I first worked as a journalist when I was a student in late 1980s South Africa. Apartheid was on its last legs.
It was a violent and uncertain time but it also coincided with the emergence of what became known as “the alternative press”. This was a series of weekly newspapers publishing not only exposés of apartheid’s death squads or its futile attempts at reform, but also chronicling the energies of popular movements and producing illuminating opinion writing.
We lived in a world of intense state censorship. Political commitments, not profit, drove this work. The idea was to mobilise people; to win, in Antonio Gramsci’s terms, the war of position.
After graduation, I worked briefly as a news reporter, then went to graduate school with a Fulbright scholarship in the United States, returning afterwards to Cape Town to work in a think tank.
But that idea of producing media without regard for profit stayed with me. I got my chance to put this principle into action when, as a new faculty member of a midwestern US university, I started blogging in 2005. In 2009 that blog morphed into Africa Is a Country.
Africa Is a Country set out to document and challenge media wisdoms about Africa in North America and Western Europe from a left perspective. It quickly built a reputation among journalists and researchers for that critical stance, then outgrew its original remit to become a space that foregrounded under-represented ideas and perspectives.
We aim not to just intervene in debates about Africa, but to amplify voices that political and cultural orthodoxies marginalise, especially Africa’s left traditions and social movements.
In one memorable case, in January 2014, Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina decided to publish an essay to announce that he was coming out as gay. Wainaina approached us to publish the essay I Am a Homosexual, Mum. As he later told an American radio station: “I didn’t want this story published in The New Yorker or in some magazine abroad or anything. I wanted to put it out for people to share. I wanted to generate a conversation among Africans.”
Though we didn’t declare our work as open-source or Creative Commons-licenced at the start, we have, in effect, operated on that model from the beginning.
Because we believe in promoting the free exchange of ideas online, we will now make all of the content on Africa Is a Country available under a Creative Commons licence.
What this means is that other outlets can now spread Africa Is a Country content for free, as long as they attribute the source and author. For much of the world, including between African countries, audiences and readers get their analysis from Western wire services or the syndicated columns from major Euro-American media.
Now an editor in Lahore, Pakistan or a college student in the northeast of Brazil who likes our content can translate it into their own language without asking our permission. That editor or student is free to copy and republish material from our website in any medium or format they wish.
In January this year, we wrote a letter to our past and present contributors — nearly 1 000 people over 10 years — to inform them of the change. We offered people the chance to take their work off the site; only two authors asked for their content to be removed.
As much of Africa comes online, and as the Western publishing world disappears behind paywalls or resorts to clickbait, we hope that by keeping our content free, it will continue to lower the threshold to participation in the public sphere. Staying free means that online Africa has more space to talk; it also means that the rest of the online (and offline) media world can use our perspectives more easily.
This model helps us to rethink the broken financial model of journalism, where small publications like ours, which are not in the business of clicks, slowly or sometimes dramatically cease to publish or become content farms. This is a step towards what Wired anticipated in 2009: “A sort of socialism uniquely tuned for a networked world.”
Like the alternative press of South Africa I admired as a young journalist — New Nation, South, The Weekly Mail and Vrye Weekblad — we don’t want the Africa Is a Country’s position to be marginal. We want it to be mainstream. We want readers and audiences from all over the world to see the news reported and analysed by people from the countries in which the news is being made. In 2019, it doesn’t make sense that we do anything else. Ideas belong everywhere, not just on Africa Is a Country.
Sean Jacobs is the founder and editor of Africa Is a Country, and an associate professor of international affairs at The New School, a private, nonprofit research university in New York City