Africa: the continent we choose to ignore

Market in Lagos, Nigeria. Photo: Tony Maynard

Africa is a continent, not a country. The 54 African countries are unfailingly either ignored in our media or the stories that we see are negative. Africa has positive stories to tell but editors in Australia choose not to let us hear them.

Anyone following the news in Australia could not be blamed for thinking that Africa doesn’t exist. If African stories are published by the Australian media they are negative and usually cover conflicts, famine and disease.

There is no argument that the continent of Africa has incredible poverty, hunger and famine, conflict, human rights abuses, an AIDs pandemic, corruption in government and a brutal history of colonisation.

We forget though that it is made up of 54 countries. These countries speak different languages, possess diverse cultures and rich resources, have spectacular natural beauty and are home to many inspiring and educated individuals who have stories about their successes and challenges to tell. These include Nobel Prize winners, scholars, authors, sportspeople, artists, musicians, business professionals, doctors and the list goes on.

Australian school children could be forgiven for thinking Africa doesn’t exist except as a place for lions and other exotic animals to roam through the savannah being pursued by cameras disguised as rocks. Primary school children are not taught African history or geography. In high school students can cover the apartheid era of South Africa as an elective. Human beings are instinctively frightened of what they don’t know and by providing children with limited information on Africa our education system with its limited curriculum is breeding mistrust and ignorance.

Occasionally we hear about celebrities and their experiences of “Africa” in the tabloids.  We heard that Madonna adopted a Malawian child and the subsequent controversy when the child’s family claimed they had been manipulated. We heard that George Clooney got arrested because he was protesting about Sudan and the news of his arrest was considered a win as attention would be drawn to the cause. Unfortunately the media didn’t choose to focus on the cause at all.

Africa is a huge and diverse continent that has a myriad of stories to offer us. Journalists who regularly report from a country and are based there for some time are, of course, more likely to be better informed, to be more analytical and have a wider range of sources.

Currently Ginny Stein is the ABC’s only Africa correspondent based in South Africa. She is the ABC’s, and Australia’s, only correspondent for the entire continent. So, 54 countries: one correspondent.

Most recently the controversial Kony campaign has shown us images of gun-toting child soldiers in Uganda , but was designed to ‘get’ Joseph Kony, rather than focusing on solutions for Uganda. Like it or hate it, the campaign served to illustrate that young people in Australia are interested in hearing about African issues.

Aid organisations necessarily perpetuate negative images of famine and poverty in African countries to attract much-needed financial support in a highly competitive charity market. Unfortunately, as a mass media campaign it has been debilitating to Africa’s image. The constant negativity hinders its ability to develop economically because of the charity mindset this has created.

The negativity has quite deliberately failed to showcase the potential that is there.

Africa is not poor, though many African people are poor.  It is a place of vast potential. The World Economic Forum report on Africa in 2012 states that this year, “Africa’s projected growth rate of 6 per cent will be driven by improved macroeconomic and political stability, an ongoing resource boom and a growing consumer base.”

The World Bank’s latest poverty estimates show that the number of people living in poverty in Africa has declined – a first ever.

The Chinese government has been pouring investment money into Africa for some years now as it seeks to secure access to the continent’s raw materials and win potential new markets for its manufactured goods. China now imports an estimated one third of its oil from African countries including Angola, Sudan and the Republic of Congo.

In addition to a resources boom, Africa is experiencing a huge revolution in the use and ownership of mobile phones, which are forging a new enterprise culture and improving access to vital services like banking, healthcare and even family planning. The advent of affordable mobile phones has enabled rich and poor Africans to link to each other, and to people around the world. It has changed the way they live.

Internationally and nationally, journalists need to be more responsible and wide-reaching in their reporting. One of the new challenges for the media is to embrace a new way of reporting or fall further behind in the ever-dwindling print newspaper world. Perhaps embracing stories about Africa is one way it can diversify and capture our interest  –  54 countries: unlimited opportunities.


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