To get to the boardroom of the BBC Africa bureau in Johannesburg is like a mini-journey through the international broadcaster’s past, present and future of eight decades’ of news-gathering on the continent.
You pass its state-of-the-art radio and TV studios and go through a small but busy newsroom, with large wall-mounted monitors broadcasting BBC World news, next to clocks ticking away the different time zones. Then you go along a corridor of editing rooms, where someone is digitising the bureau’s massive tape collection. The walls of the corridor are covered with sepia photographs of slim and smiling old BBC hands such as George Alagiah, Milton Nkosi and Glenn Middleton set against African sunsets.
The future of the BBC’s African broadcasting fills the boardroom with a big voice and a large smile, and exudes a passion for the continent. His name is Komla Dumor and he will be the anchor of the broadcaster’s new television programme, Focus on Africa, starting on Monday evening on BBC World.
It will be the first daily television news programme (30 minutes long) dedicated to Africa by an international broadcaster.
Ghanaian-born Dumor was in South Africa recently on a whirlwind promotional tour.
Challenges and prospects
“I am incredibly excited to be part of a programme that will provide solid coverage of Africa’s challenges and prospects,” he said.
Africa is no longer the lost continent – it is now a continent with audiences that broadcasters want to capture. It is a three-horse race at the moment between the BBC, CNN and
Al Jazeera International, but the field is expected to grow.
“Africa is the fastest-growing news market in the world,” said Solomon Mugera, BBC’s Africa editor, who was in Johannesburg with Dumor. And the audience is both in Africa and overseas.
Focus on Africa is not the first of its kind. Kim Norgaard, CNN Johannesburg bureau chief, said: “It is nice to welcome the BBC to something we have been doing for years.”
CNN has three dedicated African shows. “Africa is a business story,” Norgaard said: “There are many who look at Africans as consumers.”
Depiction of the continent
Thanks to satellite broadcasting, there are eager viewers beyond the continent. Isaac Mangena, e.tv’s continental operations editor, said e.tv was pleasantly surprised by the size of its viewership in the United Kingdom, but not all were Britons. “The audience is also Africans in the diaspora interested in what is going on at home.”
But international coverage of Africa has long been a source of controversy. Critics have attacked the depiction of the continent as a “hopeless place of death”, according to Professor Tawana Kupe, dean of humanities at the University of the Witwatersrand and associate professor of media studies. However, there has been a shift: “Competition between news stations and critiques over the years have led to gradual change in representation,” he said.
Others have criticised foreign correspondents for engaging Africans superficially. Recently, Binyavanga Wainaina, director of the Chinua Achebe Centre for African Writers and Artists at Bard College in the United States, made fun of their cosy relationship with international non-governmental organisations in an article in the Guardian.
“If a foreign correspondent needs to know what exactly is going on in Sudan, their weekly lunch with the Oxfam guy will identify the most urgent issues.”
But Focus on Africa seems a step in the right direction. “A new Africa is emerging,” Dumor said. “The old stereotypes are being challenged and a new, compelling narrative is being written.” Instead of incessant reports of coups across the continent, the success of the Nairobi stock exchange and mobile phone penetration were now deserving of mention.
According to Dumor, effective reporting meant that “you have to breathe the air and taste the dust”.
Africa by Africans
With an 80-year-long presence on the continent, BBC radio’s correspondents are integral to the new service. Peter Burdin, Africa bureau editor, said: “We have 65 correspondents in 45 countries reporting on a daily basis. And so we will be unleashing young journalists who are already in place.”
Dumor said: “These will be reports on Africa by Africans. We are not flying in some expert for South Africans to say you don’t know what you’re talking about.”
This will give the BBC an edge. For e.tv’s Africa 360, a programme with a similar agenda, one of the key challenges has been continental representation. “BBC has been there, they’ve had a radio presence and they can use those people,” Mangena said. “We are a step ahead with TV broadcasting, but they already have a footprint across the continent.”
Does this mean only Africans should cover Africa? Nkosi, a BBC analyst at the Johannesburg bureau, said not. “I will defend the internationalism of journalism.”
A veteran journalist from Soweto, he went on to head the BBC bureau in South Asia. “I think that whole thing of parachute journalism is a cliché, honestly. There are many people who fly in and do fantastic pieces.”
The international media has a role to play in painting African pictures. “Local journalists are sometimes more interested in the immediate perspective,” he said. “It is important to get a sense of the way others see us, otherwise we’d be buried in our own stories.”
A recent online spat over the coverage of Africa elicited some biting comment. Tristan McConnell is a Global Post journalist based in Nairobi. In response to indignant criticism about “stereotyping and incomplete analysis” by correspondents, he wrote: “When I write that the people of the Nuba mountains are terrified of Khartoum’s Antonov bombers … it’s because I’ve lain in the dirt with them when the bombs fell. I’ve seen the terror on their faces and I’ve felt it myself.”
As Nkosi said: “The problem is when you see African people on TV, surrounded by flies, going to the UNHCR [United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees] tent. This [Focus on Africa] will be an opportunity for audiences to see Africa in its glory.”
CNN has three dedicated African shows that air globally several days a week: Inside Africa, Marketplace Africa and African Voices.
Focus on Africa will be the BBC’s first daily TV programme dedicated to Africa.
Al Jazeera has a weekly investigative programme, Africa Investigates.
CCTV broadcasts a daily one-hour news show, Africa Live, from a bureau in Nairobi.
E.tv broadcasts Africa 360, and eNews Prime Time on DSTV, Sky B in the United Kingdom and affiliated channels around the globe.