Good neighbors in Johannesburg

This practice in some media of making white people who live in mostly black inner city Johannesburg, out as special. No.

Ponte Tower. Screen shot., is the kind of online site some people trust as a news source in the United States. An American news-aggregator accessing the ‘deep web’ for information in a bid to report the world in slick packaging that uses dramatic music and oversized fonts to really DRIVE HOME A POINT. I get it. A bit like VICE. It is also the kind of site with headlines like “The Hard Truth About Girl-on-Guy Rape.” So, how could I miss it in the title for this one: “Tower of Trouble” about Ponte City Apartments and how drastically living conditions have changed inside Johannesburg’s most recognizable address. Watch the six minute video here first:

As the video shows, indeed, things have changed for Ponte’s residents. I’ve visited. It’s safe and clean and has made great use of the ground floor communal areas, including a recreational area for kids where they can hang out or do homework with the help of after-school supervisors.

The views are mesmerizing and I imagine it a special place to live taking into consideration its history and symbolism for the city.

The video does a good enough job of reporting the story except for the instances where it so obviously shows up the racial bias of the producers.

Whiteness equals normalcy for the people at Vocativ. In their reporting and framing of the story through interviews and narration they make a big deal of the fact that white people are now living in Ponte. Why?

Black life is just as worthy reporting as white life. What about all the people (black I bet) who’ve lived in Ponte throughout its upheavals, cleanups and restorations? Where are they? Floors 1 – 11? They must have great stories to tell of Ponte’s past and have opinions much more valuable for their commitment to the place than the newer neighbors?

The piece sketches Ponte’s latest metamorphosis with tight, advanced security measures and refurbishments. The rainbow nation ideals of a democratic South Africa cemented by the fact that whites are living here. It signals hope! One in which Ponte becomes ‘livable’ again. Vocativ’s view of Ponte posits a white experience as the experience of the place and the neighborhood for that matter.

The narrator states: “Once the tourists leave it’s still fairly rare to see white people after dark.” Um, yes. This is South Africa. Our population’s majority are black South Africans. It is not rare to see very few white South Africans, if any at all, in some suburbs of the most densely populated city in the country. Actually, it makes a lot of sense.

White people living in Ponte is not a problem, it wouldn’t even be worth mentioning had this type of reportage not made it out into the world.

We can’t, as South Africans, keep allowing for stories to be authored in such a way that privileges a white experience over a black experience. Already the white experience is unwittingly accepted as the normative experience, and our own mediated in relation to and through that. Why else does the black gentleman joke about how he loves seeing friends’ reactions when he tells them his neighbours on his floor are white? “I brag about it, cos, it is something worth talking about. So who do you stay with at Ponte, well, my neighbours are all white (laughs)”.

Why is that laughable? Why is it a thing? Why does living nearby white people now make Ponte okay, impressive to friends? Why is your experience living there mediated and made good through the proximity to a particular race group? We need to interrogate these insidious ways apartheid’s legacy has kept white experience on top (read: it’s not inside, it’s on top! South Africans will know).

What’s more is that in explaining Ponte’s notoriety for drugs and criminal activity, Vocativ thinks it’s okay for one interviewee to put it all down to “those Nigerians. What? Wait. That’s a xenophobic generalization that’s used far too often and the journalists did nothing to give evidence or refute that claim?

No man.

I say we start authoring our own stories. We cannot and should not remain entrenched in a white normative gaze around which we locate our own experience and yet we no longer have to.

As one interviewee says: “We’re all humans, let’s make this happen.”

* BTW, I made a short video experiment in response to xenophobic generalizations made in the video above. It starts of with those infamous words: “Those Nigerians!”

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?

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.