Daniel Friedman
4 minute read
25 May 2018
2:13 pm

Let’s go to Africa

Daniel Friedman

South Africans need to make more of an effort to know what’s going on in our own continent, myself included.

South Africans love to laugh at Americans for their ignorance.

This week, I saw that a clip from the Jimmy Kimmel show was being widely shared on social media. Kimmel took to the streets asking ordinary Americans to name a book – any book. He cited a recent study from the Pew Research Center, showing that one in four Americans have not read a book in the past year. As you might predict, the street interviews produced hilariously clueless answers. South Africans take great pleasure in sharing this kind of thing because we can have a good laugh at how little Americans know about the world around them.

While the existence of things such as the New York Times bestsellers list suggest that, somewhere in America, some reading is being done, and while you wouldn’t struggle to find examples of brilliant American minds in any number of fields, there’s probably some truth to the stereotype that the average American is ignorant.

In many ways, though, South Africans are the Americans of Africa. Arrogant, convinced that everyone loves us when they very often don’t, and frightfully unaware of anything that’s happening in the rest of the continent.

This is a generalisation, and if you the reader happen to be an expert on African geopolitics, then rest assured that this column’s accusations are not directed at you. I myself, though, must admit that I’m more often part of the problem than the solution.

In the past on meeting people from other African countries, I’ve found that they can generally pull off a fairly decent discussion on our political situation. This would lead to an awkward moment upon me realising that, unless something truly awful had happened recently, I would not be able to even pretend to know what’s going on where they’re from. Ask me about the big news of the week in the US, Europe, the Middle East or Asia, though, and chances are I would have been able to hold my own.

The irony here is that while we are often the first to get upset when, for example, Donald Trump calls African countries sh*tholes, our lack of interest in our own continent suggests that, like Americans, we feel superior to the rest of Africa too. And while we slam those Americans who are hostile towards immigrants, we don’t exactly have the best record when it comes to how we treat our own.

Some of those African nations who have large communities living here are the biggest victims of our ignorance. The film District 9 made Nigerians livid because of the way their people were portrayed. This is understandable. We like to think all Nigerians are drug dealers or bouncers when the country has produced a large amount of the continent’s best authors, its most financially viable film industry and a powerhouse of an economy.

Other people such as Zimbabweans, who are stereotyped as poor and desperate, and Malawians, who are dismissed as a nation of gardeners, don’t fare much better. I know a Ghanaian who said people would assume he came from a village and lived some kind of agrarian lifestyle in the hills – a strange assumption since he worked in IT.

We do show signs of pan-Africanism when it suits us. When Ghana were Africa’s best hope back when we hosted the 2010 World Cup, for example, or when a DJ drops a track by Nigeria’s Fela Kuti on a dancefloor. Cuisine from the aforementioned nations, such as jollof rice, as well as Ethiopian food, is becoming increasingly trendy right now. But a few exceptions aside, for many of us, what’s happening in the rest of the continent is a mystery.

In a newsroom discussion, one of the most peculiar examples of our status as part-time Africans was mentioned. Often, when a South African is expressing the desire to explore the rest of our continent, they’ll say: “I’ve always wanted to go to Africa.”

The thing is, though, as South Africans we’re all already there.

This Africa Day, I for one have made a pledge to start acting like it.

Citizen digital news editor Daniel Friedman. Picture: Tracy-Lee Stark