the gold rush.

The influx of foreigners had created a string of wealthy financiers and entrepreneurs who went on to control the diamond and gold industries. The gold-rush brought excitement to the area, but due to the wealth that accompanied the gold, it also brought bloodshed. These foreigners were called Randlords, and resided in mansions along Park Town.

Some of these facts are framed and documented around the Carlton Centre with accompanying pictures. Amongst these pictures, is that of Johannesburg’s stockbrokers in 1893 celebrating after the mines of the Witwatersrand had yielded gold worth R27 million after only existing for six years.

I was later told that today, there are approximately 382 mine dumps in the Witwatersrand basin.

Now a tourist attraction, the Carlton Centre was re-opened with a 5-star and 30-story Carlton Hotel taking up most of the floor space of the complex. The hotel was popular among the rich and famous, hosting many famous guests over the years including former US Secretary of the State Hilary Clinton and the late award-winning R&B singer Whitney Houston, amongst others.

The Carlton Centre has since become one of Johannesburg’s popular tourist attractions. You can join the “hop on-hop off” bus tours for R150 where you can experience Johannesburg from an open top bus that also stops at Ghandi Square, Santarama Miniland, James Hall Transport Museum, Gold Reef City, Apartheid Museum, Mining District: Downtown walk, Newtown Precinct, Origins Centre at Wits University, The Grove, Braamfontein and the Constitution Hill.

Or you can do what I did and pay R15 at the door and hit the 50th floor in 49 seconds. –

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