Western Media and their Continually Racist Depictions of Africa

A white woman with blonde hair holds her smart phone up to take a picture of the giraffe standing directly in front of her.

CN: extensive discussion of media-based manifestations of racism, and the impact of the pandemic; general discussion of the myth of “white genocide”; mention of 45.  

I had been aware for a while that the portrayal of Africa that most folks from the US encounter in encyclopedias and on documentaries is heavily influenced by white supremacy and white savior narratives. But despite this awareness, I am not immune to the effects of modern media on my ideas about what Africa is like, as these biased stories have continued to this day. In today’s guest post, Thandiwe breaks down some of the ways this pattern plays out in current events and the hand the media has in perpetuating them. 

The West has long forced the “dark continent” narrative onto Africa, which stubbornly continues to persist in Western media. To the West, Africa is continuously pigeon-holed as being backward, uncivilized, and barbaric. Considering Ugandan anthropologist Christine Obbo’s observation, in the article But We Know It All! African Perspectives on Anthropological Knowledge, that “what irritates Africans most is that when they are acknowledged as being part of the African landscape, they are represented as either nomads or pastoralists; they are depicted as either dancing or starving; and they are shown emerging from the ultimate badge of poverty—the hut”, it is clear that the West’s self-fulfilling discourse on Africa and its diverse people is as frustrating as it is exhausted.

Inaccurate Coverage of Africa’s Response to Covid19

“For reasons which can certainly use close psychological inquiry, the West seems to suffer deep anxieties about the precariousness of its civilization and to have a need for constant reassurance by comparison with Africa(Achebe, 1978:13).

2020 has been a significant year in illustrating the West’s obsession with the Dark Africa narrative. During the first few months of the year, as the West was beginning to realize the effect and impact of their own poor management of the outbreak of the coronavirus, attention swiftly turned to “deep anxieties” over how Africa would be devastated by the virus. All over the news and social media, western ‘experts’ warned on how the coronavirus would reach the African continent at catastrophic levels similar to the eruption of Ebola or HIV/AIDS. This was said to be due to “poorly resourced health systems” and “overcrowding in resource-limited settings with limited access to sanitation”. The insinuation was clear; if we have failed, what about poor Africa? This, against every expert prediction, has not been the African reality.

Unlike Western countries such as Spain, Italy, the United Kingdom, and the United States, African leaders were rapid in their response to the global pandemic. From as early as 2 January 2020, Africa—led by the Ivory Coast—had enforced surveillance at airports and passenger screening for those arriving from China. In February, the first case of covid-19 in Africa was recorded in Egypt—originating from Europe. By the end of March 2020, most African states were under hard lockdown even though many were only reporting around 40 cases. Moreover, some countries like Lesotho enforced a lockdown before any instances of reported cases. There is no exaggeration in stating that Africa’s initial response to the coronavirus was exemplary—in comparison to the West— by being proactive through its continent-wide approach. By October, Africa had recorded approximately 37,000 deaths while the Americas and Europe reported 580,000 and 230,000 respectively.

I would suggest from my privileged position in African and Western culture some advantages the West might derive from Africa once it rid its mind of the old prejudices and began to look at Africa not through a haze of distortions and cheap mystifications but quite simply as a continent of people—not angels, but not rudimentary souls either—just people, often highly gifted people and often strikingly successful in their enterprise with life and society” (Achebe 1978:13)

A black and grey digital map of the world shows red circles to demonstrate the spread of Covid19. Africa completely devoid of large red circles, only displaying tiny ones.

The desperate necessity to look at Africans “through a haze of distortion and cheap mystifications” has played itself out in the West’s media coverage of the pandemic in Africa. Journalistic integrity, it would appear, is not a prerequisite when reporting on Africa. One such instance occurred on 17 July, when American news channel CNN incorrectly reported South Africa’s total coronavirus deaths at 14,000—an astonishing three times higher than the 4,804 that were recorded by the South African government on that day. “Where does this grossly inflated number come from? What happened to fact-checking? Google?” were the questions many South Africans were left asking—with no response.

The Myth of White Genocide

Taking the call mentioned earlier by  Nigerian novelist, professor, and critic Chinua Achebe, for “close psychological inquiry” in the West’s positioning of Africa, seriously, the West’s fascination with South Africa’s fictional ‘white genocide’ provides another exceptional example.

By definition, according to Wikipedia, white genocide is: “a myth based on pseudoscience, pseudohistory, and hatred, driven by a psychological panic often termed white extinction anxiety. There is no evidence that white people are dying out or that they will die out, or that anyone is trying to exterminate them as a race. The purpose of the conspiracy theory is to scare white people, and justify a commitment to a white nationalist agenda in support of increasingly successful calls to violence.” 

The fallacy of a white genocide is not new in white South African imagination. Constantly feeling threatened, the fall of the apartheid regime and the advent of Black political power resulted in heightened white fear of Black retaliation. This guilty paranoia has, more recently, culminated into a dramatic and unfounded proclamation of a white genocide, centering around attacks on farms known as ‘farm murders’. In February 2018, the sentiment of farm murders was intensified by Parliament’s decision to support the possibility of reviewing the Constitution to allow for the land expropriation without compensation bill. This bill serves as a means to land reform which aims to give land back to the people of the land where President Cryil Ramaphosa stated “We are going to address this and make sure that we come up with resolutions that resolve this once and for all. This original sin that was committed when our country was colonised must be resolved in a way that will take South Africa forward.” In retaliation, this particular figment of white genocide asserts that “white South African farmers are murdered at a higher rate than the murder rate in the general population of South Africa.” Despite the fact that South Africa is one of the most dangerous countries in the world, “many black farmers and their workers are also victims of violent attacks”  and that “whites are far less likely to be murdered than their black or coloured counterparts”, white farmers are singled out and deemed more important. 

The notion of a white genocide is only bought into by those– within the country’s borders and abroad— who believe that white lives matter more than everybody else. Under the crafty guise of minority rights in their racist venture to re-establish white dominance, conservative white interest groups such as AfriForum and the Suildlanders in South Africa have turned to the West for support and intervention.

Media’s Role in Misinformation Around Africa

In the article White farmers: how a far-right idea was planted in Donald Trump’s mind for The Guardian, Jason Wilson explains that the “idea that there is a ‘genocide’ of white farmers in South Africa was once the province of conspiracy theorists but, thanks to New Corp’s promotion, it has moved into the policy realm”. The article provides a breakdown of the Western media successes of a Suidlanders campaign in the United States which resulted in the backing of endangered white South Africans by right-wing Western leaders such as American President Donald Trump and former Australian home affairs minister Peter Dutton.

A man with dark skin and short natural black hair sits in front of a wall covered in newspapers. He is holding an open African Newspaper, while he stares at the camera head on.

Open Book Publishers note that “the media can also, in some cases, become an instrument for the dissemination of false and inflammatory messages and values that do not promote respect or well-tempered dialogue and discussion.” In the case of African imagery in Western media, this understanding of the role of media rings true. For far too long the Western gaze on Africa has exhibited a “preposterous and perverse kind of arrogance”. It is a gaze that reduces Africa in order to pacify angst in the West. For this, unethical media coverage has been fundamental.

The Absence of Introspection and Self-Awareness

In July 2020, Danish associate professor at the Centre of African Studies at the University of Copenhagen Stig Jensen, and Rune Larsen, Ph.D. student at the Institute for Anthropological Research in Africa at KU Leuven, wrote the text titled Researchers: Western ideas of Africa are hypocritical fantasies. The authors introduce their piece with the comment, “Africa is corrupt, absurd, dangerous and wild. Or is it? Danish social scientists severely criticize our Western delusions about the continent and its people” where they extend their discussion of how the “simplistic Western notions of Africa sustain and recreate the colonial relationship between the West and Africa”

As an African and a critical thinker there was nothing impressive about this article and the claims it made. In fact, all I was left observing was that the racially simplistic Western notions of Africa are so deeply ingrained in Western imagination that a team of researchers-specializing in African Studies-were required to state the obvious, reiterating what Africans have been saying to an audience that refuses to listen. 

Obviously, there is more to Africa than what the West projects in their media. In a time that has explicitly disproved the West being better than the rest, Western media has shown its degree of unethical practice in order to hold on to notions of white superiority. Indi Samarajiva wrote that  “Western media cannot write western failure,” which has played out in covid coverage not only of Africa but also Asia and other parts of the ‘developing’ world. The inability for Western self-critique and introspection sets Africa up to satisfy Western psychological shortcomings. It is, however, a burden and frustration on those of us who actually live here and know better.

A dark-skinned woman with black natural hair parted down the middle smiles widely at the camera. She wears a black longsleeve shirt with gold buttons, gold hoops around her neck, and long strings of brightly colored beads attached to her earrings.

About the guest blogger: Thandiwe Ntshinga is a South African freelance writer. Her work employs intersectional analysis on social issues with a particular focus on race and racism. More on Thandiwe can be found on her website, thandiwentshinga.com or follow her on Instagram @blackwomxnrants.

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