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Africa Through Western Eyes: The World's Dark Continent or Capitalism's Shining Light?

Once 'hopeless' and now 'rising', Western narratives around Africa may tell us as much about what's going in the West as in Africa itself.
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The business district of Cape Town by night. Photograph by Damien du Toit.

The Euro Crisis, double-dip recessions, ‘Occupy’ protests and LIBOR corruption scandals aside, it seems that capitalism is alive and well – at least in Africa. Africa is ‘Rising’, Westerners are often told these days, after decades of economic ruin, civil war and governmental mismanagement. Impressive economic growth statistics, the “burgeoning African middle class”, mushrooming mobile phone and internet use – these things are all proudly trumpeted, “remind[ing] the world of the capitalist way”. But why all this ‘good news’ now?

The seemingly obvious answer is that things are indeed improving in Africa and the West’s commentariat are now, quite simply, reporting what is happening. But to properly understand the ‘Africa Rising’ narratives, we also need to look at what they are a response to – the much older, and much more negative, ‘Dark Continent’ narratives that have dominated Western discourses on Africa for centuries.

The bad: the creation of a Dark Continent

Tellingly, we can trace these negative narratives to the beginnings of ‘Western Civilisation’ itself. In Histories, Herodotus (aka The Father of History) relates a cautionary tale about what happens in Africa. Five Nasamonians – “enterprising youths of the highest rank” – were off exploring southern Libya. After several days of wandering, they found some fruit trees and started helping themselves. Then, several “men of small stature”, “all of them skilled in magic”, seized and captured them, taking them for inscrutable and dastardly magic-dwarf purposes.

In this way, Herodotus suggested that Africa was not only different, but also more threatening, sinister and dangerous than Greece. Subsequent generations of European writers followed suit, substituting fantasy for fact in markedly antagonistic ways.

Europeans created an image of Africa that was the perverse opposite of Europe’s – its mirror image. Europe’s general superiority would, by comparison with and in contrast to this image, be self-evident. Europe’s own idea of itself was thus predicated on its image of Africa (and other ‘backward’ regions).

From the 17th century onwards, debates over the slave trade, racism, and colonialism helped crystallise these negative narratives in Western discourses. Abolitionists argued that Africa was a place of suffering because the slave trade provoked war, disease, famine and poverty; anti-Abolitionists said Africa was so forbidding as to make slavery in foreign countries a positive escape. Either way, Africa was full of ‘savagery’ and constant war.

The growing discourse on race added a further dimension to these debates, supposedly explaining ‘African backwardness’ and ‘savagery’ as biologically-predetermined characteristics. Social Darwinists, such as Herbert Spencer, and eugenicists, such as Francis Galton, exerted enormous influence and lent credibility to generalised xenophobia. That these works were extended exercises in sophistry and casuistry need hardly be mentioned.

Colonialism went even further; because of what they thought they knew about Africa – a land of fantastical beasts and cannibals, slaves, ‘backward races’ and so on – the colonial powers managed to convince themselves that they were subjugating Africans (and others) for their own good. European violence was going to stop the wars endemic to Africa, and their enlightened (over-)rule would be to the benefit of all (via Livingstone’s ideas of ‘Christianity, Civilisation and Commerce’).

The independence era of the late 1950s and 1960s saw more positive stories about Africa enter Western discourses. The archives of British Pathé contain several clips of the Queen visiting her former colonies, with this one supposedly evidencing a bright future for Sierra Leone.

But coverage of the Nigerian Civil War began a trend in Western reporting that has lasted to the present. The Sun, a UK tabloid newspaper, called secessionist Biafra “The Land of No Hope”, accompanying the piece with photos of the starving and the dead. It is not hard to trace a fairly straight line connecting headlines like this and contemporary reporting that trots out clichés about the ‘Heart of Darkness’.

The good: emerging, rising, vindicating

But now, Africa is not only an ‘emerging market’; it’s an ‘emerging continent’. Again, why now?

It is partly because some people think the best way to repudiate the negative stereotypes of Africa is to pump out wholly ‘good news’. An account on Twitter called @AfricaGoodNews is a case in point. Its handler tweets links to positive reportage of Africa: such “Angola May Produce One Million Eggs a Day...” and “Doing Business in Fast-Growing Africa - Europe Edition…”.

It is one facet of a larger rebranding project. Whilst some observers may approve, seeing them as necessary correctives to the boilerplate journalism mentioned above, others are already finding them clichéd and boring or downright misleading; a facile PR exercise designed to encourage (mainly Western) investment. See the latest issue of Money Week if you want to be bombarded with statistics and given some ideas about where to put your dollars, pounds or euros. That there are resonances between some of this writing and 19th century imperialist propaganda may be cause for concern.

It is important to stress that however you assess the ‘Africa Rising’ narrative’s relative worth, its basis ‘in the real world’ should not be discounted because some of the statistics may be unreliable. We are seeing more and more ‘Africa Rising’ narratives because it is. And the changes are not confined to economic growth – large-scale political violence and war has also declined sharply over the past decade, for example. Things are indeed changing on the ground.

Nonetheless, it is demand for the stuff underneath it – Africa’s mineral and oil wealth – that is driving the economic growth behind all these ‘Africa Rising’ narratives. The BRIC economies, and China in particular, have fuelled a commodities boom that has benefitted state coffers across the continent though questions remain over the actual extent (and the equities) of this boom.

But perhaps the central reason we are seeing all this ‘good news’ in Western media links back to the West’s own idea of itself and of Africa. Africans are now, ‘finally’, playing by the West’s rules; as Professor Megan Vaughan, President of the African Studies Association of the UK, said in a recent speech, "What is... striking is the fact that what is "saving" Africa is the supposedly redemptive power of capitalism", which, when coupled with the increasing adoption of liberal-democracy in Africa, vindicates the Western Way. Moreover, feelings of decline in the West – stubbornly low economic growth (or collapse), the threat of social upheaval, the rise of China, and so on – have made all these ‘Africa Rising’ narratives all the more breathless. The Economist, Money Week, and the rest seem to see in Africa’s rise hope for the West’s recovery. Is Africa ‘Rising’, then, because the West needs it to?

Always something new?

Africa is the “continent of extremes”, according to well-informed sources like Taylors of Harrogate, which sells tea and coffee. In the West, Africa is portrayed either as the Heart of Darkness, with Africans suffering from that quartet of disease, poverty, famine and war, or as Rising, phoenix-like, the living and ‘vibrant’ repudiation of all those worrying signs that perhaps capitalism – as it currently conducted – may not suit our increasingly ‘globalised’ world.

Professor Vaughan also highlighted the "Manichaean" quality of these narratives: the (good) trio of liberalism, democracy and capitalism seems to be talking hold in Africa – but only if ‘we in the West’ can help Africa defeat the (bad) trio of traditionalism (‘tribalism’), authoritarianism, and ‘poor macroeconomic policy‘ (usually an oblique reference to China). These reductive binary oppositions are signs of overly simplistic thinking, infantilising not only Africans but also the Westerners who read about them.

In response to these crude generalisations, there has been a growing chorus of voices calling for better reporting of Africa. More nuanced, contextualised and balanced reporting of Africa is not something anyone would disagree with. But this should not just apply to negative stories. Un-contextualised, simplified and wholly positive stories will only lead to further misunderstanding. Africa must, and can only, be understood on its own terms. Initiatives like Uganda Speaks and Global Voices, and the BBC’s recruitment of African reporters, are a good start. The more Westerners learn about Africa from Africans, the better. But if they remain in the minority, we will end up having another single story of Africa that is almost as misleading and distorted as the one we had before.

Correction 2/11/2012: In the originally published version of the article, the two quotes from Professor Vaughan's speech were unattributed. This has now been corrected.

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This article is weird in many ways. It is all over the place. It says the West used to say negative things about Africa but but now says good things about Africa: a continent on the rise. The author doesn't seem to like this message, saying that probably the West has ulterior motives for saying that. But I dont agree. This is being said not only by the West but by Africans and non-westerners, say the Asians. The statistics are what we must respect, not who is saying it. African economies are definitely growing faster than most western economies. Westerners like Portuguese and Spaniards are beginning to troop to Africa in search of jobs. This is a fact! That Africa is rising is a fact. The author must stop challinging himself and accept the fact. Where was he when the West was saying all the nasty things about Africa? Why is he now emerging to say the West is saying goods things about Africa because of ulterior motives?

I don't quite agree that the article is confused, but rather that it is trying to sequentially lead the reader through the history of reporting in Africa. It is clearly contrasting the era of the HIV epidemic and widespread war to that of today, a continent celebrating its first ever decrease in major disease prevalence and subsequent economic triumphs. I agree that there may have been more truth to the old "Dark Continent" and new "Emerging Continent" than the author gives credit, but he is making the point that there has been a U-turn in journalists’ attitudes and wider public opinion towards the progress occuring. He is criticizing the swing in reporting for failing to acknowledge the more gradual, realistic and impressive progress that has been made. As we should all know too well, unbalanced critiques of economic systems can lead to generalised distrust of the reports, or misplaced investment. This favours neither party. It was also mentioned that statistics cannot always to be taken as gospel, there are more than enough ways to manipulate data to support one hypothesis over another - he merely mentioned that what is published should be scrutinised.I don't believe that the author is making a point of ulterior motives playing a role in one-sided propaganda, but rather bringing to light the forces which may have lead so many to make such biased accounts. In understanding the reasoning behind these errors of judgment, we can hopefully break out of the two-dimensional status-quo that is either "Africa Rising" or "Africa in Turmoil".One criticism I do have however, would be that the author has fallen into the same trap as the reporters he derides. Although he mentions the deep issues associated with oversimplification, he has painted to picture of a more uniform continent than we really observe. Africa is up of the vastly different regions with more variation in culture, religion and economy than that of Europe, the Americas and possibly the world. As such, the article may have been too generalised. I would have said that the north of Africa has been very much linked with war and political instability as opposed to an emerging market. But otherwise, food for thought.

I wrote a (lengthy & boring) reply to some of more the sensible criticisms of this piece here:

Certainly food for thought, as Hammond comments below.  The dichotomy between how the West sees itself through Africa is quite fascinating.  And, indeed, Bates is exactly right that too simplistic a narrative on either side does a disservice to the reader.  While I tend to agree with Africa The Good News and Brand Africa, this is a very valid point. My critique would be that the section "The bad: the creation of the Dark Continent" is too simplistic.  While citing Herodotus, there was no mention of the middle ages and he skips right to the 1800's.  Though this helps illustrate Bates' point that these negative perceptions are long-rooted in European history (see Leo Africanus and Alphonse de Saintonge), this means he skips right over the Prester John imagery of the middle ages.  This was a very influential myth of the middle ages and was even one of the driving forces behind  European exploration of Africa: to find Prester John.  While skipping over it helps to present the one-sided image Europeans had in the 1800's, it presents European opinions as stagnant and goes against the very point I highlighted above. So, who is 'Prester John' [sic]?  Ironically, up until the fourteenth century, his empire was thought to be in Asia.  After this time it switched to Africa, resulting in a rampant myth of a Christian kingdom beyond the encirclement of Islam, in the heart of Africa, abounding in wealth, peace and miraculous freaks of nature.  Though they saw this kingdom as different from Ethiopia, much of the myth borrowed from this known(-of) region.  The kingdom is shown clearly in Mandeville’s Travels from 1360; a widely read book among the educated Europeans of the times.  While mostly a work of fiction and plagiarism, it referred to the kingdom of Prester John.  Mandeville reported that “I saw with mine eyes” rivers which flowed with precious stones and where virtue and goodness reigned supreme.  This mythical kingdom can sometimes be seen depicted in artworks of the times and was held up as a paragon of Christianity's endurance.  This is hardly the one-sided image of Africa that Bates presents and, while it does not detract from his later points, it over-simplifies the history of Africa's image in European minds.