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Framing Africa

“Mine protests turn deadly in South Africa… Nigerian army denies killing civilians… Deaths reported as shells hit near Sudan town… Dozens injured in Tunisian clashes…”
– Al Jazeera, October 12, 2012

“William Beckford, Byron, Goethe, and Hugo restructured the Orient by their art and made its colors, lights, and people visible through their images, rhythms, and motifs. At most, the ‘real’ Orient provoked a writer to his vision; it very rarely guided it.”
– Edward Said

Father of post-colonial theory, Edward W. Said delved into patterns of Western Othering of the East, coining the concept of “Orientalism.” Western conceptions, according to Said, were created and recreated by “techniques of representation that [made] the Orient visible, clear, ‘there’ in discourse about it.” Such systems of representations were driven by the mechanics of “institutions, traditions, conventions, agreed-upon codes of understanding for their effects, not upon a distant and amorphous Orient.”

It was not long after that V.Y. Mugabe framed a concept not unlike Said’s, as he recast his analytic focus from the East to Africa. In his works The Invention of Africa and The Idea of Africa, Mugabe stripped the Western perspective of Africa down to a skeleton of representation: a subconscious “body of knowledge” hung together by sinews of images and ideas, both proffered and perpetuated by media and education.

Perhaps we have moved on from the chimera of voodoo, cannibalism, and witchcraft conjured by colonial officials and classical ethnographers. We may have even let go of the Noble Savage. However, in the tracks of these artifacts stands a new discursive framework. On the front page of a news site, one is guaranteed to find depictions of violence and chaos spreading across the African continent. And while such documentation is essential to transparency, advocacy and awareness, a revision of its effects on policy may expose a sinister underbelly.

Analyzing the Security Council’s failure to implement localized conflict resolution in the Congo, Séverine Autesserre draws on Karl Weick’s notion of “framing”: “collective, inter-subjective understandings that ‘people draw on to construct roles and interpret objects.’” She identifies a “post-conflict peace-building frame” shared broadly by international actors that led peacekeeping missionaries to deem local conflict resolution as “irrelevant and illegitimate.” Like Said and Mugabe, she refers to interpretative and discursive frameworks. Key pillars of the post-conflict peacekeeping frame are one, a “belief that violence is innate in the Congo,” and two, a conviction that, despite ongoing violence, the Congo was a “post-conflict” situation that no longer required intervention.

In the face of continuing conflict, peacekeepers could safely ignore it through the monocular vision facilitated by a frame that viewed African violence as an eternal given.

In broad terms, such a concept does not fall far from those of Said and Mugabe. Autesserre draws her cross-hairs onto its sources, some of which date back to the nineteenth century: “cartoons, novels, movies, museum displays, documentaries, policy discourse” and finally, “newspaper articles.” Journalists and NGOs themselves have adopted the post-conflict language.

The implications of discursive frameworks proved to be far-reaching both in the Congo and across the world. As the UN deemed the situation post-conflict, other international actors took this as a cue and adopted the framework. The U.S. stopped mediation efforts, NGOs initiated reconstruction programs, and the European Union began disbursing development funds, halting attempts to cease conflict. Meanwhile “formal and informal communication amongst international actors” diffused this interpretation.

Autesserre’s case study unveils the man behind the green curtain: a self-reinforcing system of representations whose momentum has not slowed since the colonial period. Finding their roots in the conscious justifications of colonialism, such frames have mutated into an insidious misconception that befogs and misleads even the most well intentioned actors.

Such studies hint at the synchronous and fixed relationship of the media’s cause and effect paradox. In the moment that journalism draws on such frameworks, it begets them. Such is the nature of tunnel vision. As representations of violence in Africa course through almost interchangeable headlines in the news, one is faced with a Gordian knot. Journalists are caught between the Scylla of transparency, advocacy and awareness, and the Charybdis of unidimensional depictions of the continent.

–  M. Polar

(Featured Image: Paternité , heresie Flickr, Creative Commons)


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