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Journalism in Africa: Chronicling Turmoil......And Defining the 'Opposition Press'

By Linda S. Drucker

During the four years he traversed Africa--visiting 48 of 51 countries, Los Angeles Times correspondent David Lamb observed a continent in disarray, where progress, when it occurs, occurs slowly and with uncertainty. Now a Neiman Fellow at Harvard, the veteran correspondent who has also covered Australia and the Vietnam War, describes Africa as his most difficult assignment. "In Africa, there are no press release," he explains.

While serving as the Times' Nairobi bureau chief, Lamb chronicled eight wars that raged across the continent, involving 15 African nations. He reported on corrupt Zairean president Mobutu, who has enshrined "Mobutuism" as his nation's official philosophy, and on Idi Amin, who for eight years ruled Uganda under a system in which "human flesh was cheaper than beef."

In an assessment of Africa after 20 years of independence, Lamb concludes that Black Africa remains "economically dependent on its former colonial masters, uncertain of its own identity and purpose, divided by ideology, and perplexed by the demands of nationhood."

"For most of the continent's 420 million people, independence has brought little relief from disease, poverty, famine, and illiteracy. Nor in many cases has it brought the African much more freedom than he had under colonialism," Lamb recently reported to the Times.

"Tanzania, for all its self-righteousness, holds more political prisoners than South Africa. East Africa's most respected writer, Ngugi Wa Thiongo, of Kenya, is in jail as an alleged subversive. One quarter of the population of Equatorial Guinea is in exile. Nineteen black African countruss are under military rule," Lamb's report continued. Last week Lamb told a critic who accused the Western press of being overly negativistic in its Africa coverage, that he, too, was tired of going to Uganda to write stories about Amin.

"When there's a bright spot, like the rise of a middle class in Kenya or Nigeria's return to civilian rule, we're certainly eager to cover it," Lamb adds.

In fact, last year Lamb reported on Africans "changes that portend well for the future," an awakening to the need to develop long-ignored agricultural sectors, a realization that primary health-care must come before open-heart surgery. More Africans have access to education and health care than ever before and, in countries like Kenya and Nigeria, a substantial middle class is taking form. But Lamb's overall outlook for the continent is not optimistic.

"Africa is in a real bind," the 40-year-old reporter says. "Africa says, 'Let us solve our own problems,' but whenever there's a real problem, the first thing Africa does is shout for guns or money. Many of these countries are living off the international dole."

Lamb points to Black Africa's "particularly hypocritical" stand on economic sanctions against the white minority regime in South Africa. At least 15 Black African nations trade with South Africa, usually through the back door, Lamb asserts. For this reason he is convinced that sanctions are forever doomed to be ineffectual, and a violent, internal upheaval is the only way to bring about apartheid's fall. Although Lamb says a commitment to majority rule should be top American policy in Africa, "if Black Africa wants the West to adopt sanctions, it is going to have to set an example first. For Black Africa to be yelling at the West now is nonsensical."

Lamb believes that what many Black African countries want from the United States is a policy divorced from U.S. interests, a moral commitment not related to U.S. economic and strategic considerations. "They are asking, in short, for the United States to be more African than the Africans themselves," he recently reported.

Lamb is acutely aware that as a foreign journalist he cannot help viewing African events through the prism of his own American upbringing. At a seminar on Africa and the foreign press last week, Lamb questioned whether it is, in fact, possible for Western journalists to provide fair and balanced coverage of Africa. He himself acknowledges, having "little tolerance for much of the rhetoric of the Third World."

Hostility between Third World governments and the Western media results from differing conceptions of what news is, Lamb told the seminar--his point underscored when General Joseph Garba, Nigeria's former foreign minister and a seminar participant, accused Lamb and other foreign corresondents of "attempting to destabilize Africa by writing catchy headlines about corruption."

"They go to Africa holding very simplistic views, impatient that progress has not been made along Western lines, and then they distort the news in order to grab the attention of readers back home," Garba says.

"Sometimes we cover Africa as though it's a four-alarm fire in Brooklyn. We spend too much time on the crisis, the single, flashy event like Bokassa's coronation and not enought on serious issues like Nigeria's return to civilian rule," Lamb says.

But Lamb believes the African officials actually want "advocacy journalism"--to harness the independent Western press for their own purposes of nation-building. "Like the mayors of small towns in the U.S., African officials want us to cover the opening of a civic center and ignore the war."

Still, Lamb describes the news situation--a virtual monopoly over African news by four large Western news organizations--as "unhealthy." Because local or national newspapers do not play a significant role in African society, "someone in Uganda has to turn on a BBC broadcast 6000 miles away to find out what's going on in his own backyard," Lamb says. After Idi Amin was overthrown, Lamb and another reporter traveled down a dirt road in rural Uganda and discovered that the appearance of two unescorted whites was the only sign. Ugnadans had of Amin's departure. Because African newspapers do not cover their own continent, they are forced to turn to the very news agencies whose credibility they suspect.

Although Lamb, who attended the University of Maine, says he hopes that Third World governments will train their own professional journalists and give them freedom to report objectively, he doubts this will soon occur because "most African governments feel things are still too insecure to tolerate criticism."

Despite allegations that African news is slighted by the West, Lamb says that the amount of space devoted to Africa in American publications increased by 60 per cent last year and that Africa is now covered as well as other areas of the Third World. "The average housewife in Santa Monica does not want 30 per cent or even 5 per cent of her newspaper devoted to what's happening in Burundi," he adds, noting, that even Nigerians do not care to read about Burundi.

Lamb maintains that the way to get the Santa Monica housewife more interested in what happens in Africa is by appealing to Americans' sympathies with Africans

"I try to write about the problems of the aged, the infirm, of children growing up in Africa. Maybe that way readers will eventually come to take an interest in African political events."

Nieman Fellow Fleur de Villiers possesses the poise and verbal dexterity of Margaret Thatcher. She inhales quickly from her everpresent cigarette and speaks with deliberation.

For the past 25 years, she has stood among the leading divas of the South African "opposition press"--so--called because it represents English-speakers in a country dominated by conservative Afrikaaners. But trying to understand de Villiers' ideas about South Africans mean by "opposition".

De Villiers is a correspondent for the Johannesburg Sunday Times, the most widely circulated paper in South Africa. Although more whites speak Afrikaans than English, English-language newspapers outnumber their Afrikaans counterparts. The Pretoria-educated de Villiers notes that the "opposition press" has long spoken out against the more heinous forms of apartheid, with little success.

Nevertheless, she expresses confidence that South Africa will undergo meaningful change, noting Prime Minister P.W. Botha's cabinet overhaul this year and constitutional and legal reforms coming from top levels of government. De Villiers says Botha has "effectively abolished job-reservation laws," which barred Africans from high-level employment.

Liberals abroad might contradict de Villier's optimistic view. The South African government has started establishing within its borders "autonomous homelands," or bantustans for each indigenous ethnic group Those who oppose the program say that it allocates only 13 per cent of the land to 80 per cent of the population and that the land is that which Europeans do not want--the poorest in mineral wealth and agricultural productivity. Moreover, opponents argue, even Africans who have never lived in those areas will lose all rights of citizenship in the Republic of South Africa and will be forced to return to the bantustans when they cannot find work in white South Africa.

But the concept of the bantustans does not perturb de Villiers. She sees democracy as a distant prospect in South Africa's future, explaining that it is possible only within a "confederal framework" comgining the banstustans--which will represent the Africans--with the all-white Republic. Saying it is on "the back burner," de Villiers similarly accepts another issue that provokes international objections: South Africa's continued occupation of Namibia and invasions of neighboring Angola.

International observers note a dramatic and thorough build-up in South African military strength and anticipate the country's entrance into the nuclear arena, events which de Villiers ascribes to South Africa's current liberalization. "A society in the midst of change is at its most vulnerable," she notes. "The intellectual elite are expressing themselves daily in favor of profound political and economic change," she says, adding, "But of course, this has elicited a reaction from the conservative wing." In spite of questionable popular approval, the Nationalist government has legalized full African participation in trade unions. However, last August, Johannesburg officials arrested and deported 1200 African municipal workers striking for union privileges authorized in the reform.

De Villiers says the Johannesburg arrests do not lead her to doubt South Africa's potential for peaceful reform. "You have to give people time to adjust," she explains. Positive that gradualism will bring change to South Africa, de Villiers has come to grips with Afrikaaner recalcitrance and foresees a workable peace in the future.

De Villiers disapproves of American divestiture, saying, "As an instrument of international pressure, disinvestment is a rather unguided missile." Because U.S. corporate involvement in South Africa is relatively small, de Villiers thinks withdrawal would lack the desired effect for several reasons:

*The United States would lose any leverage it had;

*Divestiture would harden attitudes among whites;

*If it affected the economy at all, it would undercut economic growth, which has permitted the promotion of Africans; and,

*South African laws require the transfer of divested holdings to other investors.

In the past, de Villiers adds, U.S. industry has "tended to adopt the color of local industry; it hasn't been very innovative." She suggests that instead of pulling out, U.S. multinationals might train Africans for skilled and managerial positions.

Countering charges that new Nationalist employment policies intend to create a manageable African middle class as a buffer to working-class unrest, she says, "You can't very well create a middle class and not give them any rights, can you? And you can't go around and say [to the Blacks], 'Look you can have rights, and you can't.'"

In South Africa, she says, "There is no limit on the freedom of the journalist to criticize, only on his freedom to report." Journalists are subject to numerous laws restricting reporting, including the Prisons Act, the Defense Act, and the Suppression of Communism Act. But such limitations have not stopped the South African press from being a progressive force, she says.

"In some ways, South Africa is a small society," de Villiers says, explaining that as a journalist she knows all the leading political figures as well as many artists. As a Nieman Fellow, she appreciates "the overwhelming richness of intellectual resources at Harvard." While here, she is studying government, taking courses on nationalism, political social change, and U.S. foreign affairs. Her goal: "to amplify my understanding of the U.S. and world politics" de Villiers believes her Nieman Fellowship provides a beneficial change. "The mid-career break is necessary to give one time for reflection," she says, adding, "As a journalist in South Africa you're constantly on the sharp edge of things."

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