“IN Africa there are three types of presidents: ex-presidents, former presidents and retired presidents. Ex-presidents have been forcibly removed from office, former presidents are those who have been removed from office prematurely because they are unpopular and retired presidents are those who have served their term and left office constitutionally.”
This is how the retired President of Ghana was introduced at the Highway Africa Conference in Grahamstown, South Africa last week.
Retired President John Kufuor of Ghana is a big man, he was a real presence on stage, he is a gracious man, he speaks sincerely and humbly, and he represents the political change taking place in Africa.
The audience at this conference represented 500 journalists from all over Africa and the speakers were mostly influential Africans from all over the world.
Retired President John Kufuor presented the following question: “Do journalists have the missionary zeal to lift our continent up? Do Africa’s media check themselves? Do Africa’s and the global media put out Africa’s good news? Is Africa beginning to rebrand itself?”
Shortly after this Eric Chinje, Manager of Global Media Development from the World Bank asked why “the African resilience to the world recession has not been mainstream news? How will the accumulation of “good news” out of Africa emerge into the world?”
These are such profound questions for African journalists.
But before I try and answer them, two quick anecdotes. The first relates to the issue of what is “news”.
The day after the World Cup I spent an hour watching TV news. The global news was full of praise for South Africa’s World Cup success. There were glowing reports everywhere, even from those who prophesised horrendous doom.
Our own news was different; it was totally absorbed with xenophobia, former Police Chief Jackie Selebi’s trial, Eugene Terreblanche’s murderer’s bail and the death of a young man at the hands of four policemen. It was as if - after four weeks of great news out of South Africa - we needed a bad news fix.
The second relates to the issue of “truth”. So many of the foreign spectators I met during the World Cup started the conversation by celebrating the community and goodwill they were experiencing here and in the same breath denouncing their previously held perceptions of the country. They were angry at the role of their local media in creating falsehoods.
So what is the “truth”?
• Just the facts?
• A simple combination of facts and perceptions?
• A complicated mixture of facts, perceptions and experience?
• Or an ineluctable combination of facts, perceptions, experience and personal orientation?
• Or just what the media tells us regardless of the above?
I recently spent a day workshopping Change Leadership with 35 South Africans who spend their lives trying to facilitate social development. Their contribution to our future and their determination to make South Africa a better place is unquestionable. Interestingly, we became preoccupied with a debate on who are custodians of the “truth”;
• The people on the ground?
• Our leaders?
• The media?
Are the people on the ground so preoccupied with the day to day realities of life that they are unable to see the “truth” for the bigger picture? Are leaders so isolated from the reality on the ground that they are unable to see the “truth” of day to day realities? Are the media so focused on making their business viable that negative sensationalism has become so habitual that its relationship with the “truth” doesn’t matter?
On the basis of these anecdotes and questions two issues became real.
Firstly, “news” out of Africa needs to change. We need, as His Excellency John Kufuor said, to change the way Africa talks and reports on itself. We need to change the narrative out of Africa.
To do this we need an army of African journalists who wish to redefine news out of Africa, who will check themselves, tell “good news” stories and above all, challenge the negative stereotypes that come out of the western media.
Secondly, we need to be circumspect about African “truth”.
As I have explained above, the notion of “the truth” is complicated. As Eric Chinje from the World Bank said “truth has to do with context, context and community”.
We need to recognize the diversity that is Africa, its diverse history, its diverse peoples, its diverse leadership and its diverse progress.
It is critical that we guard against, as Chief Emeka Anyaoku from Nigeria said “the media creating a sense of otherness”; a media that has more of a polarizing effect because of the way it versions the truth rather than that of a nation-building, transforming effect; a media that mimics the media habits of the west.
At last year’s Highway Africa Conference, Danny Jordaan gave a rousing speech to the 500 journalists present in anticipation of our hosting the World Cup. “Your biggest challenge is to develop a uniquely African style of Journalism, one that is different to what we have become used to out of the west”.
As African journalists, that remains our challenge!
The author is the CEO of South Africa – The Good News