Today’s Irish Times carries a commentary by Joe Humphreys titled, ‘Africa Should not be Defined by Single Events.’ Citing the recent example of the successful World Cup in South Africa, Humphreys notes how media coverage changed dramatically from hysterical predictions that tourists would be murdered, to nearly universally positive, even fawning coverage of the tournament and the country.
Humphreys asserts that our images of Africa are familiar and therefore even comfortable – either despairing to the extent that we feel helpless to see or effect any change; or positive in a caricatured sort of way, i.e. ‘Africans are always happy.’
A few years ago, one such attitude was neatly encapsulated by the Northern Irish satirist Newton Emerson in his Portadown News, when he wrote to the effect that a truth and reconciliation commission wouldn’t work in Northern Ireland because we don’t have enough ‘forgiving’ black people.
Indeed, South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, similar to the World Cup, is a ‘single event’ that has been used to define the country.
The TRC was undoubtedly helpful in aiding the nation’s relatively peaceful transition from apartheid to democracy. But after rolling a few dramatic scenes of confrontation and catharsis, the media seemed to urge us to conclude that yes, reconciliation had indeed come to South Africa. Perhaps it provided a salve for Western guilt that at least in this case, colonialism had a somewhat ‘happy’ ending.
This has contributed to a Western tendency to overlook the ways in which the TRC has not fulfilled its promise, such as in providing reparations and/or adequate psychological support for all those who took part.
The same could be said of the TRC as Humphries says about the World Cup:
In reality, the event taught us little about Africa. It did, however, teach us something about our attitudes towards Africa.
Humphries suggests that the media (and I would extend his admonition to ourselves as individuals), should resist the urge to reduce life on the continent of Africa to single events and simple story lines.
I’m often reminded of the need to do this when presenting any research that I have conducted on charismatic and Pentecostal Christianity in South Africa and Zimbabwe. My work there has been ethnographic, focusing on congregations that are self-consciously working for social justice.
This doesn’t fit with some of the stereotypical perceptions of African Christianity, which see it as dominated by the ‘health and wealth’ gospel or a puppet of the American Christian Right. Sometimes people – even other academics – don’t like to see evidence that contradicts or adds complexity to an old familiar story.
The Irish Times suggests another opportunity to hear alternative perspectives on African in a two-day seminar organised by the Africa Centre in Dublin with Dóchas, “The Use of Images and Messages: A Human Rights Issue”.
Those interested in another Christian perspective on South Africa and the World Cup can visit the blog of the Rev. Steve Stockman, minister at Fitzroy Presbyterian in Belfast, which includes a series on spiritual lessons from the event.