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A response to Robert Bates’ piece ‘Africa through Western Eyes: The world’s dark continent or capitalism’s shining light?’

04 Nov

Robert Bates recently wrote a piece (http://thinkafricapress.com/culture/africa-through-western-eyes-worlds-dark-continent-or-capitalisms-shining-light) documenting his understanding of the history of and reasons for Africa’s image in the West. I found the piece thought-provoking but have to say I don’t agree with everything he said.  After reading it I felt it necessary to respond to some unsubstantiated claims, particularly relating to what I saw as his unfair and uninformed portrayal of the organisation Africa The Good News. Let me at this stage declare that I have written for them (as an unpaid volunteer) in the past and plan to do so again in the future. I support Africa The Good News’ mandate and believe that they have an important role to play in inspiring, informing and mobilising the people of our continent – our greatest strength and resource.

He wrote: “It is partly because some people think the best way to repudiate the negative stereotypes of Africa is to pump out wholly ‘good news’. An account on Twitter called @AfricaGoodNews is a case in point. Its handler tweets links to positive reportage of Africa: such “Angola May Produce One Million Eggs a Day…” and “Doing Business in Fast-Growing Africa – Europe Edition…”.

It is one facet of a larger rebranding project. Whilst some observers may approve, seeing them as necessary correctives to the boilerplate journalism mentioned above, others are already finding them clichéd and boring or downright misleading; a facile PR exercise designed to encourage (mainly Western) investment.”

My first objection is to the selective representation of the sort of information shared by Africa: The Good News’ Twitter account.  In it the writer has quoted (out of context and incompletely) two mundane, banal and Eurocentric tweets. He doesn’t show the tweets about opportunities to be involved in volunteer-created textbooks, feedback on research and census studies, economic market information and news of general political, cultural, environmental, economic and even entertainment events from across the continent.  All these, I would like to add, seldom appear in Western media, even in the “back pages” so to speak. Is this news primarily positive? Yes, that is the entire point of the organisation, but more on that later.

My second concern is with Bates’ portrayal of Africa: The Good News as a Twitter account and no more. It is far more than that, and he has neglected to mention the organisation behind it.  A little research would have revealed that the organisation was originally founded as an offshoot of the very successful South Africa: The Good News, which had been founded a few years earlier by Steuart Pennington. Its aim was and is to counteract the overwhelmingly and exclusively negative portrayal of South Africa in the local and international media. It was not about creating an artificially positive alternative reality, but rather was aimed at ensuring that the real South Africa, both the good and bad news, got the balanced coverage it needed and deserved.  This all started when Steuart went to a ‘Farewell, and Congrats you’re getting out’ party for some friends emigrating to Australia, and found himself getting angry at the endless negative stories and statistics about South Africa doing the rounds at the event. What made him really angry was not so much that these things were being said, but that they rang true at first hearing and he did not have the facts at hand to refute or confirm them. After taking on a couple of the guests, and earning himself a night on the couch as a result, his wife suggested he do something about it instead of moaning about it.

So he started doing some research, and discovered that not only were many of these common ‘truths’ on the downfall of South Africa overexaggerated or downright wrong, but also that there were many good things happening too. He found himself motivated and inspired to join the ranks of those working towards the future we all dream of for South Africa, and so the organisation was born. After a few years of running the rapidly growing and successful South Africa: The Good News the team recognised that a similar platform was needed for the continent as a whole, which led to the birth of Africa: The Good News. Of course both these organisations are (hopefully) changing the attitudes and actions of investors (local and international) but the arrogance inherent in the assertion that Africa: The Good News is just an investor propaganda machine quite frankly infuriates me. Even if this assertion was true (which it is not) why should Africa not be able to market itself to investors by showcasing its strengths? Virtually every city and country in the world does that!

South Africa: The Good News and Africa: The Good News take the view that since the negative side of Africa gets so much coverage there really is no need for them to add to it. Does this mean they only publish naively positive stories? No. When reports such as the Global Competitive Index come out they are shared in their entirety, not just the positive parts. Does either organisation blindly act as if either South Africa or the continent as a whole doesn’t have any problems? Again, no. They do, however play an active role in correcting these instead of swooping in from afar, dismissing inconvenient details as irrelevant and rushing away without offering any solutions or alternatives. I see no reason to give more credit to negative news than positive simply because of their outlook – I’ll admit Bates never actually says this outright but the implication is pretty clear. If this analysis of Africa: The Good News had been based specifically on reliability of sources, accuracy of data or even the dates of data published etc. and then substantiated I would have paid more attention. Let me be very clear that I don’t believe any of these are in question, however a rational review of them would have at least been useful and much more fair.

My final complaint is not against the portrayal of Africa: The Good News specifically, but the general assertion that reporting on good news from the continent is found by “others” to be “boring”, “cliched” and “misleading.” Those are pretty serious claims to make and if they had been made against a specific journalist we would now have quite a row on our hands.  Why should it be any different when made about an entire group of (unnamed) journalists?  Who are these “others” he refers to?  The fact that no one specific is mentioned makes it difficult to challenge him on specific facts – probably the intention of these vague, unsubstantiated claims in the first place.   There is no logical reason why good news should be reported any less than bad news, and all reporting should be judged on its accuracy and reliability, not simply it’s positive or negative tone.

Since Bates started with Twitter let’s go back there now: a quick search  of the word ‘Africa’ shows the enormous number of people in Africa and across the globe who have warped and inaccurately negative views of the continent. Africa: The Good News is an important and laudable initiative for a grossly misunderstood and maligned continent. All Mr Bates’ attack on this organisation does is show how very necessary initiatives like this still are.

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