The Image of Africa
In February 2007, Namibia’s then Minister of Youth, National Service, Sport and Culture, John Mutorwa, expressed his disappointment at the lack of support the national team was getting ahead of that year’s All-Africa Games in Algeria.
Mutorwa’s conclusion was that the lukewarm response from sponsors for Team Namibia was an indication of a lack of interest in national affairs and a general Afro-pessimism among Africans.
“If it was the Commonwealth Games or the Olympic Games, companies would have jumped at the chance to sponsor the Namibian team, but when it’s the All-Africa Games they are not interested. We must get rid of this Afro-pessimism,” he said.
Minister Mutorwa also ripped into the media for its generally low-key coverage of the build-up to the All-Africa Games.
“To them it’s not a big thing, but once the team leaves, you will see the newspapers will be full of small and negative incidents that they will blow up out of proportion,” he said.
Lamenting the levels of Afro-pessimism, Minister Mutorwa said: “Sometimes we are our own worst enemies, because we are too pessimistic about ourselves and that is bad.
“We always question our own abilities, like for instance: will Algeria be able to host the Games? And it’s so sad that this emanates from Africans themselves. If we are to propel our own destiny, we have to be optimistic about our own future.”
Afro-pessimism is not a Namibian problem alone; it is a continent-wide cancer that threatens to derail our development aspirations, as it erodes the self-confidence of the citizenry.
Wafula Okumo has written that since the 1980s, we have been witnessing the spiralling of Afro-pessimism and accompanying melancholic conclusion that nothing good will ever come out of Africa.
In 1983, futurist author Paul Kennedy claimed Africa's future was “extraordinarily gloomy”.
Such pessimistic pronouncements of Africa's future were reinforced by Western journalists such as David Lamb (in “The Africans”), Peter Marnham (in “Dispatches From Africa”), Blaine Harden (in “Africa – Dispatches from a Fragile Continent”), and Keith Richburg (in “Out of America”).
Such writers drearily painted Africa in bleak terms: unbridled corruption, state brutality, severe underdevelopment and general desolation.
Robert D Kaplan, who wrote a widely-read essay titled “The Coming Anarchy” in Atlantic Monthly magazine, did not mince words and declared Africa to be “at the edge of the abyss”.
What Afro-pessimism does is foster crime, political opportunism and hopelessness.
The lack of optimism is more pronounced among the youth, as these negative self-images have been reinforced over the decades.
The bitter fruits of Afro-pessimism can be seen everywhere: they are in the adoption of foreign cultures, in the celebration of anything that is not African, in the expression of negativity whenever Africa is mentioned, in the desire to flee the continent at the first opportunity.
African culture was systematically undermined during the years of colonialism and the assault on our self-pride is now subtly – but alarmingly – being eroded by media organisations that equate the West with good and Africa with bad.
Wilson Idahosa Aiwuyor remarked (“Engaging Africa beyond Disaster Pornography, Humanitarianism, and Afro-Pessimism”) that, “…responses to disaster pornography produce and perpetuate two major notions about Africa. First, there is the portrayal of Africa as an object of global humanitarianism. Second, there is a feeling of Afro-pessimism, which is related to the idea that nothing good can come out of Africa”.
He added that for those that believe that nothing good are believers in biological determinism.
“Biological determinism is related to the idea that black people are innately intellectually inferior, anthropologically backward, and incapable of producing a harmonious and prosperous society.
“Unfortunately, this was the same ideology employed by the imperialist to morally and intellectually justify the reduction of the black person to sub-humans during such eras of exploitation and dehumanisation as slavery, imperialism/colonialism, and apartheid.
“Many of Africa’s present problems have their roots in these eras and in the stranglehold of neo-imperialism… Essentially, by giving up on Africa, Afro-pessimists implicitly subscribe to the notion that Africans are incapable of making a break with the present forms of dehumanisation that confront them.”
Improving Africa’s image of itself is a conscious effort that requires investment in time, money and energy by all the people of Africa.
The education system and the mass media, in this regard, have a huge role to play.
Respected journalist Cameron Duodu has said, “Indeed, Afro-pessimism creates so much confusion in the mind that if it is not eradicated root and branch, it will rob the African youth of the very self-confidence without which they will never be able to accomplish the technological development of their countries. And without such development, they will never respect their countries, but continue to look abroad for salvation.”
It is a line of thought that Steve Bantu Biko firmly believed in.
His take was that “…we are rejecting those (foreign) things that are not only foreign to us but that are but that seek to destroy the most cherished of our beliefs ‑ that the cornerstone of society is man himself ‑ not just his welfare… We reject the power-based society of the Westerner that seems to be ever concerned with their perfecting of their technological know-how while losing out on their spiritual dimension”.
The African must be nurtured to be optimistic and should learn the techniques with which to combat the negative images of himself or herself that are almost everywhere.
Thabo Mbeki put it succinctly back in 1998 when he said “out of Africa … must come modern products of human economic activity, significant contributions to the world of knowledge, in the arts, science and technology, new images of an Africa of peace and prosperity.”