On Western media’s myopic view of and anachronistic attitude towards Africa

Editor’s Note: This is an edited opinion piece that has seemingly been rejected for publication for reasons unknown to me by two online publications and TIME Online. For two South African online publications, their motive(s) for non-publication is not clear at all to me nor were attempts made to do so. But for the TIME, well, it is probably understandable as the opinion piece criticises its reporting of Africa – the ‘dark’ continent. Were all these publications fair not to publish this (which is of course their right)? You be the judge.

Why does it seem easy for western media to write about the ‘dark’ African continent? You’d even think these writers – and mostly journalists – copied Binyavanga Wainaina, author of One Day I Will Write About This Place, word for word in his wittingly written How To Write about Africa, published in the Grant magazine in 2005 which somewhat described the best way to write about the continent. In this, the author writes that whichever angle you take when writing about Africa, you need to “leave the strong impression that without your intervention and your important book, Africa is doomed.” Is this what western media are doing: that without their craft, Africa’s “doomed”?

This can also be been in an interesting analysis I came across in 2008 in The Black Agenda Report website’s eight (8) part series titled “The Hearts of Darkness: How Europe Writers Created the Racist Image of Africa” published between 24 January and 14 March 2007 which named The New York Times, The National Geographic, TIME, Newsweek, The New Yorker as some of the western publications that perpetuated what it called the “negative characterization of Africa”, citing The New York Times as the most culprit especially during South Africa’s apartheid era. Even to this very day, as noted by Ian Birrell in the Guardian last year, these publications remain “locked into stale narratives of Africa as a land of suffering in need of our salvation” and is “slipping away”. Another example of this negative coverage of Africa is a May 2000 cover of The Economist titled “Hopeless Africa”, followed by another in October last year titled “Sad South Africa: Cry, the beloved country”. Birrell notes this portrayed hopelessness of the continent as a clear “disconnect between outdated western perceptions of Africa and fast-changing realities on the ground”. He said the magazine’s depiction of the continent as “hopeless” was the “usual stereotypes presented by much of the media and their allies in the aid lobby” which offered “simplistic images of death and destruction, ignoring complex realities of a continent encompassing 54 countries and 11.6 million square miles in which life is becoming more peaceful and prosperous”.

The “The Hearts of Darkness: How Europe Writers Created the Racist Image of Africa” believes that these savage images of Africa and its people by the western media were created by European travelers to the continent through publications they wrote for and these continue to being perpetuated and disseminated through newspapers, magazines and Hollywood films. The analysis further noted the media’s “racist portrayals of Africans and Black people in general” as being “so effective that many contemporary white writers still view Black people through the prism of bigotry created by their forefathers over several centuries”. “For these contemporary writers even remotely to write balanced articles about Black people, they must first re-read many of the publications that have formed the white people’s perceptions of blacks”.

Which makes sense when taking into account what TIME’s Alex Perry had to say when he ignorantly blamed South Africa’s alleged “culture of Violence” as the real cause of the murder accused and athletic Oscar Pistorius’ reasons for admittedly killing his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, who he bizarrely claims to have mistook as an intruder in his well-secured house on February 14. This is because Perry made reference to Cape Town’s poor and black communities unnecessarily. Now because of this lazy journalism, he then justifies this as the reason (or one of the reasons) why South Africa is such a “raging violent crime [haven]” and that Cape Town has the highest murder rates than Johannesburg.

Why did he bring Cape Town into the picture especially when it’s not where the killing of Steenkamp took place? Did he not know that the killing took place in the very same city whose murder rates he claims are lower than those of his favourite Cape Town?

What’s even worse is his quoting statistics which seem irrelevant to the article at all. This writing on Africa is an example of what a dissertation research described as typical of western journalists when reporting on the continent, saying they only “seek out a big five through their lenses: poverty, famine, corruption, tribalism and, AIDS”. The research notes that western media correspondents often depict Africa as a “have-not continent, and thus a failure”, with its “culture as primitive, backward and insignificant” and this is of course the very same thing that The Black Agenda Report analysis referred to.

The Economist’s by-line in “Sad South Africa: Cry, the beloved country” described the country as “sliding downhill while much of the rest of the continent is clawing its way up”, further accusing it of sliding both economically and politically by citing one of its analysis which claimed the country had been “woefully led” especially after former president Nelson Mandela retired from politics in 1999. However, within five month after this, the very same magazine ran another “Aspiring Africa: The world’s fastest-growing continentcover early this month, March, which described how in good shape the continent is, citing its increasing number of kids going to school, the decrease in the number of HIV infections, the consumer spending that’s expected to double in the next ten years, among others. The magazine attributed the “fastest” in terms of growth to the western aid and Chinese companies flooding the continent (although dubiously so, I think), our embracing modern technology and that our politicians “are doing a bit better, especially in economic management and striking peace deals”. It however admitted that “so much more remains to be done” especially on the level of poverty and inequality (emphasis).

What bothers me personally, however, is whether all these things did not exist or were not visible in October last year when it chose to carry the “Sad South Africa: Cry, the beloved country cover. While we acknowledge that Africa has its problems just like any other continent does – including Europe and America – we, however, find the west’s failure to see its “edge of economic takeoff similar to those seen so dramatically in China and India”, quite disturbing as noted by Birrell, if not shocking for a publication that claims the continent is the “world’s fastest-growing”. Or maybe these negative reporting on Africa are just typical of the western media’s “anachronistic attitudes” which are reflective of their “myopic view” of the continent?

It will of course take years, if not centuries, before the western media and their leaders see Africa for what it really is and not just a piece of land whose mineral resources and people can be exploited for their own gains. At the same time, we need our African media – including South Africa’s especially – to not only report on the bad, but also on the good that Africa has to offer. Our leaders, too, need to act in a proper way that is expected of them. They also need to listen to what their people have to say. With these and of course many other interventions, the western media will have less ‘dark’ things to write about our continent, if nothing at all.

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