In 1997, when I landed in Mali, West Africa, as a volunteer with the U.S. Peace Corps, my knowledge of the place was based mostly on broadcasts of the 1980s famine in Ethiopia and the fantasies of Joseph Conrad. The first night, I was awakened by a distant thumping and couldn’t go back to sleep as I imagined my hosts drumming around a fire, enacting some ancient, possibly savage, rite. It was only through the light of many days that I learned the noise was from women pounding millet and sorghum, which they rose before dawn to do for the day’s meals.
The root of my assumptions about Mali and Malians was a diet of bad news — and badly reported news — on Africa that even the most discriminating Western publications have found difficult to resist. “[We] constantly face an American view of Africa that’s been mediated through stereotypes,” Frederick Cooper, a historian at New York University, once told me. “For an Africanist, reading The New York Times was just as depressing in 2004 as it was in 1964, or probably worse. In 1964, they were at least reporting on new things happening. Instead every reporter wants to rewrite “Heart of Darkness.”
Most foreign coverage of Africa is by journalists who parachute into a place and wrap a story in a matter of hours or days; they don’t know the background and fail to give adequate context to the issues and events they are covering. Instead, they fall back on what journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault calls “the four D’s of the African apocalypse — death, disease, disaster, and despair,” plus corruption, which have become a convenient short-hand for most news about the continent. In Hunter-Gault’s latest book, New News Out of Africa: Uncovering Africa’s Renaissance (Oxford University Press, 2006), she argues that there is a world of news to report beyond this and that Africa is now experiencing the earliest quivering of a rebirth that values democracy, human rights, civic life, and women’s empowerment. Hunter-Gault takes this argument a step further by insisting that the endlessly bleak and clichéd accounts have actually colored the rest of the world’s perception of Africa, discouraging foreign engagement and investment, and leading to pessimism and confusion there and elsewhere.
Hunter-Gault, who won two Emmys and two Peabody Awards for her coverage of Africa, is well-suited to make this case. She was first sent to South Africa in 1985 on assignment for PBS’ MacNeil-Lehrer News Hour, and was till recently the Johannesburg Bureau Chief for CNN. She bases her assertions on her own detailed reporting — including multiple interviews with Nelson Mandela, his successor as president of South Africa Thabo Mbeki, and a host of other high-level government officials — and the work of a small group of colleagues. She starts the book with what she knows best both professionally and personally: South Africa’s transition from apartheid to real democracy, weaving in her own experience in the U.S. Civil Rights Movement, during which she helped desegregate the University of Georgia as its first black woman student.
For Hunter-Gault, 1994, the year apartheid officially ended and South Africa held its first truly democratic election, was a major turning point for all of Africa. The transition has not been without its challenges, she writes. South Africa, for example, has more than five million people living with HIV — the highest number in the world — and a staggering majority of the population was, until a decade ago, totally disenfranchised from education, health care, civic life, and professional opportunities.
The journalist acknowledges this in her deconstruction of the South African government’s policies on HIV/AIDS, affirmative action, and the economy, but also offers nuggets of hope and progress. While president Mbeki has been criticized for his ambiguity on the extent of the AIDS crisis, she gives him the benefit of the doubt and touts the country’s program of free antiretroviral drugs, and the fact that it spends far more than any other African nation (about $2 billion between 2003 to 2006) on treating the disease. She also discusses the country’s urgent efforts to increase access to education and employment for its majority black population. This is critical if South Africa is going to compete in a global market, but it has also overwhelmed many universities, whose budgets are contracting under the burden of so many needy students. Hunter-Gault contends that this dire problem has spurred innovations, such as the CIDA (Community and Individual Development Association), a free university for business and management education supported by corporate donors.
Based on her American experience, she notes that the sudden creation or implementation of laws can take generations to be fully felt. “It is through the prism of the United States’ history that I daily bear witness to the changes occurring in South Africa, and that is the yardstick against which I measure its progress.” But in this dance forward — and back — Hunter-Gault sees South Africa as the most powerful black-led country in the world and believes that it has the potential to lead not only its own Renaissance but that of an entire continent.
With South Africa at the helm, all of Africa is taking its first uncertain, but meaningful, steps toward democracy. She writes: “[T]here is a second wind blowing through the continent today: the forty-eight countries of sub-Saharan Africa are attempting to break free of the lingering legacy of colonialism, as well as many of the demons of their own design.” This new movement, she says, is most evident in the founding of NEPAD, or New Partnership for African Development, in 2001 and the formation of the African Union in 2002.
NEPAD, led by South Africa’s Mbeki, Algeria’s Abdelaziz Bouteflika, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, Nigeria’s Olusegun Obasanjo, and Senegal’s Abdoulaye Wade, has vowed to eliminate poverty by concentrating on sustainable growth and development, promoting Africa in the global arena, and accelerating the empowerment of women. The African Union, meanwhile, replaced the Organization of African States, originally formed in the 1960s to support decolonization across the continent, but subsequently used as a bulwark for defending dictators’ sovereignty (and oppression) of their respective nations. The new organization has its eye on African unity and development, through the creation of democracy and conflict resolution. Hunter-Gault acknowledges that these institutions are young and must still prove their mettle in the face of ongoing tensions in Central Africa and the genocide taking place in Darfur.
But for the world to hear and understand any of the changes afoot, they must be well reported. Those on the frontlines of reporting this “new news” are African journalists. Many still contend with limited training or access to computers and the Internet, as well as government harassment and threats — Zimbabwe and Sudan presenting the direst cases of silencing foreign and domestic journalists alike. Yet there is an increasing crop of independent, homegrown media, who are providing a more nuanced perspective of the events and people in Africa. Even in the harshest of conditions, Hunter-Gault cites instances where “guerilla type-writers” are getting the word out, posting their stories surreptitiously in the continent’s burgeoning Internet cafés.
However, African journalists cannot report the news alone. Hunter-Gault advises more collaboration between Africans and their foreign colleagues both to help cover extremely sensitive stories, where the international press may be more immune to government pressures and retaliation, and to gain more informed perspectives by working closely with counterparts on the ground.
Above all, she counsels journalists to “come in right” — or report the news honestly and fairly — an expression taken from an encounter she had with a member of the Black Panthers, while covering that organization in Harlem in the 1970s for The New York Times. “[This phrase] has served me well, making me particularly sensitive to trying to strike a balance between stories of war, conflict, corruption, poverty, pestilence, and disease, on one hand, and on the other, stories that tell us of the people who live amid all that and yet survive, endure, and sometimes prosper despite the odds. These people are the embodiment of new news, but they rarely, if ever, hold news conferences.”
Without downplaying the real challenges facing African nations, Hunter-Gault should not be dismissed for her optimism. With the rise of the Internet, foreigners have fewer excuses than ever for ignoring what happens there, while African journalists and citizens are increasingly discovering the power of information. Africa may have experienced a Dark Ages, replete with foreign invasion, pestilence, societal breakdown, oppression and exploitation — from within and without. And yet, if we look closely as Hunter-Gault suggests, we might see the first stirring of the continent’s own, true Renaissance.