In light of the heated debates surrounding the stereotyping of black public figures in South Africa, it is important to situate these within a broader historical, pan-African and global context.
In Edward Said’s 1994 book, Culture and Imperialism, the late Palestinian-American intellectual deconstructed the writings of eminent authors, such as Joseph Conrad, Graham Greene and VS Naipaul. He identified ”the stereo-types about ‘the African [or Indian or Irish or Jamaican or Chinese] mind’, the notions about bringing civilisation to primitive or barbaric peoples, the disturbingly familiar ideas about flogging or death or extended punishment being required when ‘they’ misbehaved or became rebellious, because ‘they’ mainly understood force or violence best; ‘they’ were not like ‘us’ and for that reason deserved to be ruled”.
These are views that South Africans will recognise both from colonial and apartheid history. What I refer to here as ”Afrophobia” represents conscious or unconscious stereotyping, which dehumanises Africans.
Conrad expressed cultural imperialism in his 1899 novella, Heart of Darkness. Though himself a Polish emigrÃ© to Britain who was able to see through the corruption of imperial domination (as Said notes), Conrad was ultimately unable to accept that the African characters he portrayed in his book also had independent lives and cultures not controlled by Western imperialism.
In a celebrated 1975 critique of Heart of Darkness, Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe described Conrad as a ”purveyor of comforting myths” and a ”thoroughgoing racist” whose work is ”a story in which the very humanity of black people is called in question”. The Africans in the book are depicted as animals who do not speak but make ”a violent babble of uncouth sounds”. They are mere props on the stage of a grand European imperial narrative.
In Greene’s 1935 novel, Journey Without Maps, Africans are consistently dehumanised. Despite a recognition of the damaging impact of Western colonialism on Africa, there is the same Conradian stereotyping. There is constant talk of diseases and plagues; the ”natives” are described as similar to ”devils”, groaning madmen ”without a tongue”, ”cows”, ”grasshoppers” and ”flies”; and they are depicted as alternately lazy or happy.
Such Afrophobia was reflected in J Smith’s 1851 Trade and Travel in the Gulph of Guinea, which had chapter titles such as ”Human Sacrifice — Nailing Prisoners — decapitation, cooking and eating human flesh. King Pepple eats King Amacree’s heart —”
Eerily similar stereotypes were employed during Liberia’s civil war between 1989 and 1997. Journalistic headlines of the conflict read: ”They cooked my brother’s heart and ate it,” (South African journalist Philip van Niekerk in The Observer) and ”Sharks and alligators” (The Economist).
Another example of Afrophobia was the 1998 The Liberian Civil War, a journalistic account by Briton Mark Huband. The book fails to provide a sense of Liberians other than as the drugged, unemployed youths perpetrating horrific acts and megalomaniac, murderous warlords who continue the war for their own self-serving ends.
It is not that the brutality Huband describes did not exist, but with no focus on other Liberians — political groups, church leaders and women’s groups who struggled bravely to promote peace — the image of Liberians that emerges is largely of savage warlords and their brutal fighters. This is a macabre African safari with the journalist as Tarzan strutting through the jungle observing the primitive ”natives” at their barbaric worst.
Finally, one of the most notorious depictions of post-colonial Africa must surely be The Economist cover title, ”The Hopeless Continent”, in May 2000. Equally distressing was the accompanying article, ”The heart of the matter” — appropriately borrowed from a novel by Greene — written by Richard Dowden, its Africa correspondent at the time.
Both reflected the outrageous stereotyping of Africa. The cover has a map of Africa imposed on a dark background with some random gun-wielding fighter from some random African war zone. It is hard to imagine a similar image of a fighter from the Balkans or Sri Lanka with a caption depicting Europe or Asia as ”hopeless continents”. Africa, it seems, is the only continent where 54 countries of such diversity can be tarred with the same brush of failure by Western analysts.
Dowden’s disturbing article followed the unworthy tradition of his Afrophobic predecessors: ”The beasts and bugs are big, and they bite. Diseases fatal to man — and to his crops and animals — thrive.”
Self-proclaimed Western ”experts”, who usually do not bother to learn any indigenous African languages, preferring instead to cite seemingly omniscient Western diplomats or World Bank officials, continue to view Africa through distorted Eurocentric lenses and are still unable to shake off the colonial legacy of ”the white man’s burden”.
This stereotyping of Africa has the same effect as such views did during the colonial era: it helps to shift responsibility and blame for Africa’s crises from external factors and focuses solely on the supposed social pathologies of culturally backward Africans.
Today the hold that the cartel of still mostly white men has over the mainstream international media is a powerful tool in shaping how people view the world. Depicting Africa as a ”hopeless continent” of culturally backward people prone to perennial conflicts is scarcely going to convince Western public opinion to support interventions to end these tragic wars. Such Afrophobic misrepresentations must be deconstructed and Africans must force their own alternative narratives on to the global agenda.
Dr Adekeye Adebajo is executive director of the Centre for Conflict Resolution