“New news out of Africa”, a book on how Africa has been misrepresented

“For too long, a sad song has dominated the story of Africa and fueled a relentless, unforgiving Afro-pessimism.” This sentence echoes the belief among African elite and those interested in the continent’s development: Africa has long been reported with bias and stereotypes.

“New News Out of Africa: Uncovering African Renaissance” by the American journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault is a memoir which blends reporting with analysis of post-colonial Africa, with focus on post-Apartheid South Africa.

It paints a genuine picture of Africa, contrary to the stereotypical way in which the continent has been reported by foreign media. Published in 2006, the book examines the continent’s path to democracy and the hardships it faces in its quest for development.

Half of the book is dedicated to South Africa, where Hunter-Gault lived since 1985 as a PBS reporter, and later, Chief Africa Correspondent for National Public Radio, and Johannesburg Bureau Chief forCNN.

An African American, Hunter-Gault felt connected to black South Africans who were undergoing discrimination and denial of human rights and justice in their own country.

She had experienced similar injustices back in the United States before the end of the civil rights movement in 1968.

Having lived in South Africa during and after Apartheid, Hunter-Gault has seen the country emerge from the white-minority rule to black-majority led democracy. She tells the uniqueness of the new South Africa.

The formerly oppressed black majority has avoided revenge on its former oppressors. Instead, it has enshrined unity and shared interests.

Hunter-Gault, winner of two Peabody awards, acknowledges South Africa, a “young democracy”, is tested like “older” ones. She cites the ousting of then-deputy president Jacob Zuma over allegations of corruption and rape.

She reckons that South Africa will prosper economically if it “succeeds in bringing about economic revolution that shifts control of the economy from the white minority to the black majority”, and hopes this will lead to African renaissance.

Today, white people still own most of the land and wealth, and redistribution is controversial as the government plans expropriation without compensation.

The hope for an African renaissance lies in the optimistic belief that Africa is improving.

Hunter-Gault argues that the African Union—the continental body that, in 2002, replaced the organisation of African Unity whose main purpose was to fight against colonialism—has wider responsibilities.

She appreciates the establishment of the AU which was devoted to solving the problems of insecurity, disease and poverty on the continent.

Until today, however, the cooperation has not yet eradicated these problems. But under its ongoing reforms, the AU seeks to fund its projects, demanding countries to contribute 0.2 per cent levy on imports.

Hunter-Gault argues that Mobutu Sese Seko’s death in 1997 in Zaire (today’s DRC) marked “the beginning of the end of African ‘big man’ rule on the continent and “perhaps the first best chance to change” the established bad governance. However, it is arguable whether that was the beginning of change or just one case in the continuation of bad leadership in the DRC or on the continent.

“New News Out of Africa” also focuses on the development of journalism in Africa, which is struggling to stand on its own feet to report to the world an alternative picture of the continent.

The portrayal by foreign media of a continent where nothing happens, except what Hunter-Gault calls “the four D’s (disease, death, disaster and despair)” has to be challenged.

But journalists, like leaders, have an even bigger task. For journalists, challenging afro-pessimism among both foreigners and disillusioned Africans requires financial resources and skills.

For leaders, it requires good governance that solves the challenges of instability, poverty and unemployment.

The failure of foreign media to give a balanced picture of Africa, Hunter-Gault argues, is a result of ‘parachute journalism’—reporting without background, hence uninformed judgements. She highlights the need to report “in context”, first understanding a country and its history.

While arguing for balance of coverage, she denounces the tendency of journalists to report on wars and suffering: the “shallow coverage of death, disaster, and despair”.

But this will likely raise debate about what is, and what is not, news; what makes news and is worth reporting. Reporting an alternative picture of Africa should not imply ignoring the suffering of people.

Hunter-Gault finds it noteworthy how Rwanda united her citizens after the 1994 Genocide against Tutsi. She recommends the Gacaca courts—that helped prosecute hundreds of thousands of suspected perpetrators—should be an approach to solving problems in post-conflict societies.

Hunter-Gault’s “New News Out of Africa” provides insights, especially for those who want to understand the post-apartheid South Africa and Africa at large on the democratic path before 2006. 

It informs readers of the efforts and challenges governments, citizens and journalists face in the ongoing struggle for democratisation of the continent. By writing this book, Hunter-Gault has done her part in confronting Africa’s misrepresentation.

The writer is a student at the School of Journalism and Communication at the University of Rwanda.

The views expressed in this article are of the author.