Crass ignorance, illiteracy and bigotry

For the next four weeks or so, South Africa will be in the global media spotlight as the first African country to stage arguably the most prestigious sporting event in the world – the World Cup. As soon as South Africa, aided by the revered Nelson Mandela, won the bid to stage the event in 2004, the cynics and doom mongers set to work, spreading doubts about the country’s ability to host the soccer fiesta. This country has had to endure scores of column inches of negative foreign news reports in the six years since it won the right to host the first World Cup tournament in Africa.

The negative press intensified when in January some members of the Cabinda separatists, FLEC, attacked the Togo team bus during the African Cup of Nations tournament in Angola, killing some players and officials. The doom mongers had a field day, saying the lives of all those – players, officials and fans – that travelled to South Africa for the World Cup would be in peril. This was crass ignorance, illiteracy and bigotry at their best! They failed to realise that Angola, one of the 54 countries on the African continent, was thousands of miles away from South Africa. And that the political situation Angola that triggered the atrocity visited on the Togolese in Angola was totally different from what obtained in South Africa!

Nobody in the UK and the Western world called for the 2012 Olympics to be moved from London to another country because of the terrorist attack that killed 52 innocent people in London in July 2005. Neither did I hear anyone say that because somebody tried to blow up a jet over Detroit, USA, on Christmas Day last year, the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Canada last February was imperilled. After all the US and Canada are neighbours sharing a common border on the same continent!

With kick-off just a few days away, most of those doom mongers are discredited and although there are still plenty of areas of concern to test the nerves of organisers, ranging from violent crime to transport, the omens look good. For years media reported that FIFA had a ‘Plan B’ to move the tournament if South Africa failed to be ready in time. But Africa’s biggest economy has done better than many of the so-called advanced nations preparing for either the World Cup or Olympics. The country has confounded the critics. The 10 stadia were ready early and six of them – five built from scratch and one extensively expanded and rebuilt – are magnificent arenas comparable with any in the world.

From Johannesburg’s 90,000-capacity Soccer City, Africa’s biggest stadium, to Durban’s arch-spanned arena and Cape Town’s bath-shaped bowl – both fronting the ocean – the soccer fields are more than sports venues. The grandiose projects affirm the confidence and ability of an often troubled country 16 years after the end of apartheid. This event, more than in almost any other country, has huge symbolic importance for a nation torn by racial conflict for centuries which hopes the World Cup will unite still wary blacks and whites in patriotic fervour.

Hosting the world’s most-watched sporting event also has the potential to give an enormous boost to South Africa’s image and its ability to attract investment and millions of extra tourists to a country blessed with myriad attractions. Having visited Pretoria, Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban on various assignments over the years, I can assure visitors of the sheer beauty and adventure that awaits them.

Development campaigners are gearing up to catch the media wave and draw attention to their issues, messages and organisations. Events related to everything from malaria, girls’ education, microcredit, maternal health, clean water and climate change are planned, with footballers, film and rock stars, politicians and personalities recruited to the cause. The question I, and others like me, are asking is whether all this exposure will challenge or just confirm negative stereotyping of our continent, particularly in the western media.

Africa’s image with the general public in many countries is unfortunate, to say the least. Africa is associated with hunger and poverty, corruption, violence, machine-gun touting men in reflective sunglasses, and giraffes silhouetted against a sinking sun, often with Mount Kilimanjaro in the background. This image is both inaccurate and counterproductive, both for Africans and for the countries where it holds. It is inaccurate because the facts do not support it.

Corruption is clearly a major problem – though Africa is still fairly amateur at it compared to other parts of the world. Africans have to put up with widespread petty corruption to get things done, and there are too many examples of dictators and their sons living in intercontinental luxury while their citizens struggle to survive. But again, the facts, dull as they sometimes are, tell a different story.
The Mo Ibrahim Index on African Governance, the most comprehensive attempt to capture the quality of political and economic accountability in Africa, shows a steadily improving picture, as does the World Bank’s ‘Ease of Doing Business’ ranking, with improvements being made in commercial law, property rights and investor protection.

Africa’s image in the western media is counterproductive. It is Africa’s potential, not her problems that should be of growing interest to much of the world – and certainly to her own entrepreneurs.

I am hoping that at least some of the coverage around the World Cup will increase an understanding of Africa’s issues. Opportunities like this do not come often. The last thing Africa needs is coverage that just reinforces the negative stereotyping and that gives a false impression both of the continent’s problems, and of the solutions to them.

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