The German writer Norman Ohler described Johannesburg’s Ponte City, Africa’s tallest residential building, thus: “Ponte sums up all the hope, all the wrong ideas of modernism, all the decay, all the craziness of the city. It is a symbolic building, a sort of white whale, it is concrete fear, the tower of Babel, and yet it is strangely beautiful.” A new documentary by Ingrid Martens, Africa Shafted, adds to the wide variety of cultural and artistic interest in Ponte, home to around 4000 people in Hillbrow, on the edge of downtown Johannesburg. The film purports to look at xenophobia through situating itself in the intense and somewhat claustrophobic surrounding of the tower lifts, which link the 52 stories, housing nationalities from all across Africa. In these lifts, the film encounters residents and their feelings toward one another. The trailer does indeed look interesting.

This isn’t the first time artists have examined Ponte tower; this photographic series by Mikhael Subotzky depicts the residents in the lifts again; the cold steel behind them illuminating the differences in clothing and stance to quite powerful effect. The lifts, both in Africa Shafted and these photographs, become an awkward pod of public space, enclosed, forcing prejudices into close proximity.

As fellow AIAC blogger Tom Devriendt rightly pointed out, decaying buildings are beloved by artists and filmmakers working in or about Africa. A recent article in The (UK) Guardian by writer Brian Dillon examined a European tradition of ‘ruin lust’ — our fondness for decay in culture; whether post-war city ruins speaking of great war and trauma in Europe, the rubble of decaying buildings signifying a rich history, or, in the case of African states, the decay of buildings that symbolized a promise of a better, independent future, that now sit squatted and corroded, a testament to the difficulties of post-colonial reality.

Akosua Adoma Owusu’s film ‘Drexciya,’ included in our Top Ten Films list of 2011, is an interesting experimental approach to decay and ruin in Ghana’s once glitzy ‘riviera’ in Accra. Around the brink of a once-grand swimming pool, Owusu re-animates the pool through the use of sound; laughter and splashing water hauntingly remind of a cultural history now replaced by another, quieter one; women hang their washing on the bushes that surround the pool, a man stores his belongings somewhere on the periphery. It’s not ‘ruin lust’, but perhaps ‘ruin intrigue’, taking the symbols of decay and reanimating them within a current cultural context, rather than pining for a promise never fulfilled, or lost.

Other films, which focus on decaying buildings, include Night Lodgers by Licinio Azevedo, a documentary about the decaying Grande Hotel in Beira, Mozambique.

Lotte Stoof’s Grande Hotel, also about the landmark hotel in Beira, Mozambique.

Finally, different, but related, is François Verster’s film Sea Point Days, a documentary about the changing clientele of a swimming pool, once reserved for whites under Apartheid, now a melting pot of different races, classes and ages.

Further Reading

A power crisis

Andre De Ruyter, the former CEO of Eskom, has presented himself as a simple hero trying to save South Africa’s struggling power utility against corrupt forces. But this racially charged narrative is ultimately self-serving.

Cinematic universality

Fatou Cissé’s directorial debut meditates on the uncertain fate and importance of Malian cinema amidst the growing dismissiveness towards the humanities across the world.

The meanings of Heath Streak

Zimbabwean cricketing legend Heath Streak’s career mirrors many of the unresolved tensions of race and class in Zimbabwe. Yet few white Zimbabwean sporting figures are able to stir interest and conversation across the nation’s many divides.


After winning Italy’s Serie A with Napoli, Victor Osimhen has cemented his claim to being Africa’s biggest footballing icon. But is the trend of individual stardom good for sports and politics?

Breaking the chains of indifference

The significance of ending the ongoing war in Sudan cannot be overstated, and represents more than just an end to violence. It provides a critical moment for the international community to follow the lead of the Sudanese people.

The magic man

Chris Blackwell’s long-awaited autobiography shows him as a romantic rogue; a risk taker whose life compass has been an open mind and gift to hear and see slightly into the future.

How to think about colonialism

Contemporary approaches to the legacy of colonialism tend to narrowly emphasize political agency as the solution to Africa’s problems. But agency is configured through historically particular relations of which we are not sole authors.

More than just a flag

South Africa’s apartheid flag has been declared hate speech by a top court. But while courts are important and their judgments matter, racism is a long and internationally entrenched social phenomenon that cannot be undone via judicial processes.

Resistance is a continuous endeavor

For more than 75 years, Palestinians have organized for a liberated future. Today, as resistance against Israeli apartheid intensifies, unity and revolutionary optimism has become the main infrastructure of struggle.

Paradise forgotten

While there is much to mourn about the passing of legendary American singer and actor Harry Belafonte, we should hold a place for his bold statement-album against apartheid South Africa.

The two Africas

In the latest controversies about race and ancient Egypt, both the warring ‘North Africans as white’ and ‘black Africans as Afrocentrists’ camps find refuge in the empty-yet-powerful discourse of precolonial excellence.