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What picture do UK journalists paint of Africa?

May 25th, 2006

Dr Petra

For the past couple of weeks I’ve been working in the Eastern Cape of South Africa. It’s a place where I have great friends, inspirational colleagues, and stories of both struggle and hope.

It’s the poorest region of South Africa and under apartheid was a black homeland, which acquired a very negative reputation still sadly, believed by some today. Take for example my sister’s boss, a white South African living in the UK who when heard I was in the Eastern Cape grimly announced ‘ach she’ll be killed for sure!’

As you can tell, that didn’t happen :-)

During the time I was away I’ve been teaching healthcare staff as well as recruiting people for bursaries for the MSc myself and colleagues teach on, which already supports a number of South African doctors, nurses and health promotion staff.

Whilst I was in South Africa I’d arranged to speak with a UK radio station that coincidentally were planning on broadcasting from the country during my stay. They were going to cover the story of our bursaries as part of their wider programme, but when they called it turned out they had a rather different view of Africa than I did.

After a few pleasantries and discussing the forthcoming programme they asked me ‘what can you see out of the window?’

‘A car park’ I replied.

‘Oh’ they breathed. ‘Are the cars very old?’

‘Um, no. Not really’

‘Hmmm’ said the journalist ‘well what about in the room you are in? What’s going on there?’

‘Well’ I answered ‘a technician is just setting up the projector for my lecture. Some of the students are waiting to take notes, some have laptops with them, whilst others are lining up with their memory sticks to save the presentation I’m about to give’

There was a long pause.

‘Are you in a classroom?’ asked the journalist.

‘Yes, a teaching room at a university’

‘Is it a private university?’ they enquired.

‘No’ I responded ‘just a regular teaching room at a regular university’

‘What sort of students are you teaching? Are they all white?’ they asked.

‘None of them are white. They’re doctors, nurses, social workers, that kind of thing’
I said

‘Aha! Doctors. That explains it’ they enthused ‘because it just didn’t sound very African what you were saying’.

I wasn’t sure what that meant, and felt tempted to say ‘oh I lied. I’ve just been chased into our teaching hut by elephants. Warriors are keeping the lions outside at bay and I’m stepping over a python as I work from the only blackboard at the university using the one piece of chalk that has to last us all year’.

Instead I tried to find a way of answering their next question which was phrased in sombre tones – ‘and what’s it like out there on the ground. Is it all very distressing?’

I replied that whilst South Africa of course has problems of HIV and TB, poverty and inequalities which my colleagues are addressing daily, there are many amazing initiatives trying to overcome these problems. The tackling of HIV through the provision of anti-retrovirals has improved, and whilst staff recruitment remains a problem there are lots of dedicated health and social care staff that’re trying to make a difference.

It would be wrong to imply there are no problems, of course there are. But it’s equally wrong to make it seem that everything in South Africa is disastrous.

However it seems that’s what they wanted because they chose not to feature the stories of the healthcare staff I work with in their programme, not to tell of people studying in their own time to improve their skills and that of their community, not to hear from people who are making positive changes on a daily basis.

Instead they went for a Tsotsi-style account of townships, crime, disease and fear.

The kind of place where people don’t rebuild communities, don’t begin to tackle health problems, and where there’s no motivation, spirit or collaboration.

They obviously visited a different place than I did.

Or perhaps they just wanted those in the UK to hear a standard and stereotypical view from Africa. Maybe they thought it made a ‘better story’.

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