No Longer Hopeless: A Media-centric Approach to Framing the Africa Rising Debate

Published on 9th August 2015


Over the past couple of months, the notions of ‘Africa Rise,’ ‘Africa Rising,’ ‘the rise of Africa,’ the ‘rising of Africa’ and synonymous phraseology such as ‘hopeful continent,’ global frontier’ and ‘Afro-optimism,’ have rapidly gained currency as labels and metaphors pinned on to African renewal or rebirth discourses. For our purposes, we shall use the ‘Africa Rise’ wording for this construct.

We refer to ‘Africa Rise’ as a construct convinced that at this point in its relatively recent trajectory, the phrase is still being ‘constructed’ and is yet to mature into a social science concept or theory. We offer a media-centric or a media representation window into the world of Africa as of mid-2014, rather than an econometric or statistical view. We seek to understand symbols, portrayals and narratives attendant to the emergence of a construct that captures a sense of optimism on the continent. We inevitably look at the pessimistic portrayals as well.     

Similar to the emergence of companies and events riding on the African Renaissance a half a decade ago, Africa Rise has touched off a frenzy for naming certain corporate and cultural initiatives and supra national events as such – Africa Rise. A UK-based company has fashioned an ‘Africa Rising’ conference series.ii  UK based Royal Economic Society held a session also dubbed Africa Rising in April 2014.iii  An Africa Rising song was launched in Mauritius in June 2014 by Multichoice, a continental pay TV company (Kabuye 2013). Former US secretary of state Colin Powell (who is of African American descent) swapped his diplomatic role with an artistic performance in a London concert dubbed ‘Africa Rising.’iv   Certain patent-inclined individuals and corporate organizations have copyrighted and claimed ownership of the concept. Indeed today, you buy an Africa Rising item somewhere in Africa, while listening to Africa Rising lyrics, watch Africa Rising TV or donate to an Africa is Rising Foundation.

One event that particularly merits comment is the ‘Africa Rising: Building to the Future’ conference organized by the IMF and held in Maputo, Mozambique in May 2014. The conference brought together some of the leading lights on Africa’s economic agenda from around the world from former UK minister Claire Short, to Wang Yong, Vice President of China-Africa Development Fund, to former UN secretary general Kofi Annan and others. Global media – from the China’s Caixin to and The Africa Report, to mention but three – were in full swing as conference partners.

During the above-mentioned conference, IMF Managing Director Christine Largade talked in strokes of ‘the theme of the conference, Africa Rising, captures [the] excitement’, ‘Sub-Saharan Africa is clearly taking off,’ Africa is, ‘frontier economy …,’ ‘challenging old stereotypes and roaring loud as Africa’s lions’ (2014). Largade seems to have borrowed the ‘Africa’s lion’s’ metaphor from another enthusiast of Africa Rise, The McKinsey Global Institute, the Washington DC headquartered economic research consultancy which characterized Africa’s progress as ‘Lions on the move’ in report reminiscent of the Asian Tigers label (Roxburgh, (2010). 

The Africa Rise phenomenon is backed by statisticswith supra national organizations such as the IMF, World Bank and Africa Economic Outlook (AEO) predicting robust economic expansion of over 5 per cent well above global average (IMF 2014, AEO 2014). On the other hand other organizations, for instance the Fund for Peace (FFP, 2013) dump down on Africa’s outlook  placing countries such as South Sudan, Somalia, Central Africa Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo and Sudan in their most “failed states” category.

The paper poses three key questions. How have selected African media portrayed the Africa Rise rhetoric? What about media from developed nations? Are they in agreement about the use of this term or not? 

The paper begins with synthesis of literature on the key labels – the African Renaissance, and the Afro-optimism versus Afro-pessimism debate. Discussion of these concepts sets the stage for analysis of Africa Rise. We then follow this with a discussion on the emergence and key elements of Africa Rise in selected Western media and the contestations thereof. This is followed by a brief comment on the media framing theory and the quantitative content analysis as the approaches to our contribution to the debate. We then present results from selected media from Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa followed by a further research proposal as the conclusion.

Intersection of African Renaissance and Africa Rise 

The Africa Rise construct bears semblance to the African Renaissance and to a certain extent, the Pan-African movement. Scholars pointed out that ‘the “African Renaissance,” captured the imagination of many [South] Africans’ touching off a blitz of discourse in academia, the media, the legislature and the public sphere (Maloka 2001:1; More 2002:62).

As of 2014, it is only a decade and half since former South Africa president Thabo Mbeki (1996)vi ‘undoubtedly the continent’s leading champion of the idea’ (Okumu 2002:10), made the now famous ‘I am an African’ speech, referred to as groundbreaking and seminal (More 2002:62; Nabudere 2001:16). His inspirational speech sought to impel the continent towards progress and prosperity. He said:

My mind and my knowledge of myself is formed by the victories that are the jewels in our African crown, the victories we earned from Isandhlwana to Khartoum, as Ethiopians and as the Ashanti of Ghana, as the Berbers of the desert 

Scholars have associated this speech with the (re)-birth of the African Renaissance concept. However, the first direct and recent reference to the African Renaissance was Mbeki’s speech at a Corporate Council on Africa event in the US in May 1997 in which he was certain that ‘the African renaissance is upon us’ (Maloka 2001:1; Moeletsi Mbeki 2000: 74). Former US president Bill Clinton picked up the mantra in March 1998 saying: ‘We are seeing what Deputy President Mbeki has called an African renaissance’ (Moeletsi Mbeki 2000:76).

Moeletsi Mbeki (2000:77) drew on president Clinton to surmise that African Renaissance meant the spread of democracy, economic growth, and peace. Others have conceived the African Renaissance as a continuation of Pan-Africanism, in that; it is the third moment in Africa’s search for a reawakening, the second moment having been the end of the cold war and the liberation of South Africa, and, the first moment seen as the liberation struggles of immediate post-second world war years (Moeletsi Mbeki 2000:77-78; Nabudere 2001:15).

South Africa’s ruling party, the African National Congress, adopted the African Renaissance as South Africa’s foreign policy in late 1997 (Moeletsi Mbeki, 2000:78; Maloka 2001:1). In September 1998, the concept’s intellectual dimensions were boasted when an “African Renaissance” conference was organized, the product of which was the 1999 edited volume entitled: African Renaissance: The New Struggle (Maloka 2001:1; More 2002:62; Cossa 2009:2). Two years later, South Africa’s Department of International Affairs established the African Renaissance and International Cooperation Fund (Republic of South Africa, 2000). The African Renaissance Institute was established with a base in Botswana and with former president Nelson Mandela (South Africa) and Julius Nyerere (Tanzania) as its Council of Elders (Okumu 2002 ix).

The ideas that spawned the African Renaissance found practicability in the formation of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) as an arm of the then Organization of African Unity (OAU) in Lusaka in 2001 (Ezeoha & Uche 2005:6-7). Thabo Mbeki, Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo were tasked with mooting a mechanism initially framed as the Millennium Africa Recovery/Renaissance Plan (MAP) and focused on debt cancellation at a significant OAU extraordinary meeting in late Muamar Gadaffi’s hometown of Sirte, Libya in 1999. NEPAD also incorporated a similar effort dubbed Omega Plan by former Senegalese president Abdoulaye Wade (Ezeoha & Uche 2005:16; OAU/AU, n.d; Kornegay, 2001:106). NEPAD was seen as a vehicle for a departure from failed continental approaches to development as prescribed by, among others, the OAU’s Lagos Plan of Action of 1980 and the IMF/World Bank (WB) Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPS) ( Ezeoha & Uche 2005; NEPAD 2001 13; 15). Riding on this momentum, the OAU was renamed African Union (AU) in 2002 (see OAU/AU, n.d).

Contestation of African Renaissance concept

From early on in its formulation and winding well into the decade of the 2010s, there were contestations about various cleavages of African Renaissance.

The first and very basic argument was the labeling of Africa’s rebirth as “African Renaissance” which was seen as an echo of the “European Renaissance,” thus, lacking in originality (Maloka 2001: 8; Cossa 2009:12).

It would appear however, that Thabo Mbeki sought to look outside of the continent for internal inspiration. This is evident in his seeking to learn from other renewal experiences not just European but for instance, the Japanese Meiji Restoration of the nineteenth century (Thabo Mbeki, 1998a). Okumu (2002:6-9, 12), explained that a study of the European Renaissance ‘does not mean imitating or blindly copying everything European,’ but borrowing from it. 

The second contestation was the conception as the third moment in Africa’s awakening. The main argument was that the coinage glossed over historical initiatives – key among them the decolonization movement and the intellectual and pragmatic works of the Africanist movement of the 19th century particularly the works of Cheikh Anta Diopvii  as well as the work of the Pan-African research think tank, the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODSRIA) (Cossa 2009:4-5; Nabudere 2001:15;  Maloka 2001:25-27). Makalela and Sistrunk (2002) put particular emphasis on the essays of Cheikh Anta Diop entitled Towards the African Renaissance: Essays in Culture and Development and published between 1946 and 1960. Accordingly, it was generally disputed that Thabo Mbeki should be credited with originating the African Renaissance concept/movement.

These arguments seem not to have neglected the fact Thabo Mbeki had repeatedly referenced the place of history, for instance the flourishing Timbuktu Royal Court in Mali in the fifteenth century among other African renaissances as well as citing Cheikh Anta Diop’s work (Thabo Mbeki, 1998a; 1998b).

The third key contestation was about a Pan-African “ownership” of the project against a perceived ring fencing of the initiative by South Africa. For instance in their paper, urging the US to ‘Participate in the African Renaissance’, Kornegay, (2001) implied that South Africa and to a lesser extent Nigeria, should be the lynchpin of US engagement on the continent. Nabudere 92001:22) went as far as to predict that the African Renaissance would ‘fail’ due to ‘narrow focusing on South African struggle without this wider perspective of history’ and geography.

The perceived South Africa-centricity is what Moeletsi Mbeki (2000:79) referred to as ‘a triumphalist syndrome that afflicts newly liberated African countries,’ while Ezeoha & Uche’s (2005) and Nabudere (2001:19) saw the creation of NEPAD as serving South African interests, especially corporate interests in the rest of Africa. Maloka (2001:27) argued that not only was the African Renaissance ‘a South African foreign policy’ marked by popularity at home, but it had also failed to resonate elsewhere on the continent, a view bolstered by Nabudere (2001:19).

Fourth and closely related to the above is the problematization of the overarching nature of the concept of African Renaissance. For some scholars, if the African Renaissance is the African version of the European Renaissance, then it faces the challenge of generalizing a phenomenon that would be better disaggregated into say Kenyan, Ethiopian and Nigerian renaissances. This is because the European Renaissance is also conceived as German, Italian, Spanish … renaissances (More 2002; Maloka 2001).

It appears these perspectives are however a case of splitting hairs, given that in 1998, Thabo Mbeki had already taken cognizance of ancient civilizations in Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Sudan, South Africa, Egypt, Mali at a speech in Tokyo (Thabo Mbeki 1998a).

Thematic linkages between African Renaissance and Africa Rise

Scholars have delineated various strands of the African Renaissance that we can appropriate to the current paper. Maloka (2001) proposed that the study of African Renaissance could follow three spines: globalist/globalism; Pan-Africanist(sm) and culturalist(m). Of the three, Pan-Africanism seems to have been the least developed spine.

For globalization, Cossa (2009:1-2) backed the globalist viewpoint in seeing the concept as a ‘redefinition and response to globalization.’ Indeed, throughout his promotion of the concept, Thabo Mbeki linked African Renaissance to globalization and this included his travels around the world to seek funding and support for the idea convinced that ‘no person is an island’ (1998a). Nabudere (2001:13) took a more cautious approach, tracing the roots of globalization to Europe, five hundred years heretofore, implying that Africa risked being sucked into the unequal relations that defined it with global powers in the past.

Second, culture which we can analyze as part of the broader identity perspective. This dimension of African Renaissance was seen from South Africa’s re-negotiation of an African identity in the aftermath of the fall of the white-dominated regime (Nabudere 2001:16-17; More 2002:63). Against Thabo Mbeki’s multiracial (ambivalent) conceptualization of an African as anybody who had an ancestry on the continent, Cossa (2009:8) opined that an African is he or she ‘who can trace their ancestry to indigenous African people-groups’. However, More suggested that whites had a right to an African identity: After all, he wrote, many South African whites ‘call themselves 'Afrikaners', a term which loosely translates to “African”’ (2002:64).

In offering an early definition of African Renaissance “reloaded”, Moeletsi Mbeki (2000:77) drew on former US president Bill Clinton to suggest that ‘it means the spread of democracy, economic growth, and peace’. In other words, the African Renaissance in its current Africa Rise form can be tested from media texts along these three tropes. Indeed, the “peace” trope is in tandem with the identification of armed conflicts raging at the time and ‘span(ning) half the continent across Africa’s middle, from Angola to the Sudan’ as a drawback to the African Renaissance (Kornegay, Landsberg & McDonald 2001:109). Thabo Mbeki (1998a) touched on governance issues when he expressed optimism of an African Renaissance as evident in the departure from power of former Zaire leader Mobutu Seseko, the reversion to civilian rule in Sierra Leone, the agitation for Nigeria (then under Sani Abacha) ‘to return as speedily as possible to a democratic system of government’ and the clamor for multiparty democracies. Okumu (2002) sought to define the African Renaissance holistically bringing in economic, scientific, social and cultural dimensions.

More (2002:65) went a step farther to pose some useful questions indicative on how social scientists could disaggregate a lumbering and overarching concept to its constituent parts. He asked: ‘does it refer to industrial and economic growth; political independence and stability; literary and artistic productions; cultural, spiritual or moral renewal?’ (More 2002:65). 

From the foregoing, it is evident that just as the African Renaissance was/is ‘a reigniting/continuity [of] Pan-Africanism’ (Cossa 2009:5) so is Africa Rise a metaphor that builds on the African Renaissance. It is worthwhile therefore to follow the arguments attendant to the African Renaissance debates and thus ask further questions:

•What is the role of history and memory?
•How do the media cover Africa Rise from globalization and cultural/identity dimensions?
•Is Africa Rise more a democratic, economic or peace “story”?
•What are the roles of South Africa and NEPAD in the current Africa Rise construct?
Writing in 2002 Okumu (1) pointed out that ‘the British Broadcasting Corporation, the Western media, and international commentators [had dismissed the African Renaissance concept as a] stillborn.’ We seek to find out if this has changed a decade-plus later.

Afro-optimism versus Afro-pessimism and Africa Rise

Space does not allow a full account of the media dimensions of the Afro-optimism versus Afro-pessimism debate. In summary, Schorr (2011:23-24) characterizes Afro-pessimism as ‘the perception that Africa … [is] … a scary, backward and poverty-ridden place’, portrayed with ‘stereotypes, prejudices, misconceptions, condescending descriptions and negative images’ of poverty, war and disease.

In a book length treatise, Wainaina (2011) crafted a caricatured satire of Africa, ostensibly by certain sections of Western intelligentsia with a random sentence going thus: ‘describe, in detail, naked breasts (young, old, conservative, recently raped, big, small) or mutilated genitals, or enhanced genitals. Or any kind of genitals. And dead bodies. Or, better, naked dead bodies. And especially rotting naked dead bodies.’

On a diametrically opposite pendulum and in an apparent and equally satirical rebuttal of Wainaina as above, The Guardian’s (UK) Duncan Clark (2012) proposes that one writes about Africa with incredulous optimism, to cite one sentence; ‘pick a theme of unrestrained optimism. Shed any Afro-pessimism or proclivity for real politik. Go for catchy sound-bites: like "Africa is rising," the "African Century" or "Africa's Moment.’

Clark’s tongue-in-cheek portrayal is almost verbatim with an apparently less jocular editorial line assumed by the London Times in 1961 and quoted by Hagos (nd) thusly: ‘emphasize the bizarre, translate African situations into terms that Americans  are expected to understand … large generalizations about African politics, and light relief about the hardship of the trip.’

In contrast to this pessimistic outlook, Smit (2010:15) suggests an optimistic perspective would see Africa as an economic giant beginning to take embryonic steps that might take long to come to fruition but that are nonetheless on course.

Underlying these dichotomous perceptions of Africa are contestations on whether the continent is on a renewal or is still ‘backward’ and even retrogressing. Schorr (2011) posits that negative portrayals have an impact on Africa’s development because the risks they depict may dissuade FDI flows into the continent, a view originally enunciated on by Onwudiwe (2003:3).   

Literature identifies Robert Kaplan’s (1994) article – the coming anarchy - in The Atlantic newsletter as the most recent and powerful portrait of Africa as what former UK prime minister would, in 2001, call ‘a scar on the conscience of the world.’viii  Such has been the staying power of the ‘coming anarchy’ debate that some Canadian think tanks organized a ‘Twenty Years after the Coming Anarchy’ commemorative forum in February 2014iv complete with podcasts to appraise the debate.

In attempting to offer a nuanced definition of Afro-pessimism in the media context, Nothias (2012), identified five tropes: ‘the essentialisation of the continent’ in which an event in one country is generalized or homogenized to the rest of the continent; the ‘racialization phenomenon’ in which Africa means black Africa and not people from other races for instance whites in South Africa and Arabs in the north; selectivity, in which Africa attracts media coverage not commensurate with its geographic and demographic size and an over-selection of negative news, even though Western media is generally negative-news inclined;  ethnocentric ranking in which Africa is assessed against Western neo-liberal  standards ‘implying the existence of a cultural and essential ‘African’ problem’; and prediction based on  ‘the idea of actively predicting a dark future for the continent’ – the notion of a dark continent.  

These debates seem to have been rekindled in the present with Western media in the lead. It is worthwhile noting here that the Afro-pessimism continuum of the debate seems to hog much more intellectual exertion than the Afro-optimism end of things. Is this indicative of the fact that the pessimistic view holds sway in Western media? Is the Africa Rise construct about to change the discourse towards Afro-optimism? 

To be continued

By Bob Wekesa

The author is a Research Associate at University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa and PhD graduate from Communication University of China, Beijing,


iHeadline borrowed from Nigerian novelist Chinua’s Achebe’s book, ‘No Longer at Ease’


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