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Return of Africa's high-rise

By unknown | Jul 10, 2007 | COMMENTS [ 0 ]

Themba Molefe

Themba Molefe

".ngigibel' E-20, eCarlton Centre, esdididini ma, eMjipa, ngeshumi lam', nge landi lam', ngiyobona wena baby, ngihamba ngo Commissioner, ngigqoku Arrow shirt, mawubheka phansi Florsheim shoes baby.Thambo lam' le Kentucky."

The prolific composer and artist Mbongeni Ngema nimbly captures the mood of yesteryear's Joburg with his reference to Carlton Centre in the evergreen township ditty, Stimela sam' sase Zola.

Ngema penned the song in the late 1980s - being seen at the then world-famous Carlton Centre meant something akin to celebrity status.

The young and old dressed to the nines when they went to the Carlton. Indeed, then it cost a paltry R1 by taxi to Mjipa, slang for Johannesburg.

Taxi drivers were not so arrogant as they picked up and dropped off passengers along the busy Commissioner Street.

A walk on Commissioner with your thambo le Kentucky or sweetheart meant you were being ogled by your fellow walkers and had to make a fashion statement.

An Arrow shirt cost a princely R95, while Florsheims were almost beyond reach at R300 in the 1980s. Today a pair burns a deep hole in your pocket at R3000 or so.

Many made the Carlton Hotel their rendezvous, where they met on dinner dates, for drinks in the then famous Courtyard or just to lounge in the lobby and watch the world as people of all hues passed, like it was a thoroughfare, from Commissioner Street in the north, to Main Street in the south.

Those with oodles of money could enjoy sleeping in splendour because the five-star hotel was the reserve of the rich. For the poor, the lobby was fine before heading home in the E-20s.

The upside-down Y-shape Carlton Centre is the tallest building on the African continent - and located in one of the 11 most distinguished cities of the world.

Controversial former US secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and Andrew Young, past French president Francois Mitterand, US Senator Hilary Clinton, former British premier Dame Margaret Thatcher, Whitney Houston and Mick Jagger were among the hotel's more revered guests.

When the Carlton Hotel was closed down in 1997 so ended an era.

But there are moves to reopen the 600-room hotel and come 2010 the Carlton will be abuzz with global visitors.

The 50-storey business centre - shops and offices - is already operational. Many a business that had "fled inner-city crime" are poised to return.

The merry din that used to characterise the Carlton Centre is back. Soon, very soon, the intellectual banter in the lobby; the Courtyard, will return.

Hopefully, the sumptuous Three Ships restaurant will relocate home to the Carlton from Gold Reef City.

The Connoisseur, a leather and luggage shop, is preparing to move back to the Carlton.

"We want to be part of the revival of Johannesburg. It's a much safer place than it was," says The Connoisseur's Kimmie Rondan.

"Just look at the quality of shops trading in the Carlton - it's the centre of Africa, after all. We're looking to the future and we're getting in now while the rentals are still low."

For now many will have to contend with fond memories of the hotel's fine restaurants, its world-class conference facilities, the pool deck and the banquet hall that could hold 500 guests.

But the eerie silence that drapes the Carlton Hotel might soon go, and who knows, the talented Ngema might be inspired to sing about the return to the Carlton.

The days of scribes jostling with one another to throw a question to a visiting top guest might soon be here again. Africa's majestic landmark is stirring.

The lonely old piano may soon produce the mellow classics. Ngema's Commissioner Street and the Carlton precinct is surely going to be the same again.


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