Africa Addio was an Italian documentary shot in the 1960s that showed Africa as a land filled with savagery and ruination as colonial powers withdrew (by Jacopetti and Prosperi, 1966). The book that accompanied the film was somewhat sympathetic to the plight of Africans with an appraisal of the burdens and damage wrought by unchecked colonial expansion. However, the images dominated and the text went by largely unnoticed. This film has seen a resurgence on YouTube, Google Video and other online streaming video sources. It now appears in small chunks of the most vivid and graphic details even further stripped of textual content. It is even available in full length directors cut with subtitles at Google Video and linked through to white supremist websites. The negative stereotyping and racialised discourses of ungovernable savage Africans still abounds as strong today as it was in the 1960s.

YouTube and other such sites are not to blame as they reflect the views of those uploading the videos. The African images on the international stage are overtly negative focusing on wars, diseases, failed states and terrible calamities. These are only countered by images of unspoilt and untamed wildernesses of dangerous animals as seen on National Geographic and Discovery Channel. Africa Addio drew on very similar tropes and documentary style images of a wild Africa, but focused not on the lives of the animals, but the often cruel deaths at the hands of Africans. The implications were that without colonial rule the Africans would ruin that beautiful, natural world. The film came to close with images from Tanzania of mass graves and piles of severed limbs, showing a progression in the violence from animals to people. It is supposedly a lament to Africa and its looming destruction as colonial forces withdraw at a time when Africans are ‘not yet ready’. Aspects of the film seem to have been born out with various brutal civil wars, rise of dictators, acts of genocide, mass poaching and foreign intrusions. And on the other hand, various success stories have since arisen, such as conservation of nature on a scale unseen in Europe, the rebuilding of populations of certain endangered species made rare during colonialism, a few successful democracies, some peace accords, and some economic development.

However, the failures dominate our media and are used in particular ways; similar failures elsewhere are not used in the same manner for say, Europe. For example, Russian conflict in Chechnya, civil war in the former Yugoslavia, IRA bombings, USA’s war in Iraq are not used to signify Western or white savagery or barbarism in the same way events in Africa are signified. Disastrous events in Africa are generally reported in terms of `tribalism’, `famine’, `disease’ and `war’, epithets which are rarely elaborated upon. These events are portrayed decontextualised from social and political events and unlinked to global phenomena or activities of Western states (such as the Cold War). Due to the seemingly overwhelming and pervasive nature of horrible events good things are often overlooked or relegated to tourism brochures. African political leaders often express valid concerns about how these images are used to portray a continent. These images contribute to racial stereotypes and views of Africans that are generally unflattering. A failed state on this continent is used as an example of a failed continent.

However, the legitimate political concerns and rightful anger expressed by certain leaders gets translated into an intolerant and unrealistic counter discourse that denies any problem on the continent. From a South African perspective the discourses of Afro-pessimism/optimism are telling as Thabo Mbeki’s and the ANC’s failure to act or even acknowledge civil wars, brutal repression, failed democracies, xenophobic attacks and Aids are all dismissed or downplayed with blasé statements claiming there is no crisis in Zimbabwe, no link between HIV and Aids, and no repression. This denial paints a rosy picture of Africa amidst real chaos, ruin and suffering.

African leaders, in an attempt to represent Africa positively, establish a set of privileged images of Africa. These images are not necessarily accurate or inaccurate, but they are privileged in the sense that the elites create them in order to push certain agendas. So real or not, the images have very real consequences.

The irony of the fight over these images is that the very violent inaction of African states to admit serious problems and their extent then allow these events to spiral out of control. Zimbabwe is a clear example over the fight for legitimacy of who represents the state. Robert Mugabe claims legitimacy as ‘liberator’ of the state against British Imperial rule, while refusing to accept his legitimate outing during the first election of 2008.

The fights within Zimbabwe are also symbolic fights over the images of Africa. Thabo Mbeki denies the crisis and keeps up his ‘silent diplomacy’. If Thabo Mbeki were to speak out harshly on Zimbabwe and treat the situation as a real crisis he would have to admit there are problems in Africa. Moreover, if he attempts to find a solution for the very real and serious problems and fails, it would be an indictment of himself. Thus a critique of Zimbabwe is to suggest Mbeki has failed as a mediator. In this I agree. The recent news about a potential settlement and power sharing between the two parties is disheartening as it confers legitimacy to failed elections.

It is tragic for the poorest and most desperate that legitimate anger by those in power over the representation of Africa is translated into intransigence and intolerance with regard to important debates in health and medicine, democracy and governance.


  • I have returned to South Africa. I now teach Economic History and Development Studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. I am happy to be back after a couple years away. I had been teaching anthropology at a Canadian University, but Africa called and I returned.


Michael Francis

I have returned to South Africa. I now teach Economic History and Development Studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. I am happy to be back after a couple years away. I had been teaching anthropology...

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