I Built The Top Of Africa

Forbes Africa
Published 7 years ago
I Built  The Top  Of Africa

It stands like a giant anthill in the city. In its shadow thousands of commuters swarm around street vendors under yellow and blue canvas to the hoots of hundreds of taxis that crawl through the streets like beetles. On level 50, you can see for miles on a crisp day, so long as the smog isn’t too thick.

The 223-meter-tall Carlton Centre, in the heart of Johannesburg, has stood for 42 years.

An army of construction workers built it and for years it was the tallest building in the Southern Hemisphere. One of them was Englishman Eddy Warehan, a contracted steel fixer for Roberts Contraction (now Murray & Roberts) from Southampton, who arrived with tools in hand in 1967. This year, he made his first trip back to South Africa in 47 years.

“Health and safety was quite different then. It was interesting. If you got caught without a hardhat on, you were in trouble. You couldn’t tread on a nail without a hardhat on… There were a few accidents but you don’t take any notice of it. We were more interested in getting the job done,” he says.

Danger lurked around every corner.

“The first work we did on the site was a spiral staircase. It went four or five floors underground in darkness. You had towers and a lift shaft going up, but they were open. If they put a gate over the entrance somebody would move it and take the scaffolding away for somewhere else. An African gentleman one day wanted to go to the toilet, stepped into this dark corner and went down 10 floors.”

Another time, a crane was the killer.

“A crane was lifting a corner strong back shutter. They were swinging it around and there were two African gentlemen on the next corner and they got swept off. They got caught in the safety net but they didn’t survive.”

With the bad memories came good. Warehan recalls climbing to the 30th floor to see Pretoria 67 kilometers away.  Unafraid, he would pause for photos hanging over the steel bars at a giddy height.

Warehan, a former Royal Marine, came to Africa on the cruise ship the S.A. Vaal, sailing from Southampton to Durban, as a utility steward. Like many Europeans, he came to Africa by chance.

“If someone falls sick you do [their job]. You can do anything. I was a jack of all trades and a master of none. After the fifth trip we were going back [to England] and there were three gentlemen who had been working in Johannesburg and were passengers. We met in the bar, having a talk and they asked what I did before. I was a Royal Marine and before that I was a steel fixer. They said they were looking for steel fixers at the Carlton Centre, and I said where the hell is that? He said in Johannesburg. He told me what the wages were and I said that sounds crazy,” says Warehan.

Working in Johannesburg was a far cry from working in England.

“It was like adding a nought onto your money. I was earning £25 a week now it was £250. I gave it a try. The first week’s money I sent home was £300. My wife said you can’t get £300 from £250. I said they made a mistake it was actually £350.”

It took seven years to build the Carlton Centre. In 1973, it became the $7.92-million mecca for African socialites. Down the years, the Carlton Hotel opened its doors to the likes of Henry Kissinger, Francois Mitterrand, Hillary Clinton, Margaret Thatcher, Whitney Houston and Mick Jagger.

“It was quite a city. I was impressed. We stayed in Harley Street. Just out of Hillbrow; near the freeway and a park. My first accommodation was in a digs, under the careful watch of an Afrikaans woman named Marsh. We were mostly construction workers from the Carlton.”

“We would go to a bar across the road at the end of the day, the Casa Mia. It was on the way back to the digs. That way you could get halfway back from where you wanted to spend the night before you have too many to get lost. Most of us drank Lion Lager.”

“My wife couldn’t believe it when she came over to Johannesburg. The prices were half the cost you would pay in the UK and you were doubling your money. The cost of living in Africa was cheap.”

“A gold Omega watch I bought in Johannesburg cost £250 at that time. Six years ago, I sent it back to get it serviced; its current value was £7,000.”

These days, the aging skyscraper is more a museum than a mecca. Where thousands of shoppers once walked are the shells of dusty stores, epitomized by the Sky Rink, the building’s abandoned ice rink. The 50th floor of the Carlton Centre, called the Top of Africa, still offers a panorama of the city and beyond, provided the windows are clean and you can find the lift in the basement.

The building is showing signs of coming back to life, claims the City of Johannesburg. The basement shopping center has come back from being almost empty to 93% capacity. They say that the Carlton Centre is again a bustling shopping precinct with shops like Soviet, Aca Joe, Totalsports, Levison and Pick n Pay.

Maybe, like Warehan’s gold Omega, it will appreciate in value.