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UK-Africa Relations Seminar Series Part 6

31 Jan

Earlier this month saw the sixth meeting of the ESRC seminar series on UK-Africa relations that I have been involved in. Two workshops hosted by the Royal African Society were followed by a public lecture in the evening. The overall theme for the day being ‘Africa and the UK Public Imagination’. In this post I will provide a short summary of the various presentations and sketch out what, for me at least, were some of the most interesting issues raised. Podcasts of the workshop presentations will be available on the website for the seminar series in due course.

During the morning workshop, our speakers considered how Africa is represented within campaigning traditions in the UK. Niheer Dasandi (University College London) reported on some research he had conducted with colleagues on the nature of Africa campaigning in the UK. Based on survey data, the emotional responses of individuals were assessed in relation to the use of what Dasandi described as ‘traditional’ and ‘alternative’ appeals to the public. The conclusion being that NGOs do have alternatives to the stereotypical negative imagery that has dominated Africa campaigning for years.

Peter Hillmore (1985) Live Aid: The Greatest Show On Earth, London: Sidgwick & Jackson, p.2

Nick Dearden (Director of Global Justice Now) picked up on these issues and unpacked some of the broader political dynamics at play. He convincingly argued how the ‘live aid model’ continues to be the dominant framing of Africa experienced by the public in the UK. He spoke from personal experience of the problems faced by NGOs in framing their campaigns on Africa. In particular, he argued that the use of ‘traditional’ imagery results in a depoliticisation of the challenges facing Africa and a focus on aid as the appropriate response, rather than broader campaigns on justice.

The limits to engendering a spirit of solidarity in campaigning on Africa, was then discussed in Lara Pawson’s very personal account of her experience of living and working in Angola. Pawson is the author of In the Name of the People: Angola’s Forgotten Massacre. She reflected on how hard it is for those of us in the UK to show real solidarity from afar and argued that more space should be given to Africans themselves.

Our afternoon workshop switched attention to how UK-Africa relations have been reflective of changing political dynamics at home. Allison Coyle and Sara Rich Dorman (both University of Edinburgh) outlined how the Scottish government has supported bilateral relations between Scotland and Malawi. This development partnership receives government funding to support the activities of civil society organisations who are at the heart of the relationship. They noted, that partly for reasons of scale, this results in a much more ‘grounded’ development partnership than the UK-wide approach led by the Department for International Development.

Dyfan Powel (University of Aberystwyth) then discussed the ‘Wales for Africa‘ programme, which is chiefly a grant administration scheme to support Welsh NGOs and their work in Africa. Both the Scottish and Welsh cases demonstrated how, partly for reasons of size and in the Welsh case in particular, as a result of the constitutional constraints upon the Welsh government, the underlying politics of development in Africa are not explicitly considered. Finally, Andrew Mycock (University of Huddersfield) in his discussion of the Commonwealth demonstrated how UK perceptions of Africa are still shaped by the historical legacies of colonialism.

In the evening we relocated to the School of Oriental and African Studies to hear Alex de Waal (Tufts University) give an overview of a new book he has edited entitled Advocacy in Conflict. This spoke to some of the themes discussed earlier in the day. A convincing case was made as to how transnational advocacy can often slide into over-simplified singular narratives that limit the agency of Africans themselves.

As always, it was an enjoyable and thought-provoking day. On further reflection, I found a couple of themes to be of particular interest.

  1. It was clear from the discussions on Africa campaigning that context is important. As Nick Dearden acknowledged, during New Labour’s time in office there was, relatively speaking, a more conducive environment to challenging the dominant historical framing of Africa. However, the public’s perception is hard to shift because of the broader context and in particular the power of the mainstream media, which is dominated by the culture of celebrity. This was picked up in Alex de Waal’s evening lecture where he critiqued what he termed the ‘designer activists’ who can play a key role in agenda-setting.
  2. The seminar series as a whole has demonstrated how difficult it is to disaggregate the UK’s relations with Africa from a whole range of multilateral fora (be it the EU’s trade agreements with the continent, or the role of the Commonwealth, etc.). However, at the same time, the process of devolution has seen moves towards the constituent parts of the UK forming their own ‘independent’ relations with Africa. These are limited both in terms of the amount of funding available and the scope for them to offer a political alternative to the orthodoxy of mainstream NGOs.

Later this year, the series of seminars will conclude in Nairobi, Kenya where questions of ‘African agency’ will be considered in relation to the overall theme of ‘UK-Africa Relations’. My blog posts on previous seminars are all available here and for full details of the series go to the official website. For the latest news do follow @UKAfricaSeminar on twitter.

Declinism and South Africa

2 Mar

Over recent months, international media coverage has portrayed South Africa as a ‘broken’ country. Only this week we have seen on our TV screens evidence of serious police brutality, which reminded me of many of the images from the 1980s that had such an impact on me as an impressionable teenager. Similarly, in August 2012 we watched in horror as striking platinum miners in Marikana were shot dead by police. Such events have generated a ‘declinist’ reading of the situation in South Africa, most aptly demonstrated by The Economist on the front cover of its non-UK edition in October 2012.Image

What is striking here (no pun intended) is that such views contrast quite sharply with the orthodox narrative used to depict developments in the rest of the African continent in recent years, which points to rapid rates of economic growth in a number of countries (in particular Angola and Nigeria) that in 2011 were dubbed ‘African Lions’ in the very same publication. It seems that South Africa is being singled out as an isolated case in a continent that is otherwise making economic advances. This perception provides the flip-side to earlier suggestions that Africa was the ‘hopeless continent’ when again South Africa was described as the exception to the rule.

Inside the 20th October 2012 issue the two articles ‘Cry, the beloved country’ and ‘Over the rainbow’ paint a worrying picture of the situation in South Africa as it approaches the end of two decades since the first multi-racial election. The assessment of what has gone wrong since 1994 suggests that the major causal factor has been the incompetence of the African National Congress (ANC), which has led the government throughout the post-apartheid period. Former President, Thabo Mbeki, and current incumbent Jacob Zuma, are charged with leading a party that has fostered corruption and has failed to attract the foreign investment needed to address rising inequality and the grinding poverty that is the daily existence of the majority of the population. The main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA), are claimed to have the ‘right ideas’ and striking miners are seen as a serious dent to South Africa’s reputation as a potential investment opportunity.

Whilst such analysis correctly identifies the key tensions in South African society – inequality, unemployment and poverty – and notes some of the undoubted failings of the ANC, it fails to identify the ideological alignment of the ANC government to neoliberalism and the place of South Africa within global capitalism as key parts of the ‘problem’. In this sense I was reminded of an article by John S. Saul entitled ‘Cry for the Beloved Country: The Post-Apartheid Denouement’ published back in 2001 in the Monthly Review.

Here Saul emphasises, as many have done, how the negotiated transition to democracy was designed as a way to organise the handover of political power to the ANC, whilst at the same time maintaining the continuity of capitalist economic relations and an acceptance of the dominant neoliberal orthodoxy. Saul’s conclusion that the transition has failed to address the underlying social relations within South Africa, despite being made over ten years ago, looks ever more pertinent as each year passes. The central premise of both the ANC’s economic strategy, and the analysis presented in The Economist, is the need to attract foreign investment to South Africa through a policy framework designed to create a set of business-friendly conditions. What is not questioned, however, are the potential consequences of such an unrestrained engagement with the global economy. It is this ideological side to the ANC’s hegemony within South Africa that is often ignored by those who focus on the more coercive measures adopted by the state to quash displays of discontent amongst South Africa’s justifiably impatient majority.

Whilst it is certainly true that South Africa needs a more effective government than the one it currently has, it also requires a significant shift to the left in ideological terms if it is to address such divisive socio-economic inequalities. It is becoming increasingly apparent that despite the removal of Mbeki, this is not possible within the confines of the ANC. The DA who argue in favour of the need for ‘an economy that is characterized primarily by the free choices of individuals’, offer little in the way of a genuine alternative, except for a potentially more efficient and less corrupt neoliberal state. The need for change runs much deeper than the mainstream declinist critics of the ANC government suggest.