In his speech last month at the Steve Biko Memorial Lecture, the Nigerian novelist Ben Okri spoke of the existence of three different Africas: “The one that we see every day, the one that they (gesturing with a side movement of his thumb) write about and the real, magical Africa that we don’t see, unfolding through all the difficulties of our time like a quiet mirror.”
In Okri’s terms, Africa has been trifurcated. Its existence is quotidian, forming the backdrop to the everyday experiences of its inhabitants; its existence is sensational, what Okri described as “a feast of gloating and salivation for Western observers”; and its existence is hopeful, with the possibility to contribute to the history of what Okri, in philanthropic terms, denoted “our human genius”.
Okri’s call for a new vision of Africa formed a refrain in his speech. But so did his demands that these new visions not be used to obscure the truth, but rather to enrich it, to use it in a relentless, collective questioning of society and its assumptions.
The Economist’s latest cover story on South Africa is an illuminating example of the second of Okri’s Africas. In its content and, more revealingly perhaps, its images, the story invokes centuries of misrepresentation of Africa and its inhabitants. The visuals that accompany the story are particularly significant because of their confirmation of quintessential myths about black South Africans. The front cover of the article shows a group of black, male protesters jogtrotting towards the camera – fists raised, knobkerries and sticks hoisted at the ready – excited, volatile, dangerous. Here is the 21st century version of the marauding Zulu warrior.
Two other photographs accompany the coverage in this issue. One is of a large group of school children, the other of a small child, naked but for a pair of shorts, scrambling over the roof of a shack. Both of these images confirm stereotypes in the Western imaginary of Africa. In the archive of colonial photography, Africans were rarely represented as individual, self-aware subjects. This is especially the case in colonial portrayals of African children, who were usually featured in stages of undress (as with the second portrait in the Economist’s article, Over the rainbow), and in situations of evident, potential harm. The image presents an indictment of parental irresponsibility, an exposé of immoral incompetence. What kind of mother, wonders the reader, would allow her barefooted child to go clambering over the rusty roof of a shack?
A range of commentators and public figures, including President Zuma, have objected to this portrait of South Africa. But what of the article’s effects? What will the articles and their images do to the Economist’s global readership, how will they influence understandings of South Africa and its people?
I’m certain that the authors and editors of these articles would justify their coverage of South Africa on the basis of truth, positioning themselves as mere documenters of the “sad” failure of democracy. The language of these articles is retrogressive. South Africa is “sliding downhill” and “going backwards” – expressions lifted from their opening paragraphs. But it is the portrayal of South Africa in these articles, the careful process of selection and combination enacted by their authors and editors, that is retrogressive – the latest afropessimistic artefacts in a long line of misrepresentation.
Modern history testifies to the power and impact of the mass media. Photographs have played a powerful role in constructing global, popular understandings of historical events and processes and in determining their political responses. The images of the mushroom cloud above Hiroshima and the emaciated victims of Nazi concentration camps, among the most infamous in history, motivated political leaders to create policies and institutions which would strive to prevent the repetition of such atrocities. By contrast, the absence of international media coverage of the Rwandan genocide in 1994 has been implicated in the failure of the international community to intervene.
While some argue that photographs of brutality and injustice galvanise public responses, others claim that shocking images breed “compassion fatigue” and indifference. But between these two positions lies the general agreement that images matter, that they mould our beliefs about others, and that they inform our collective prognoses about the nature and potential of societies.
Certain images are disarming, challenging us to consider the substance and origin of our beliefs and to imagine other possibilities. Others, like those in the Economist’s latest coverage of South Africa, merely confirm assumptions, deepening the grooves carved out by centuries of stereotyping, and foreclosing the imagination of anything good to come. DM