By Charlayne Hunter-Gault
I’m a journalist, not a poll-taker, however, over the past month, while touring the country to talk about my book New News Out of Africa, I’ve been conducting an informal, highly un-scientific survey about how much Americans know about Africa. I know that the majority of the people I talk to are already interested in Africa because they have turned out for my readings in bookstores, churches, theaters and private homes, or they have called in to the radio talk shows where I’ve been a guest. My survey has sampled a wide cross section of Americans: young, old, black, white and brown, immigrants from all parts of the world, including Africa, as well as native born. Many of them feel a spiritual or emotional connection to this faraway continent; many have an historical connection, too, their fore-parents having been brought here as slaves in chains during the Middle Passage.
Despite their diversity and pre-existing connection to Africa, however, my dialogue with Americans on Africa has only confirmed my suspicions, not to mention my motivation for writing New News out of Africa. Many people say that they want to visit Africa for the adventure, for some of world’s greatest natural wonders, and because it is the last best place to see animals not in a zoo. Many tell me they are making plans to go there, especially to South Africa, whose struggle against apartheid engaged so many of them. Then, in the next breath, they express concern about the reports of crime they’ve heard. One caller shared with me the report his son came back with that “everyone” in South Africa carries a gun, which was news to me, a Johannesburg resident of almost ten years. Very few Americans, even those with close emotional, spiritual, or historical ties to Africa, know about the new developments on the continent that hold out the promise of an African Renaissance.
In a theater filled with more than 150 people in Atlanta recently, I asked how many had heard of Nepad. Four hands went up. I then asked how many had heard of “Peer Review”. The same four hands went up. I then proceeded to share with the audience my own view that while Nepad, which stands for New Partnership for Africa’s Development and is pronounced “nehpad,” not “knee-pad,” may not be the most exciting sounding word, its principles are bringing change to the African continent.
Nepad was one of the first-born of the African Union, which succeeded the Organization of African Unity in 2002 as the continent-wide body through which Africans represent themselves and resolve their own issues. The OAU’s primary mission had been to end colonialism, and the last remaining bastion of white supremacy on the continent—apartheid in South Africa. The African Union has established new goals and missions for its members, including rules that stress finding “African solutions to African problems,” re-confirming the shared destiny of the continent, promoting peace over war and ending the perception of Africa as the sorrow child of the global family of nations. It called for transparency, accountability, fiscal and economic discipline, respect for human rights and, among other things, the empowerment of women.
To that end, the AU agreed to implement the African Peer Review Mechanism (Peer Review) –a volunteer process that allows member states to submit to a review of their political governance and economic management, among others, as a part of the deal for western investment and aid. Peer Review is voluntary, conducted by eminent African persons like Graca Machel, the children’s rights activist and wife of Nelson Mandela. So far, about half of Africa’s 54 countries have signed up and several have completed the process, including Rwanda, Ghana and South Africa.
It remains to be seen whether these new rules of the African road will achieve their objectives, avoiding the pitfalls that saw the first wind of change turn into an ill wind, leaving in its wake a devastated continent. But, if there is to be an African Renaissance, Americans need to know that these new rules exist and are fueled by the hopes and dreams of an increasingly vocal people. Americans need to understand that this “new news” is, in fact, revolutionary on a continent that used to regard borders as sacrosanct.
Africans acknowledge that they need the West to help pull them out of poverty, which in many ways was exacerbated by Western collusion with some of the most tyrannical rulers on the continent so long as they stood as bulwarks against communism. And, to be sure, Western aid aimed at easing Africa’s burdens has been squandered in the past by some corrupt leaders. But the new rules of Nepad provide strict consequences for corruption. What must follow is political will and encouragement from Americans and others in the West. It’s in America’s best interest for Africa to succeed—not least because of her vast reservoirs of oil and other minerals, but of her potential to be a bulwark against terrorism and not a poverty-stricken breeding ground for it.
Some people ask, but what about Zimbabwe? THAT is a question I cannot answer. Zimbabwe and Darfur stand in the way of the forward thrust of NEPAD. But, on the flip side, since 1998 the number of African countries in conflict has dwindled from 14 to three, thanks in no small part to African mediation. In a few days the Democratic Republic of Congo, is scheduled to put a democratic period on its own conflict by holding its first elections in 40 years. It’s a fragile state of affairs, but so was South Africa’s during the run-up to its first all-race elections in 1994. Thousands died to bring the 1994 election about, but then Nelson Mandela was able to take control of a country that has remained peaceful since.
So, when audiences ask me what I mean by “new news,” I reply that it’s the real “good news.” Not the flowery, fawning, romanticized, Africa-without-problems “good news”, but the good news that African people can finally settle down to the hard work of making good choices and good decisions about the world in which they live and about the people who govern their country.
Meanwhile, I will continue conducting my informal survey, hoping to hear more questions, especially those that derive from a lack of good news there. And I will continue to deliver what I know of the “new news” from Africa and the growing renaissance on the continent that is the mother of us all.
Charlayne Hunter-Gault is Special Africa Correspondent for NPR. Previously the Johannesburg Bureau Chief for CNN, she worked for The New York Times for ten years and was a correspondent on PBS for twenty years. She is also the author of In My Place, a memoir of her role in the Civil Rights Movement as the first black woman admitted to the University of Georgia.