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Africa is not a movie script

By Takura Zhangazha

American and Hollywood celebrities are great to watch in the popular movies and television series that are now available on many African TV channels. In recent years, like celebrity sportspersons, they have also become involved with international humanitarian organisations (such as Unicef) to increase global awareness of the many disasters that afflict our shared world.

Some Hollywood celebrities have, however, decided that it is not enough to just be goodwill ambassadors for important international relief organisations. On occasion, they have decided to wade into the choppy waters of “liberal interventionism” in aid of one political cause or the other. The latest example is the Academy Award-winning American actor George Clooney, who seems to have made it his personal endeavour to represent some of the Sudanese people at the highest levels of international diplomacy and/or American government.

Recent reports indicate that he was arrested along with others in Washington, DC while on a picket about the civil war in the Nuba region of Sudan (not to be mistaken with the Republic of South Sudan). It turns out he has been involved with campaigns around Sudan for some time now, particularly in the Darfur region. Clooney’s activism is, however, not without its own controversies. An eminent Ugandan academic, Mahmood Mamdani, has previously argued that a campaign on Sudan which the actor was involved in was not necessarily based on historical and political fact.

Regardless of these controversies, it is a given that Clooney is within his rights to express his opinion on what he perceives to be human rights violations occurring in Sudan. Indeed, there have been many reports on such violations but, in the aftermath of the Kony 2012 video, it would be necessary to advise the American actor to be cautious of becoming the central public American narrative on the plight of the people in Sudan’s Nuba region. This is because at this rate, he may become the global spokesperson for the people of Nuba, particularly those that he insists are facing “systematic killing” in the same country. And all this while he is in the comfort of his home country.

It is obviously a role that Clooney takes very seriously given the fact that he has visited the Nuba region recently. His ‘efforts’ are also indicative of an unfortunate trend wherein famous individuals from the North/West are beginning to exhibit problematic quasi-messianic streaks on behalf of people who might not or will never know who these people ‘fighting’ on their behalf are.

Whereas in the African struggles against colonialism, international attention and acts of solidarity against repression and human rights violations were generally the collective act of many citizens of the West, the new-found tendency by movie or music celebrities to almost singularly seek to bring attention to contemporary sites of political conflict is borderline ‘feel-good’ political activism. It may bring global/American attention to perceived atrocities, but, in the long run, could compromise long-term African political solutions to the same. This is because the primary solution to the Sudanese crisis resides in the ability of the Sudanese people to address the crisis in the Nuba region. To seek to bring attention to it in Washington, DC is not a bad thing and, given the fact that I neither have the celebrity status nor the backing of a global power’s media hegemony, I would be mistaken to dismiss his actions outright. I can, however, only argue from the point of view of an African.

Clooney’s actions are instructively indicative of the missionary functions of (colonial) yesteryear wherein, by default, he simultaneously seeks to claim the moral high ground on what may indeed be actual human rights atrocities and does so on the basis of having urgently come to Africa (read the ‘dark continent’). This would include, like the missionaries of old, calling upon the all-powerful metropolis of the West to take up arms and go forth to save the ‘natives’ by (eventually) conquering the ‘barbarians’.

Of course Clooney could not have gone to the African Union immediately as this would be less befitting of his status. In any event, if he has limited locus standi to do so it is unlikely that he would have pursued that path with as much urgency.

It would, however, be helpful to instruct Western celebrities that Africa is not a playground for intermittent demonstrations of their assumed moral or political uprightness when they cannot, at the moment, demonstrate reasonable commitment to their own country’s poor and disadvantaged. Indeed, celebrities like Clooney are representatives of the global cultural dominance that is Hollywood but they must understand that, while they may mean well, Africa and African problems are best resolved by co-operation and not missionary exhibitionism.

Takura Zhangazha is a human rights activist based in Harare, Zimbabwe. He writes here in his personal capacity.

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