Archive for South Africa

Malaise in Madagascar

Posted in Africa with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 28 June, 2012 by Virgil

Gem mine in Madagascar. Photo by Benoit Balanca under a CC Licence

The eyes of the world seem to be fixed on Madagascar. Or should I say Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted? The animated comedy movie with lions, zebras and other assorted animals that talk, sing and dance, continues to sit atop the box office, dazzling audiences around the world. The world is not quite as bedazzled, on the other hand, by the goings on on the large island that sits to the south east of the African mainland, which also happens to be known as Madagascar. In fact, if the levels of media coverage are any indication, many might be surprised to learn that things are going on there at all.

But they are. In 2009, amidst political upheaval on the island, 35 year old Andry Rajoelina, former mayor of the capital, Antananarivo (and before that, a radio DJ), took control of the country with the backing of the military and was declared President of the ‘High Transitional Authority’. His rise to power was swiftly condemned by most of the outside world as a coup d’etat. Madagascar was suspended from the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the African Union (which also imposed targeted sanctions on the ‘government’), and the bulk of non-humanitarian aid coming from beyond the continent was cut off. For its own political and economic reasons, France, however, continues to back the de-facto administration.

It has been a long and eventful transition. Rajoelina promised presidential elections and promised not to stand as a candidate, but the elections did not happen, and he managed to push through a constitutional referendum that conveniently reduced the minimum age for the president from 40 to 35, making him eligible to stand. A group of disgruntled soldiers attempted a coup of their own in 2010, but the mutiny was put down.

The deposed president, Marc Ravalomanana, who went into exile in South Africa, was sentenced in absentia to life imprisonment. In 2011, an agreement signed by all the major political parties under the auspices of SADC established a road map for a unity government and elections. And although the same agreement guarantees the unconditional right to return for exiled political leaders, a unilateral attempt by Ravalomanana to do so ended in failure when the commercial flight he had boarded was refused permission to land.

But before becoming overly sympathetic to the plight of the deposed president, we might spare a thought for how things were in Madagascar before he was deposed. In March 2009, thousands of demonstrators gathered near the presidential palace to protest against was perceived as a corrupt and increasingly authoritarian regime. Presidential guards threw grenades and fired into the crowd and a massacre ensued leaving as many as 50 people dead.

And South Africa is unlikely to remain a safe haven for Ravalomanana for much longer. In 2012, a court in South Africa ruled that foreign nationals in that country who are accused of crimes against humanity must be investigated, and Ravalomanana would appear to fall under this category. For the time being, attempts at a return to political life may have to take a back seat to the realization of a reconciliation deal that includes a pardon for the crimes he has already been convicted of (in absentia) in Madagascar and immunity from further prosecution. Rajoelina and Ravalomanana have, in fact, agreed to a meeting, which will possibly take place at the end of June, although the agenda is unclear.

In spite of the endless political wrangling, life goes on for the people of Madagascar. But it is not the same as it was before. The country’s political crisis coincided with the global financial crisis, and the economy has taken a battering. Foreign investment and international demand for the country’s produce (not least vanilla, of which Madagascar is the world’s leading producer) have dropped. Levels of illegal logging and mining and the resulting environmental degradation, on the other hand, have skyrocketed. Poverty levels are rising and health indicators are falling. As the expression goes, when elephants fight the grass gets trampled.

Madagascar 3 the movie had its happy ending. Hopefully the other Madagascar will too. And even if this is a little too much to hope for, an increase in the levels of attention from the outside world – some enhanced external scrutiny, engagement, and cajoling – will probably not hurt its chances of at least heading in the general direction of something happier.

(This article was originally posted on the Southern African Peace and Security Blog).

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Southern Africa in the New York Times

Posted in Africa, conflict, media coverage with tags , , , , , , , , , , on 24 May, 2012 by Virgil

Photo by Francis Wu under a CC Licence

Africa – the continent that always seems to have to go that extra mile or so in a bid to convince the editors of media corporations that its news is worth printing, airing and/or uploading (more often than not, the editors remain unconvinced). This post is a brief overview of the quantity of coverage by the New York Times of the sixteen countries that make up southern Africa for the first quarter of 2012 (January to March).

The following is the number of words (and the percentage of the whole) devoted to news primarily focused on each of the countries of the region, in descending order.

South Africa:__9,247 words (56%)
D.R. Congo:___3,683 words (22%)
Mozambique:__1,219 words (7%)
Zimbabwe:____1,023 words (6%)
Madagascar:___963 words (6%)
Seychelles:____273 words (2%)
Malawi:______88 words (1%)
Angola:______0 words (0%)
Botswana:____0 words (0%)
Comoros_____ 0 words (0%)
Lesotho:_____0 words (0%)
Mauritius:____0 words (0%)
Namibia:_____0 words (0%)
Swaziland:____0 words (0%)
Tanzania:_____0 words (0%)
Zambia:______0 words (0%)
TOTAL:______16,496 words

News about the region’s major power, South Africa, accounts for more than half of the total quantity of coverage. Twelve articles cover a variety of topics, from the expulsion of the controversial ANC Youth Leader from the party, to the hospitalization of Nelson Mandela, to social issues associated with the informal economy. The five articles devoted to the D.R. Congo cover the armed conflict and instability in that country, and questions over the dubious election results from the previous year. Perhaps most worthy of note here though, is that not a single drop of ink was shed over the events in more than half (nine) of the countries in the region, including relatively large and powerful Angola and Tanzania.

From another perspective, how does the total of 16,496 words devoted to the region compare to the New York Times’ coverage other parts of world? Over the same period, Israel alone (one of the most consistently popular objects of media coverage) garnered 36,604 words – more than double the coverage for the entire region of southern Africa. That sounds fair, you might say. Israel is, after all, considering the possibility of bombing Iran, and violent armed conflict goes on in neighbouring Syria. On the other hand, the situation in the D.R. Congo, which attracted but a tenth of the coverage of Israel, is no small matter either. The country is the size of western Europe, and the simmering pockets of conflict, which are remnants of the deadliest conflict the world has seen in the past half-century, continue to serve as major security concerns to its many neighbours.

Let’s try another comparison. In January 2012, a cruise ship called the Costa Concordia ran aground off Italy killing some 32 people. Coverage of this single accident and its aftermath garnered 14,960 words in the New York Times, which is just slightly less than the total amount of coverage devoted to southern Africa. The incident was certainly a tragedy, but in terms of newsworthiness, did it deserve to rival the sum total of three-months worth of events in the entire southern African region, including the ongoing tragedy in the D.R. Congo? Certainly is worth a thought.

The World Cup effect

Posted in Africa, media coverage with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on 7 June, 2010 by Virgil

It’s that time again. Millions of people from all over the world have come down with acute cases of football/soccer fever, which at this time is also frequently associated with another (much more sinister) form of illness – chronic nationalistic fervour. The lure of football on an international stage and nationalistic pride are drawing people’s attention to the world’s most marginalized continent (or at least to South Africa). Some hardcore fans are even visiting – those who may not have even thought of travelling to Africa had it not been for the World Cup.

I suppose we should be happy about this attention. Most of the time, from the perspective of the Western media, Africa barely exists. All the complexities and diversity of the 53 countries on this continent, all the politics, the issues, the events, the people, the success stories, the conflicts, boiled down to one or two scattered stories here and there. And the few articles that there are, tend to be loaded with simplistic narratives (‘heart of darkness’ or humanitarian tragedy). Rarely is there a serious attempt at political analysis. This is, of course, nothing like the saturation coverage and detailed analysis showered upon the industrialized countries and the Middle East. 

So what benefits will this World Cup effect bring? How optimistic should we be about the crumbs of media coverage that will fall off the table reserved for the more ‘important’ regions of the world? I am not all that hopeful.

On its website, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) has put up a “special report” entitled “Africa 2010: A continent’s moment on the world stage”. And what a fitting title it is, because a “moment” is about all that Africa will probably get.

Reporters will direct the bulk of their attention to coverage of the World Cup itself, but, to make all the costs worthwhile, will probably venture into Soweto and other places, doing a piece or two on how far South Africa has come since the end of apartheid. Those media corporations with a little bit of extra budget (and an editor in a good mood) might venture outside South Africa, and into relatively accessible neighbouring countries. CBC has at least done an article on the DRC, although the “The Congo turns 50 this month, but will it ever grow up” title leaves a lot to be desired.

Because Africa is seen as having so little news value, very few outside media corporations have a substantial presence in Africa. Of all the supposedly ‘global’ TV news corporations, Al Jazeera has the largest presence in Africa, with all of five bureaus – most have that many bureaus in relatively tiny Europe. Covering Africa therefore means footing the bill to send someone there to get some stories and get out. This is usually someone who has little knowledge or experience of Africa. This is parachute journalism, and expeditions are measured in days, maybe weeks if they are lucky.

Such commercial realities are thought to have played a role in the coverage of the Rwandan genocide. Many reporters were able to cover the genocide because they were already in the area – they were covering the first post-apartheid elections in South Africa. Thus, a similar set of massacres in Burundi a year earlier (more than 200,000 killed – not as many as Rwanda, but far greater than anything in Kosovo, Bosnia, East Timor or Israel-Palestine) got no coverage – no one happened to be in the area and Africa had so little news value to warrant sending someone there. And which massacres do we remember, Rwanda or Burundi?

 With so few foreign journalists based in Africa, coverage of Africa tends to end up as a ‘special report’, not a substantive part of the regular news agenda. So unfortunately, when this ‘special’ event is over, the reporters will undoubtedly return to their regular posts and Africa will return to its place on sidelines.

 I guess Africa will just have to take whatever attention it can get, simplistic stereotypes and all. Attention is certainly needed. Heavy fighting continues in Mogadishu, Somalia, and aid coming in for the DRC is so low that the UN is warning of “catastrophic” consequences. Let’s hope those reporters that have made the trip to Africa have something to say about all this during the half-time breaks…

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