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Comment & analysis

Spectacle and salvation: Challenging western visions of Africa

Annwen Bates

2010-04-22, Issue 478

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In a piece written for Pambazuka News in 2007, Annwen E. Bates looked at how Africa’s lack presented as spectacle is used ‘to legitimise Euro-American programmes of salvation – from colonialism to aid involvement’. With South Africa in the spotlight ahead of the football World Cup in June, Bates revisits some of the ideas raised by her original article.

Some time ago I wrote a piece for Pambazuka News about the June 2007 Bild cover featuring Africa’s silhouette and a skeletal, AIDS orphan (See ‘Africa: Through the lens of Western bourgeois mythology’). Friends and readers pointed out two glaring typos: I referred to ‘an outline of an uninhibited continent’ and renamed the mastermind guest editor ‘Bob Geldhof.’ ‘Geldhof’ was rectified. Yet after I received a chastising email, ‘You really should edit “uninhibited”,’ I decided against erasing my slip. As I started peering at this slip and musing over ‘Geldhof’, they offered keyholes to some interesting ‘truths’ that normative spelling did not.

Words often fissure and crack open under the pressure of history and meaning. The original piece discusses how Africa’s lack presented as spectacle is used to legitimise Euro-American programmes of salvation – from colonialism to aid involvement, and even international events. Lack stands rather tenuously in pendulum with excess. ‘Uninhibited’ points to actions and gestures of excess. In the pairing under discussion – the ‘uninhibited’ continent is also the uninhabited continent. The perceived excessive actions of the ‘African people’, in sexual relations, violence and material greed, have left a decimated and consequently uninhabitable continent. In my previous discussion, it is the HIV/AIDS epidemic ‘borne’ of adult sexual excess that orphans vulnerable, skeletal, ghost-like children (like the one on the Bild cover) and leaves an unfilled, unpopulated, un-parented continent. The resulting consequence of uninhibited action is an uninhabited place: The Bild cover’s outline of Africa blares a coroner’s map of an uninhibited now uninhabited continent. The two words, in my reading, are not as far removed as they may first seem.

Let me now pry the undertones of my second typo: Geldhof. To ‘geld’ means to castrate, deprive of virility, emasculate or weaken and is from the Old Norse ‘gelder’, meaning barren. ‘Hof’ indicates a meeting place, usually with an administrative function, and dates back to Anglo-Saxon for hall. I certainly did not intend to rewrite Geld(h)of as an administrative centre of emasculation, yet through the typo ‘I’ have. The slip itself splits into two possible interpretations. Geld(h)of draws attention to the deprived virility of the ‘grand old’ administrations – the white patriarchal, centres – that waved the flags of colonialism and more recently, aid salvation. Or, in having the capacity and power to edit, disseminate and endorse certain visual and rhetorical tropes about the African continent, as was the case in the Bild issue, Geld(h)of deprives the ‘uninhabited continent’ of the opportunity to make its own stand. Simply, the slip intimates either the centre crumbling or the hold it continues to impose. Perhaps, like a fissure, the slip alludes to the centre’s crumbling and power simultaneously.

But that was June 2007, and we are now nearing June 2010. South Africa is flags and road works blazing for the upcoming Soccer World Cup, even as a few other incidents (which I do not intend to unravel here) absorb the spotlight. Playing with words, like shuffling images, does not seem of much use when the question remains: How to stave off attitudes that ‘Africa’s’ spaces are uninhabited terra for the grasping by the Geld(h)of’s who manage media, government, education, health and even safety and security? Images that reflect genealogies of attitude, like words that carrying underlying values and judgments, contribute to the unfaithful cartography about which I wrote previously. Yet, even when the best intentions underpin them, representations and demarcations result in limited cartographies. My continued hope is that those within the lines drawn may voice and image the cartographies with their experiences and aspirations.


* This piece is dedicated to Philomène, who encouraged me.
* Annwen E. Bates is an independent cultural critic. She currently works for South Africa’s premier performing arts company.
* Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at Pambazuka News.

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