By Sean Jacobs
Africa is now everyone’s pet cause: It offers an opportunity to shine for northern political leaders unpopular at home, and for former pop stars to be seen doing their bit for humanity by lining up to visit the continent’s children or pleading its case in Western capitals. Bono, especially, has built a new career as a savior of Africa — and his access to the corridors of power makes him a lot more effective in this role than his pop predecessor, Bob Geldof.
In March this year, the U2 frontman who has accomplished the remarkable feat of being a friend to Nelson Mandela and George W. Bush simultaneously, became Vanity Fair’s first-ever guest editor for a special issue that would “rebrand Africa.”
Bono (“If I wasn’t singing for U2 I’d be a journalist”) had noble intentions: “When you see people humiliated by extreme poverty and wasting away with flies buzzing around their eyes, it is easy not to believe that they are same as us,” he said. The branding works: this issue is almost indistinguishable from Bono’s (Red) campaign.
Of the twenty historic covers photographed by Annie Leibovitz, only three feature actual Africans: the actor (and editor’s consultant) Djimon Hounsou, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Iman. (Three and a half, if you count U.S. presidential longshot Barack Obama). No matter: the only criteria for the cover models were that they be “passionate” about Africa, and Jay-Z and Queen Rania of Jordan certainly are. Also featured is Brad Pitt, whose “activism in New Orleans, Haiti and Africa has received worldwide attention” on Vanity Fair’s website. (He also co-founded Not On Our Watch, which holds premieres of Ocean’s Thirteen to benefit Darfur. No joke.)
Carter, in his editor’s note, reveals his differences with Bono about including George W. Bush and Condoleezza Rice on the cover, but the rock star appears to believe Bush’s Africa policies may be the “silver lining” of the current U.S. administration.
The feature articles are written by go-to “Africa hands” in the United States, including Christopher Hitchens, Sebastian Junger (a journalist described elsewhere as fascinated with “extreme situations and people at the edges of things”), and Spencer Wells (an “explorer-in-residence at National Geographic”). Only one actual African contributor, Binyavanga Wainaina on contemporary Kenya, made the cut.
A group of actual Africans profiled as representing the “spirit” of the continent — “activists, artists, doctors, athletes, entrepreneurs, economists” are given limited treatment in short paragraph-length descriptions of their achievements.
The big profiles go to anti-poverty economist Jeffrey Sachs (Bono’s friend) and the late Princess Diana. Former U.S. president Bill Clinton writes on Nelson Mandela and Brad Pitt plays journalist by asking Archbishop Desmond Tutu really silly questions. Having praised South Africa for going the route of “restorative justice,” Pitt has a follow- up question for Tutu: “Then it is worth asking what is the outcome for societies who have rushed toward retributive justice, like the Shia in Iraq?” Huh? Madonna gets to redeem herself after her bungled adoption of a Malawian child: she is doing a documentary on orphans in Malawi.
As one blog noted, “the overall picture is the one that so many Africans find themselves fighting — Africa as basket case.”
The continent’s most populous region, West Africa, is ignored except for one article on the music festival in the Malian desert. South Africa, the continent’s richest country (with Johannesburg slowly emerging as the continent’s cultural and media capital, as hinted at by the paragraph-length feature on the Africa Channel and the drooling photograph of actress Terry Pheto of the film Tsotsi) gets short shrift. Apart from the Clinton piece on Mandela (which reduces the former guerrilla to saintly grandfather) and the Pitt “interview” with Tutu, there is nothing that captures some of the struggles to define this new Africa.
Nevertheless, on the upside, publications like the Cape Townbased literary and politics magazine Chimurenga (full disclosure: Sean Jacobs is its online editor) and “new wave” writers such as Wainaina, Orange Prize-winner Chimamanda Adichie, Doreen Baingana and Mohamed Magani, among others, are getting some helpful exposure to new (and wellheeled) audiences and readers. And the issue is well-deserved attention for the AIDS activism of people like Zackie Achmat and the global justice campaigner Archbishop Ndungane (Tutu’s successor as Anglican prelate in South Africa).
Also recognized is New York African Film Festival director Mahen Bonetti and the filmmakers Teddy Mattera, Gaston Kabore, Jean Marie Teno and Safi Feye, who are featured only in a group photo, with their work summed up in one paragraph.