Editorial: Look past the drama and see Africa’s potential
I recently picked up a rare DVD set of the Shaka Zulu mini-series. Not to be confused with the classic Michael Caine movie, Zulu, this sprawling TV novel was made in the 1980s with sumptuous cinematography and a cast of thousands.
But when I got my copy home, I felt briefly like a fool. I’d forgotten this series was produced in South Africa during the apartheid regime. There had even been small protests in 1986, while the Los Angeles Times dubbed it “gory, foolish and misleading” and claimed it reinforced “a wild tribal image in contrast to ‘civilized’ whites.”
I needn’t have worried, because it’s nothing of the kind. South Africa’s greatest warrior king is portrayed as a Shakespearean hero—a military genius who’s clever and resourceful, but guilty of hubris. The drama is cleverly subversive, and the white doctor who acts as narrator calls the British Colonial Office arrogant and says, “We were fools to have thought that we could simply change the course of history with what we would like to think of as the mystique of white civilization.” Hardly the dialogue for a propaganda project.
American screenwriter Joshua Sinclair told The Camera in the Sun website in 2013, “I wanted South Africans themselves and the whole world to know that the people who have no rights here have a prouder background and culture than the people who deny them those rights.”
Today—with so few recalling the baggage of its sponsor network—many black people around the world are huge fans of the mini-series. A classic that wouldn’t have been made at all without foreign creative talent and external investment; it actually had the best of intentions, creating jobs for a large cast and production crew while circumventing sanctions and managing to torpedo apartheid racist stereotypes.
Unfortunately, the West remains in an era of willful ignorance about an entire continent. Back in 2000 for instance, during a brief, miserable stint with a certain U.S. network in London, I tried to link fighting in Sierra Leone to conflict diamonds for a 30-second voiceover. The show’s producer told me, “I don’t care why the Africans are fighting; just show the Africans fighting.”
How wonderful it will be when we finally recognize the individual nations of Africa as distinct entities in their own rights, and we don’t shy away from investment opportunities there, either out of disdain borne of cultural assumptions or liberal sanctimony. World Bank statistics show African economies expanding at a “moderately rapid pace, with regional GDP growth projected to strengthen to 5.2 percent yearly in 2015-16 from 4.6 percent in 2014…” So, sure, Africa has Ebola, Boko Haram and widespread corruption. It also has significant investment in infrastructure and agriculture, plus booming expansion in the retail, telecom and financial sectors.
Russia provides a lesson for how firms can put a toe in the water. During the Yeltsin era, execs from Western companies were actually threatened by the mob, but dollars and euros still flowed in; and Putin’s Russia has Exxon Mobil, GM, Pepsi, Coke—the list goes on.
Funny how open war in Chechnya and now Ukraine, plus infamous corruption there, hasn’t scared investors from buying tickets to Moscow. Makes you wonder why we still need to do a hard sell for multiple markets across a huge continent. Africa has plenty of drama, but what it craves is sincere commitment to its economic progress.
Copyright 2015 Rogers Publishing Ltd. This article first appeared in the May 2015 edition of Corporate Risk Canada magazine