Out of Africa: The tales that wag the blog

There is a scene in the documentary film The Upsetter, about the life of reggae producer Lee Scratch Perry, in which he likens the music genre he helped to shape to a dog using its teeth to tear away at a piece of cloth.

By implication, the piece of cloth is tightly attached to the object or person coming under attack because, as Perry says, the dog "is not gonna stop until it tears it to pieces".

The image, although perhaps unflattering, is an apt descriptor for the role the blog Africa is a Country has come to play in the global media space. It is the underdog barking, or perhaps growling truth to power, and it's too close to the bone simply to shrug off or ignore.

The blog, a deliberate lampooning of reductionist, "received wisdom about the African continent and its people in Western media", evolved from Leo Africanus, the one-man blog run by Sean Jacobs, an assistant professor of international affairs at the New School for Public Engagement in New York.

In 2009 Jacobs, a South African who has also taught at the University of Michigan and held fellowships at Harvard and New York University, got "bored" and changed the name.

Out-of-place African
He continued blogging regularly about his experiences as an out-of-place African, but was soon joined by a team assembled from his academic sparring partners, and his vast international network of academics, writers and students. Even as its roster swelled to include early adopters and contributors such as writer and researcher Elliot Ross, Zambia-raised literature professor Neelika Jayawardane and Sierra Leonean-American DJ Chief Boima, the blog still represented, in some way, the intellectual instincts of its founder.

Today, having amassed a formidable team of contributors, ­including South African commentator TO Molefe, governance specialist Jonathan Faull and former Mail & Guardian journalist Percy Zvomuya, the blog ensures it turns in at least a post a day – on topics ranging from the film 12 Years a Slave to the problematic sentimentality of the adult literacy-themed "Give that man a Bell's" advert, in which an elderly man takes adult education classes in order to read his son's book.

Try as you might, it's hard not to turn an online corner in Africa without bumping into Africa is a Country. The Guardian recently put out an app called Africa isn't a Country, identifying all the worst offenders when it came to articles that talk of "Africa" without mentioning a specific country. It was bizarre but perhaps strangely salutary.

In 2012, as the singularly abysmal circus of #Kony 2012 – the Invisible Children Inc's ill-fated campaign to have Lord's Resistance Army leader Joseph Kony captured by the end of the year – unfolded, the blog let the pressure build before unleashing a deluge of pieces striking at the heart of the white-saviour complex driving the ridiculous "Stop Kony" campaign.

When Nelson Mandela died, instead of dusting off pre-written obituaries as the first salvo, they turned to music instead. Elliot Ross dished out a compelling soundtrack kicked off by Miles Davis's Amandla, an emotive song from his 1989 album of the same name that suggests the waking of a giant; contributor Steffan Horowitz then playlisted a South African soundtrack.

At its best, though, Africa is a Country is like a pugnacious yet erudite older brother – never backing down from a fistfight but eloquent enough to argue his way out of it.

Jacobs says some of the stories that have done well recently are those on the Kenyan nongovernmental organisation mockumentary The Samaritans, about the absurdities of the international aid sector, and Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainana's recent coming out.

Together those two stories, Jacobs says, generated about 140 000 reads. According to Jacobs – who is ­jokingly referred to as the blog's "life president" – on an average day, the blog draws about 10 000 reads: a big number for a little website running with hardly any overheads.

"Those numbers are quite big in the US for a blog. And we're on Twitter and Facebook all the time – and always going back and forth with our contributors," he says.

"I think they are attention-getting, funny and often accurate," says Stephanie Wolters, who runs the conflict prevention and risk analysis programme at the Institute for Security Studies and has worked as a BBC and Reuters correspondent in Kinshasa.

"There are a lot of stereotypes about Africa being perpetrated without thinking and it's great that they put that out in an intelligent way. But at times I think they're being smug, showy and glib. The issues they take on are serious and sometimes they need to see all sides of the story before making a judgment. They can be guilty of judging a book by its cover."

Reactionary tone
Some readers feel the blog can sometimes take on a reactionary tone by feeling the need to answer to everything.

"If [the blog] is writing about something then you kind of know what they are going to say to a certain degree," notes contributor Lindokuhle Nkosi. "But it is important. You have to bark until someone listens but then you can be barking all the time because so few people are writing about these topics and so few houses publishing people writing about these topics.

"I think they could take a different approach, so that they are less about dissecting whiteness and whiteness in the media and more about making black people visible."

Jayawardane, one of the editors, believes they actually let a lot of things slide: "I can say very honestly that if we run five 'standard'-sounding responses in a month, about what we politely call 'issues of representation', which … are problematic or ignorant, unquestioned assumptions about race, there have been at least 20 to 50 shit things that we are actually not responding to that same month.

"So what appears to be a tired old reactionary response is a response to tired old repetitive shit in mainstream media – reported and written by actual reporters and vetted and accepted by actual editors."

Media blind spots
Molefe, who has contributed some incisive articles critiquing the media's blind spots on race, sees the blog as contributing to the debate on the lack of meaningful media transformation.

"I'd been reading and appreciating it for a while before my first contribution, which I think was a critique of news media in South Africa hinged on an M&G story," says Molefe, referring to his response to a story on KPMG's report on President Jacob Zuma's finances.

For Jacobs, the conditions that have helped the blog to thrive can be outlined in straightforward terms: the global media's failure to deal progressively with race and, with regard to South Africa in particular, the failure to deracialise.

"A lot of things have happened in the South African media that need to be made sense of," says Jacobs. "When apartheid ended, the media didn't deracialise like people were expecting it to. I don't think there was a fundamental change; there was only a rhetorical shift."

Jacobs believes that the ultimate example of this is how most media outlets were left with egg on their faces over their coverage of the short-lived Democratic Alliance-AgangSA merger. "With the Mamphela Ramphele/Helen Zille debacle, you could see the mocking happening in real time on social media, despite attempts to spin it."

Taking on the big guns
Molefe wrote a piece for the blog about the media spectacle. He made easy pickings of analyses by Daily Maverick contributor Stephen Grootes, who said that the Ramphele move meant "Zille is right to proclaim that this removes some of the sting of the ANC's accusations against the DA".

He also took on Business Day, which called Agang Mamphele's "little diversion" and suggested the DA would be a "supportive environment" for her. Molefe called the M&G's editorial – which had suggested the move made the DA's "face more acceptable to black South Africans" – simplistic.

So although Jacobs was at pains to avoid sounding like an all-knowing oracle, pontificating from an ivory tower across the Atlantic, his view about a way forward suggested, surprisingly enough, a path centred on our collective past.

"Something like the Weekly Mail or the Vrye Weekblad should come back, but it should be black-led. Not a black enterprise with soft politics. Progressive and left-wing."

As for the future plans for Africa is a Country, Jacobs plays his cards close to his chest, but Jayawardane says big changes are afoot.

"Money was never really the objective; we've spent our first years working to make Africa is a Country what it is today without paycheques. But we want to get to the stage where writers are paid. We will definitely face the same challenges as all other privately funded media in doing so, but we don't want to compromise our irreverent, independent style when we get there."

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever. But it comes at a cost. Advertisers are cancelling campaigns, and our live events have come to an abrupt halt. Our income has been slashed.

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Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo is the editor of Friday, the arts and culture section of the Mail and Guardian.

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