Goodbye Top Star, Hello Alberton

#153. Watch Times photographer Marianne Schwankhart’s farewell to one of Johannesburg’s best known landmarks – The Top Star Drive-In. While the Top Star hasn’t operated for the past four years it will be the end of an era when you drive around the city centre from the east and don’t see that enormous movie screen rising above you on one of the city’s mine dumps.


Arr, me hearty. There’s gold, perhaps doubloons, in them there dumps.

As mining companies move in to reprocess the dumps, Joburg’s most distinctive ‘natural’ landmarks – captured in the poetry, artworks and literature of the city (I have heard William Kentridge and Nadine Gordimer speak of them with great fondness) – will soon be a, [granted] not-so-dusty, memory.

For her photo essay Schwankart interviewed the families who have lived at the Top Star since the late 1980s, enjoying one of the best views of the city, and who are now to be relocated.

“I love this place … You get fresh air on top here,” says Theresa, a long-time resident who mentions “I am living op on the top of gold mine. I’m very rich.” She laughs heartily at this.

The view of the city from the Top Star, by Marianne Schwankhart for The Times

The view of the city from the Top Star, by Marianne Schwankhart for The Times

Theresa and Sara Le Roux (who moved there in 1989) reminisce about when the Top Star was the city’s choice of Joburg entertainment spots, when it cost R1 to see a movie. They conjure the crackle of popcorn, the smell of hamburgers, clinking Coca-Cola bottles, of children wrapped in blankets in the backseats of cars (I remember going there in my pajamas, as was the fashion then), of dad leaning out the window to adjust the sound, and the lucky kids who got to leave the car and play under the screen.

A few years ago the Coca Cola company hosted a launch of their new “Times Square-like” city signage from the Top Star. We went for the big switch-on and even got a courtesy helicopter flip to go and see the sign. It was a spectacular night.

The sign however wasn’t the only thing switched on — as we drove down the ramp after the launch we encountered a car parked facing the oncoming traffic and a naked bottom bouncing up and down over the driver’s seat. Turns out the Top Star was also rated highly as a nookie spot. And then a  few days later the wind came up and the Coca Cola sign came down.

Now there’s talk that with the mine dumps coming down, whole new areas will be opened up to our view. Hence the hello Alberton in the title of this post.

“The whole thing is finished now. We have to move on,” says one of the women interviewed by Schwankhart.

“It was lekker here.”

Top Star Drive-In by Marianne Schwankhart for The Times

Top Star Drive-In by Marianne Schwankhart for The Times

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