Pearl Boshomane Tsotetsi.

Pearl Boshomane Tsotetsi.

Collage by Ta'Ron Joyner.

Aspiration is a Beautiful, Expensively-Packaged Scam

'Just because aspiration is given a Black face, that doesn't mean it's for us, cares about us or has our best interests at heart,' writes Pearl Boshomane Tsotetsi.

This essay is part of OkayAfrica's SA Reframed series, featuring personal writing from some of South Africa's best young writers edited by Verashni Pillay.

I was still a lifestyle journalist when I lost respect for my own beat. It wasn't one particular incident or moment that triggered it, but rather the result of various moments and experiences. One of them occurred very early into my tenure as editor of a lifestyle supplement. Our cover at the time featured a famous, celebrated black personality. The decision hadn't been mine - it couldn't have for I'd had my occasional "Maimane in the DA" moments: the Black leader with no real power.

Yet I was excited nonetheless because, yay, representation.

I showed the cover to a colleague who stopped short of rolling their eyes as they said: "Why do they always feature the same type of Black people?" Slightly taken aback, I asked what that meant. They elaborated: "You know, the Black person who probably lives in Sandton, drinks champagne and is one of their friends."

Now, of course, there's nothing wrong with being a Black person who lives in Sandton and loves champagne, but that shouldn't be the only type of Black person deemed worthy of lifestyle pages.

But the "they" who kept featuring these kinds of Black people was that portion of the newsroom that's always felt far removed, out of touch, elitist and, rather inaccurately, as vacuous: the lifestyle journalists.

While I will die on the hill that lifestyle features are among the most difficult to write, I did come to understand that lifestyle writing was – and still is – treated as an exclusive, "on Wednesdays we wear pink, you can't sit with us" club.

And it's that behind-the-scenes friend of a friend vibe that ends up being reflected in the reader's hands. The same way coders' biases result in algorithms that are problematic race- and gender-wise, the race and class biases of those running lifestyle newsrooms are mirrored in the final product.

And this brings me to the primary selling point and purpose of lifestyle writing: aspiration. Unlike the news or politics pages, lifestyle is meant to provide some respite from the realities of everyday life for the reader: no doom and gloom, just vibes. Okay, I'm being unfair. Lifestyle writing, when done right, is intelligent, delightful and, above all, enriching to its audience. Whether it presents new ways to cook aubergines or tells you where the next hot travel destination is, it strikes a delicate balance between telling you – the consumer – what to do and think, and being at your service. It's a teasing dance where the reader is given content that is both attainable and out of touch (an easy midweek recipe a few pages after a pair of shoes that cost a year's IEB school fees).

But the aspiration that's been sold isn't just problematic, it's exclusionary.

It's not only lifestyle media who are guilty of selling an exclusionary dream – music, fashion, advertising, television and film do it too. And, because of the people making the decisions, publications tend to feature the same tightly-knit circles and networks appearing in the pages of the fashion, food and arts sections across the country.

And while half the people featured are doing things that are quirky, innovative and/or interesting, the other half are simply friends of friends.

If they're not well-connected, they fit into preconceived notions of what we should aspire to be, where we should aspire to live and what we should aspire to eat and wear. This means, as my colleague had said, a single type of Black person deemed "acceptable", refined in the right places and sometimes "radical" enough to make editors feel like they are edgy or progressive. It is an image we didn't create ourselves but we're told to mould ourselves into; an image where pages sometimes fetishise rather than celebrate the different elements and experiences that form part of Blackness.

The lifestyle journalism industry in South Africa, in the way it's packaged and presented to us, is a microcosm of what's wrong with aspiration. It's not just about what's being sold, it's about who is selling it in the first place. Aspiration is a beautiful, expensively packaged scam.

For a long time Black faces on the pages of "nice life" publications were few and far between, but that's changing. However, the increase in representation isn't indicative of changing times or a new, societal kind of liberation. If anything, it's performative and is simply the same stale ideas of achievement and aspiration painted a few shades darker: all they did was give it an afro. It's the Fyre Festival of inclusivity.

Since the pandemic began and the Black Lives Matter movement has gained prominence in the South African discourse, publications have been changing their MOs: they are scrambling to embrace the same "wokeness" they spent years dismissing and talking down on. It's interesting to watch some previously luxury and unattainable products suddenly trying to sell relatability to their audience.

Is this, cough, a new dawn, or is it the journalistic equivalent of the wolf pretending to be Red Riding Hood's grandma? Until the faces making the editorial decisions mirror the ones littering the editorial pages, I'm going with the latter.

In her book of brilliant personal essays Trick Mirror, US journalist Jia Tolentino writes: "The psychological parasite of the ideal woman has evolved to survive in an ecosystem that pretends to resist her. If women start to resist an aesthetic… the aesthetic just changes to suit us; the power of the ideal image never actually wanes."

While Tolentino is commenting on the media's portrayal of women and society's obsession with femininity, that concept can be adapted to fit the context of this conversation.

When Anna Wintour, Bon Appetit, The New York Times and co were publicly giving mea culpas, self-flagellating and falling on their swords for their sins when it came to diversity and inclusion (performance art at its finest), some South African lifestyle writers and editors tweeted about microaggressions and horror stories they still deal with from the most powerful people in spaces that pretend to be progressive.

Spaces like that cannot and should not be the sources of and authorities on aspiration; not when the people running them don't represent the audience they pretend to speak for.

In South Africa, there are now almost no publications left on the shelves that predominantly target black audiences and consist of black editorial teams. That means our sources of aspiration are even more depleted. Those left standing are more powerful – and therefore dangerous – than before. They're the public face for spaces that portray themselves as racially-inclusive. Meanwhile, the story behind the curtain is rather different: black faces with titles, but without the accompanying power.

Until structural change occurs and the people selling us lifestyle aspirations are in touch with the multiplicities and complexities of the country's majority, we have no business letting them tell us what we want. And just because aspiration is given a Black face, that doesn't mean it's for us, cares about us or has our best interests at heart.

Until further notice, it's assimilation sold as aspiration. Don't fall for it – it's a trick.

Pearl Boshomane Tsotetsi is a journalist, columnist and over-tweeter. She is the editor of Destiny Careers magazine.