No News is Good News?

What you haven’t heard about Africa

Charlayne Hunter-Gault. Photo by Justin Ide.

When it comes to Africa, Americans are conditioned to assume the worst. For hundreds of years the Western media have portrayed Africa as a poverty-stricken, disease-wracked, war-torn continent with dismal prospects for the future. As a result, Americans have long associated the “dark continent” with AIDS, famine, corruption, genocide and the like. But according to Charlayne Hunter-Gault, Special Africa Correspondent for National Public Radio and author of “New News Out of Africa: Uncovering Africa’s Renaissance” (Oxford University Press), African nations are making dramatic, fundamental changes that have the potential to radically improve the state of affairs continent-wide. Failure interviewed Hunter-Gault about the latest developments in twenty-first century Africa, and why Americans are oblivious to the changes.

What motivated you to write “New News Out of Africa”?

The book grew out of three [McMillan-Stewart] lectures that I gave at Harvard University. The audiences were very interested in Africa, but I could tell from the questions they asked that they didn't have a clue about [recent] developments on the continent. The questions revolved around what I call the four D's of the African apocalypse—death, disease, disaster and despair. When I sat down to write the book I tried to focus on things I thought were important for Americans to know about Africa. 

What is the New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD)? 

NEPAD [conceived by five African presidents] lays out new rules of the road for African leaders. For too long Africans have suffered from corruption, mismanagement of resources, repression of women, and oppression of citizens in general. The new theme that many African leaders are espousing is not to come to the West with a begging bowl, but to come with something to offer. If they get control of their economies and their governments, and if they begin to recognize women's rights and human rights, then when they need support from the West they will have earned it. They believe this is a good bargain and everybody wins. Once Africa gets back on its feet everybody benefits, because the West can make use of the Africa's vast resources and so can Africa. 

Can you explain what the African Union (AU) is and what it is doing to fight corruption and human rights abuses? 

The AU is the successor to the Organization of African Unity (OAU). The OAU's mission was to fight and end colonialism and apartheid. In 1994 that mission was complete. So out of that came the AU, which is an organization of African leaders who meet and try to deal with the problems on the continent. NEPAD [pronounced neh-pad, not kneepad] was born out of that; it's what I call the first-born of the AU. 

As I said, the organization has come out with new rules of the road that include a peer review mechanism where eminent African persons go into other African countries to judge governments. This is revolutionary because during the OAU's existence borders were sacrosanct. No matter what happened inside a country, no other nation would interfere. Now these peer review mechanisms have been put in place to assess the behavior of government leadership. 

The problem is that a lot of the countries that belong to the AU are still trying to dig themselves out of poverty, so the AU is struggling with fiscal constraints. It has troops in peacekeeping roles in various trouble spots on the continent—Darfur, for example. Yet, it doesn't have enough funds to give those troops the robust support they need, so they are not as effective as they could be. 

As for corruption, these new rules also say you can't countenance corruption—you have to do something about it. Countries like Nigeria—where corruption has been rampant—have begun to address the problem, even arresting government officials. The hope is that as influential countries get control of corruption and then get support from the West, this idea will catch on that you can do well by doing good.

How many nations are participating in the AU? 

Almost all of the countries on the continent are members. More than half of them have signed up for peer review, although only three [South Africa, Rwanda and Ghana] have actually completed the process. 

Those countries that have completed the process—what does it mean for them? 

Well, it's a voluntary process, and this is where the rubber meets the road. If you have eminent persons coming in and saying that you are lacking in this area or that area, the idea is that leaders will make changes to strengthen their fledgling democracies. We don't yet know how well it will work. 

The Western media have portrayed Africans in a negative light for a long, long time. Do you see that changing anytime soon? 

Well, one can live and hope. My book is just a small step in that direction. Why decision makers in the media think that people will only be interested in death, disease, disaster and despair is beyond me. But I do believe the public can influence the decision makers. The question becomes: How energetic and aggressive does the public want to be in trying to effect change? And how responsive will the editors and owners be in hearing those voices? I'm convinced that there's a crying need out there for news from the continent. 

How does the African media portray Africa? 

Is it as pessimistic as the Western media? No. African journalists are trying to follow the model that African leaders have put forward. They are trying to take control of their own stories, because they are frustrated with how they are portrayed in the West. That doesn't mean that they tell stories that are fluffy or fawning. As they get more freedom to write and report they are increasingly being critical of governments that are not living up to their pledges to represent the people. They are also being more expansive in their coverage of African people in their daily existences. 

However, many African journalists have been severely restrained by their lack of resources. They will be the first to say that they need more education and training in subjects like economics, so they can more accurately reflect Africa's position in the global economy. But their commitment to telling the story of a different Africa than the one portrayed in the Western media is very strong.

What role do you see the African media playing in Africa's future?

If the media provides readers, listeners and viewers with information that helps them make decisions about their leaders and governments it could affect the way that the Western media portrays Africa. And journalists like Salim Amin [son of the late Mohamed Amin and chairman of the Mohamed Amin Foundation] are busy trying to raise funds to establish an Africa Network—much like Al-Jazeera or the African CNN. Part of the network would be news and part of it would be entertainment, but all of it would be from an African perspective. That's the vision African journalists have for how to take control of their own image. 

Can you relate any specific “good news” that is coming out of Africa?

There is good news. In 1998 there were 14 wars raging on the African continent. Now there are three. And while there are still trouble spots and the democracies that have come into being are fragile, people are being allowed to speak and express their opinions. South Africa, for all of its prominence as the African superpower, is still a fragile democracy. But there's freedom of the press in South Africa, there's a growing economy, and efforts are being made to address historical imbalances and oppression of the black majority. 

Also, for the first time in 40 years the people of the Democratic Republic of Congo are going to be able to participate in multi-party elections. In Burundi they have had multi-party elections and are bringing onboard the last of the rebel groups. Even Sudan—everybody focuses on Darfur—but there is a peace agreement in Sudan between the north and the south that has provided the space for the development of the south, which in the past has been severely hampered by war and conflict. 

These are baby steps but they are important, because the international community—Americans in particular—are not responding to appeals for humanitarian assistance in severely devastated countries that face drought, famine and natural disasters. Part of the reason is that all they get is a steady diet of negative news and they say, “What is the point of investing my resources in something that is never going to change? The money is being siphoned off by corrupt or ineffectual leadership.” It's not a lack of humanitarian good will; people are just being practical about how to spend their money. 

In 2010 South Africa will host the World Cup. What does that mean for the continent?

I covered the announcement and what was amazing about it was that I was in a big stadium where thousands of people had come to hear the result. It was one of the greatest moments that I have experienced in South Africa. It was so unifying. I think there is a great potential for advancing race relations and giving Africans a real sense of pride in being able to host these games. You saw how engaged people were [in Germany, 2006], and bringing people to the continent to watch football will also help them to see a different Africa than the one they are always treated to in the media. Of course, it will also generate income. But more than that, it will be a psychological lift. Africans have such a great sense of pageantry, style and culture that everything that goes on in South Africa that involves ritual is done to great fanfare and success. The potential is there for it to be another step in helping the continent to join the family of nations as a fully participating partner.