2012’s SMH (also known as “Africa is a Country”) Moments

There are times we shake our heads or roll our eyes. When we could not invent some of the things that we spot in the media. For some reason especially New York Times journalists can’t help themselves (though there are some exceptions like Lydia Polgreen reporting from Johannesburg). For example, former Times editor Bill Keller is currently in South Africa and even when meaning well, he misses the point. Then there’s Nicholas Kristof (who we swore we won’t blog about again) and Jeffrey Gettleman, who nominated himself for a journalism prize (more below). But the one person who will play a bigger role in shaping coverage of Africa (for people who don’t read news pages) is the force that is Suzy Menkes. If you don’t know her, she writes about “global” fashion and sort of cultural politics for the Times. She is singlehandedly keeping Bono and his wife Ali’s fashion business, Edin, in the news. Siddhartha Mitter storified her pronouncements and if you want to put yourself through her editorializing about “ethical fashion” and helping Africa (especially “Kin-yaa”) “through style and design,” just read her pieces in the Times. Bonus: she also thinks Africa is a country. Watch this video (with Bono and Ali again as well as with Renzo Diesel) where Menkes refers to “helping the African nation and people” (about 7:30 mark).

Then there’s American rapper (and entrepreneur) 50 Cent. In February this year he (accompanied by praise-singing American journalists) went to Somalia and Kenya and concluded Africa’s refugees needed mineral water; more recently he decided to make a song (sample lyrics: “… finna end world hunger, goddamn”) about that experience and to promote his new ear phones range. Here’s the bizarre video (that was broken down by Derica Shields over at Okayafrica when it came out earlier this month).

Then there was everything about #Kony2012, which was bigger than 50 Cent. Everyone wanted a piece of that. Even Soulja Boy wanted to get at Joseph Kony. We wrote a lot about it. The best of our bunch was Elliot’s post. And Zach Rosen broke down what that was all about in a post last week. So I am not going to rehash all that here.

An American lawyer sent me (and it seems a few other African and Africanist academics in the US) an email to testify on behalf of “a family of white Afrikaner farmers who are seeking asylum and withholding of removal based on allegations that they are the victims of discrimination based on their race and political affiliation.”

The sideshow and bad reporting around a t-shirt “I benefited from Apartheid” to be worn exclusively by white South Africans. It even made it onto Canadian public radio (forward to the 4:00 mark). Check out our Facebook page for a spirited debate.

In early November the New York Times Magazine ran a cover story on the Oklahoma Thunder. The cover features the team’s four stars — Russell Westbrook, Thabo Sefolosha, Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka (who we’ve blogged about here before). The piece, however, is really about Durant (it’s boilerplate American journalism on black sports stars). Ibaka (below) is reduced to these lines in a caption: “Serge Ibaka’s first coach, in Congo, taught him using a water bottle.” They also didn’t tell us which Congo.

Then Vogue Italia decided to “rebrand Africa” in one of those “Africa” issues that  every major Western popular publication feels obligated to bring out. They put UN secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon on the cover. Franca Sozzani, editor of Vogue Italia, decides to give some free advice to Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan: “All the richest Nigerians spend their money abroad because there are no shops here, no hotels with a chic African flair, no hip restaurants or clubs. Why not build an African Rodeo Drive in Lagos or Abuja, with boutiques carrying both imported and Nigerian goods?” It all went downhill from there as Elliot Ross reminded us at the time.

South African director Darrell Roodt premiered a re-cut version of his terrible film “Winnie” with Jennifer Hudson and Terrence Howard. Again, no one was impressed.

Rick Ross went and shot a video in Lagos, Nigeria. I forced myself to watch it for you. Here’s a screenshot.

Chester Hanks, the son of actor Tom Hanks and rapper (yes he is), toured “Africa” with his family this past summer (not clear whether they’re still there). On August 4th, Hanks (rapper name Chet Haze) tweeted: “Africa is so beautiful! Everyone MUST visit at least one time in their life!” He did not tell us what country. Chet also tweeted this picture below of him in the house where he stays (with its colonial fantasy decor). Chester Hanks goes to Northwestern University in Chicago’s northern suburbs (I’m an alumn). What are they teaching students there these days?

Finally, here’s a list of Honorable Mentions:

In January fashion designer Michael Kors came up with a “Safari” look; a white South African (who else and where else) decided he’d live as Tarzan; there was the viagra politics of South Africa’s Democratic Alliance (later exposed to be cut and paste too); a Belgian charity supports “unborn African babies;” the South African comedian Trevor Noah decided it was cool to get laughs at African Americans’ expense on the Jay Leno Show; a few people got mad that Thandi Newton is playing an Igbo woman in a film about the Biafran War; the reality stars of Bravo’s “The Real Housewives of Atlanta” decided to travel to South Africa (as one of them, Kandi, quipped: “When I think of Africa, I just think of … Naked women with their breasts out”); and the Huffington Post decided to play travel agent on “the world’s worst places” (sample: Mogadishu, “A soulless place at the edge of Africa… Oddly enough, several supermodels were born in Mogadishu”).

In February, we learned that for some odd reason the Financial Times still thought Ayaan Ali Hirsi and Dambisa Moyo make sense; about a US-based online search engine that makes excuses for Apartheid; we couldn’t keep count of every actor who has played Nelson Mandela in a Hollywood production (no South Africans need apply); rightwing (and a few “mainstream”) US commentators were affronted when Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg praised the South African Constitution as a better standard than their own; and Tunisia’s new rulers (like they don’t have enough on their plates already) decided to prosecute journalists who republished the cover of German GQ featuring the German defender Sami Khedera and his girlfriend (she wears nothing).

In March, apart from #Kony2012 there were the cricket-playing Maasai; Oprah and Nicholas Kristof (they would not go away for the rest of the year); and Jeffrey Gettleman; some young South Africans thought they’d make one of those unfunny “Shit (Insert Target Here) Say …” videos; also in South Africa (what is it with the place?), a member of the Rupert clan decided to open a leather-goods store and came up with some questionable marketing; Ne-Yo announced he was also adopting African babies; basketball player Dikembe Mutombo (!) ran a gold mining sting; the American comedian Mike Epps decided to make cheap jokes at Nigerians’ expense; and Spanish goalkeeper Pepe Reina thought it was funny to star in an offensive ad (stereotypes about cannibalism in Africa) for a Spanish multinational insurance company (ah, the Spanish).

In April, the Guggenheim Foundation decides there’s no interesting art initiatives to link up with south of the Sahara; the BBC plays PR agent for Shell’s dismal record in Nigeria; Jeffrey Gettleman nominated himself for a Pulitzer Prize (and won!); and the branding of Africa continued (sample: Coco Cola Kenya).

May brought us BET introducing an “Africa” category to its Music Awards (let’s celebrate progress people); photographer Pieter Hugo getting mad at “political correctness” (basically people who have questions about his work); IMF President Christine Lagarde declaring how much she cares for villagers in Niger; an American singer, to quote Rihanna, “found love in a hopeless place,” i.e. Kenya; another invitation to save Africans by buying stuff, this time in Canada; and the (strategic) sideshow that was the penis of South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma (well, a drawing of it on a photocopied image of Vladimir Lenin’s body and Zuma’s face).

In June (the northern summer), we did not have time to blog much (we were on Twitter instead and I was traveling in South Africa), Denzel Washington’s CIA caper shot in Cape Town came out; and as usual South African fast food chain Nando’s continued their run of mixing bad politics with good chicken.

In July, Foreign Policy (the magazine birthed by Samuel Huntington) released its stupid, annual “Failed States Index,” in conjunction with something called the Fund for Peace, again; Chelsea defender John Terry, who goes around referring to black opponents as “black cunt,” used Africa as an alibi; Megan Eardley scoured the libraries and Amazon for “the best and worst romance, adventure, intrigue, and kinky fantasies Africa has to offer;” we blogged about the strange story of Ismael Sankara (is he Thomas’s son and does it matter?); Nicholas Kristof visited Lesotho; Maria Hengeveld upset some people with her post about “Afrigasms;” and we made lots of summer lists.

In August, everyone felt better (we like to think we matter) as we went on safari.

In September, Mos Def  (Yasiin Bey) played a mbiraKehinde Wiley went to Israel; and “Project Runway” imagined African fashion resembles the American South (we understand if they got confused, both places have lots of black people).

In October, we learned that some Kenyans want to pick their leaders via reality TV; Italian politicians like to threaten to move to Africa when they don’t like what an opponent thinks or say (we already know they love holidaying in Kenya); we noticed McDonald was selling black and African pride to appeal to African-Americans; and there was that “uproar” about the Finnish film of a World War II general shot in Kenya with an all-Kenyan cast; #Tintingate in Sweden; “W” Magazine went to Johannesburg and discovered last year’s trends; Deakin of the band Animal Collective convinced supporters to raise $26,000 for him to travel to Mali and “end slavery” and to make an album (no album yet if you wondering and he has not ended slavery); and Solange Knowles (Beyonce’s more talented sister) went to shoot a music video in Cape Town.

In November, TIME Magazine ran one of those irritating “Africa Rising” cover stories (that’s like a self-evident truth nowadays); Foreign Affairs (them again) covered a Bono (him again) speech in Washington DC; the French-Congolese rugby player Yannick Noah Nyanga cried while singing the French national anthem (French rightwingers were beside themselves); and the video game Call of Duty included a weird storyline about dead Angolan “rebel” leader (more like warlord) Jonas Savimbi.

And in December, in an allAfrica.com article (H/T Melissa Levin) emblazoned with the headline, “Africa: Preparing Youth for Africa as a Country”, Frannie Léautier, the executive secretary of the African Capacity Building Foundation (ACBF), claims that this is one of the most important lessons for the new generation. Léautier says that “as Africa continues to integrate it may become one big country”. This is a dream of the Development Set who suggest that size does indeed count (at least for countries when it comes to economic success). There has been much written about the problematic sustenance of the colonial borders of Africa. Amongst others, Paul Collier (in Wars, Guns, and Votes: Democracy in Dangerous Places) suggests that shrinking balkanized Africa to 7 states would do wonders for development. At least not one big country though….

* Thanks to Diego Gutierrez for the Africa is a Country logo.

15 thoughts on “2012’s SMH (also known as “Africa is a Country”) Moments

    • It seems unfair to generalise about New York Times journalists given that Lydia Polgreen, the current Joburg correspondent, is one of the best foreign correspondents to have worked in Africa in recent years.

  1. Justin: Yes, indeed Lydia Polgreen is one of the best foreign correspondents to work in Africa, and in South Africa. We second that and said so much on Twitter and elsewhere. I’ll edit and add a line. Remember Michael Wines (I remember writing to the Times re his reporting. Howard French was also an exception reporting from West and Central Africa. Adam Nossiter is also a beautiful writer, but have been missing the boat on Mali.

    BTW, Justin: did you used to work at SOUTH?

  2. when you highlight folks referring to africa as a country are you suggesting they are ignorant or lazy? i’m speaking specifically to your description of suzy menkes; i doubt she thinks africa is a country as per your assertion.

    playing a game of “:got you” are we? anywho, i dig your blog so its cool

  3. Reblogged this on mjamani and commented:
    Yes. Awesome blog on a range of nonesense happening in terms of branding, stereotyping, generalizing. And yes of course, neither am I free of doing that. That´s exactly why I love this blog. Gotta check yourself now and then.

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