In early June I got a call from Richard Lapper, the recently appointed Johannesburg correspondent for the Financial Times. Lapper, a British citizen, said he’d heard about my book Ways of Staying – specifically, he told me, he’d heard that the book dealt with the question of middle-class South African emigration, a subject he was interested in learning more about.
We arranged a meeting for the following afternoon, and I opened the discussion by correcting Lapper’s misconception. “As the book’s title suggests,” I said, “it’s more about how people stay than why they leave.” This then led into a broad discussion on leftist politics, societal inequalities and the responsibilities of the privileged. Eventually, as we were calling for the bill, Lapper told me that he’d come to South Africa from Brazil, where for many years he was the FT’s Latin American editor.
“I published a piece a few weeks ago called ‘Zuma should learn from Lula’,” he said. “You may want to read it.”
I did exactly that as soon as I got home. Happily, the piece was anything but the sort of one-dimensional, ill-conceived hatchet job that many of us have come to expect from foreign journalists writing about South Africa.
In 2002, began Lapper, shortly before Lula da Silva became president of Brazil, the country’s elite were in a panic. A common refrain was: “[Lula] is going to win the election…so the crisis is going to get much bigger and soon.” Obviously, Lapper’s hook was that the same was being said of Zuma in the months before the South African elections of April 2009. What moral lessons, if any, can be drawn from these two examples? Given the clear differences in outlook between Lapper and Jenkins, there’s an inclination to argue that what we’re dealing with here is balancing extremes – a simple case of losing on the swings and winning on the roundabouts. But unfortunately, as suggested above, Lapper is more than an “extreme”. The FT correspondent is an exception.
Western media’s default stance on Africa – and within the purview of Western media, South Africa is hardly ever assessed independently of the continent – remains as predictable as ever: we’re dark, dangerous, intractable, backward. A cursory glance at most of the world’s mainstream news networks, newspapers and news websites is enough to confirm this enduring fact. Still, if further proof is needed, one can always interrogate the perceptions of those journalists who write about African countries without ever having actually visited them. Take Louise Taylor, for instance, “north-east football correspondent” for the UK’s Guardian, the same leftist-intellectual institution that publishes Jenkins.
In early July, Taylor wrote a “sportsblog” for her newspaper under the header “Why going to South Africa for the World Cup terrifies me”. Her article, which attracted 740 online comments, many of them from irate South Africans, opened with a quote from a travel brochure on the country’s physical beauty. In paragraph three, Taylor hit her theme: “I’ve never been but would love to take a typical Cape Town/Garden Route-type holiday. What I would definitely balk at, though, is touring as a fan at next year’s World Cup – an event, with the final 12 months away, we are counting down to. Indeed, having done a bit of research on the subject, I know I’d be absolutely terrified…”
Why, you ask? Well, South Africa’s murder, rape and robbery stats are easily available to anyone with an Internet browser, and quite rightly Taylor cites them all. She also cites the apparent lack of safe public transport and the fact that the world’s biggest security firm, G4S, has declined to work at the 2010 tournament. Likewise, fair enough. But then she continues with a strange piece of attribution, borrowed from a co-journalist named Gabriele Marcotti, who, unlike her, had been to South Africa – for the Confederations Cup, in fact – and so clearly knew what he was talking about. “Marcotti wrote of some long, unpleasant drives in the dark after covering matches. Commenting on the lack of dual carriageways and lit highways in certain areas, he described negotiating one road heading towards Jo’burg as ‘like snorkelling in a sewer filled with squid ink’. Shortly afterwards came the sad news that a German journalist had been killed in a car accident while driving to a Confederations Cup match.”
What we are presumably to take from this is that there are no road accidents or unlit roads in Germany, right? But wait, there’s more. Taylor’s pièce de résistance is reserved for the end, where she shares her belief that if World Cup 2010 really had to go to Africa, Egypt would have been the ideal choice. Her logic? No crime, of course. And also this: “Surely if the Egyptians could build the pyramids they could host a World Cup.” The best response came from a punter in the comments section, who said that maybe we should host 2010 in Babylon, because hey, they built excellent gardens.
Yet Lula, a man from an underprivileged background who was once a trade union leader and founder of a major leftwing party, went on to steer Brazil towards a period of relative economic prosperity. He did this, Lapper observed, while focusing on the plight of the poor and steadily expanding his country’s social welfare network. Lapper concluded: “In Brazil Mr Lula da Silva was able to use his ‘man of the people’ image to contain expectations of overnight change, and persuade supporters to stick with him for the long haul. It is a trick that Mr Zuma could repeat.”
Notwithstanding the protests and strikes that would grip South Africa some two months later, it was an important and incisive article, notable as much for the pragmatic perspective it offered its influential readership as it was for its undeniable rarity. Because who could forget what had only seven weeks before been published in the Guardian, that proud bastion of British liberalist thought?
Written by popular columnist Simon Jenkins, the now-infamous piece began thus: “As I basked in the epic view of Table Mountain, with the sun sinking gently across the world’s most gloriously sited city, I could not resist the old Afrikaner cliché that this was God’s own country. ‘Yes,’ replied a friend wearily, ‘and He is about to give us a criminal and a rapist as president. Big deal.’ Those dealing with South Africa must probably get used to Jacob Zuma’s style of government, morally contaminated, administratively chaotic and corrupt.” Zuma, of course, wasted no time in suing the Guardian for defamation. The South African president won his case on 30 July – when an acceptable settlement was reached in the United Kingdom High Court of Justice Queen’s bench division.
To be fair, while Taylor and Jenkins are symbolic of a dominant and deep-seated Western media bias, a handful of the foreign correspondents based full-time in South Africa seem well aware of the Eurocentric prejudices they work within, and some make every effort to inject subtlety and nuance into their reports. Like his predecessor at the FT Alec Russell, Lapper seems to understand that large investment decisions may well hinge on what he writes, and so not only must he be accurate and balanced on the economic issues, but as importantly, he must strive to reflect the wider socio-political context as well.
The same could once be said of Chris McGreal, the former southern African correspondent for the Guardian, even if it couldn’t always be said of his colleagues in London. And David Smith, McGreal’s replacement, so far seems intent on making amends for the Guardian’s recent embarrassments – his few pieces on South Africa have shown an uncanny understanding of our inherent contradictions, particularly those illogical cracks that are now starting to show in the president himself.
“On Wednesday [22 July],” wrote Smith in late July, “as youths fought running battles with police in Siyathemba township (near Johannesburg), jobless people marched and looted shops in Durban, and residents of Pilisi Farm informal settlement barricaded a highway with burning tyres and stoned passing cars, Zuma was at the Union Buildings with Sir Richard Branson. It was not, in fairness, a publicity stunt for the tireless entrepreneur’s Virgin Atlantic, but rather the joint announcement of a disease control centre for South Africa.
“At the press conference, however, Zuma refused to answer questions about the service delivery protests.” The task of foreign correspondents, of course, is not to paint rosy pictures; yet neither is it to inform by sensationalism and degradation and the peddling of harmful myths. If Zuma is indeed to get through his challenges and emerge as a Lula, at least we have two correspondents who are equal to the telling.