Thoughts on the media in Africa and the Global South, by Herman Wasserman

Reporting on ‘Africa’



It is still not uncommon to hear South Africans say that they’re going on a business trip or holiday “in Africa” – as if their own country lies on another continent. We could blame this attitude on our history. During Apartheid, South Africa was politically and socially isolated from the rest of the continent (South African Airways flights weren’t even allowed to land in any other African countries). But a certain mindset also developed as a result of the Apartheid ideology of exceptionalism – the notion that because  South Africa was “different” from other African countries, the same human rights of equality do not apply here. South Africans became good at navelgazing, and bad at seeing much further beyond than their northern borders. This means that South Africans can often more easily point out Barcelona than Bamako on a map.

The inverse of this knowledge gap can often be seen when traveling on the rest of the continent. Just look at the signs with Afrikaans surnames in the arrivals hall in Nairobi, or chat to your fellow tourists at breakfast in Zanzibar about the Super 14 rugby game, which you’d probably be able to watch in the hotel bar that afternoon on DStv, the satellite channel that stomped its footprint over large parts of Africa. The chances are good that your host knows more about South African history and politics than you know about theirs.

The media doesn’t exactly help. Compared to news beamed to us from Washington D.C. or London, we see very little coverage of other African countries in our newspapers, news sites and broadcast channels. The global impact of the political and economic power of the Untied States and Europe means that the minute details of Brexit or the Trump-vs-Clinton spectacle is beamed to our screens, but that you have to look hard to find nuanced information behind the headlines about, say, the Zambian election, political conflict in Burundi or renewed violence in South Sudan. This, while analyses show that the image of Africa has greatly improved in the past few years in international media. TheEconomist, that portrayed Africa as the “The Hopeless Continent” on that dreadful cover page of theirs in 2000, changed its tune to “Africa Rising” in 2011, a slogan that was consumed by Time Magazine a year later. However, critics point to the fact that this new-found optimism also sometimes reveals paternalistic stereotypes, or is based on a specific neoliberal ideal of Africa as an untapped market. But one simply has to follow sites like this one to see that fashion, music and sport in Africa gives journalists much more to report on than money and guns.

It is against this backdrop that two recent books about Africa, written by South African journalists, are welcome. Kevin Bloom and Richard Poplak’s Continental Shift: A Journey into Africa’s Changing Fortunes, and  Liesl Louw-Vaudran’s South Africa: Superpower or Neocolonialist illustrate a fast-changing political and economic landscape on the continent. Bloom and Poplak’s reference point is the increasing influence of China in Africa, and the xenophobic reactions meted out against Chinese immigrants. A particular incident from 2011 in the settlement of Ganyesa, in the North West province of South Africa, is used as a leitmotiv to illustrate the violence that immigrants regularly meet with in this country. Four Chinese immigrants were burned to death in their shop – and the book insinuates that this was not an accident, that the shop-owners were murdered by local citizens. The case remains unresolved, thus Bloom and Poplak travelled to Ganyesa to speak to locals in an attempt to learn more about the situation. The truth remains out of reach, and as they broaden their discussion of how bigger geopolitical shifts are mirrored in the everyday details in African cities and towns, they return time and again to the fire in Ganyesa.  As they travel through Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, South Sudan and Central African Republic, their discoveries of new developments on political, economic and social terrain are punctuated by the threat of violence – old conflicts, prejudices and tensions mix with new ones and the result is not only intoxicating, but also often unhealthy.

Continental Shift is an entertaining and stimulating recounting of the authors’ experience of traveling thousands of kilometers and wading through academic books, historical documents, policy documents and news articles. It covers a broad range of topics – construction in Namibia, the building of a dam in Botswana, mining in Zimbabwe, Nollywood in Nigeria, food security in Ethiopia, realpolitik in South Sudan and conflict in Central African Republic. Continental Shift’s biggest achievement is its lively, and sometimes even humorous tone. It’s a heady mix of memoir, ethnography, analysis, travel writing and at times comes close to a type of political poetry. The accessibility and lucidity of this ambitious project is largely thanks to the distinctive style of writing – fans of Poplak’s political journalism in the Daily Maverick will be familiar with his destructive sense of irony. But this is also a gripping tale because of its reliance on first-hand experiences and field work, several conversations and interviews, and sharp observations on the ground.

The presentation and style is one of the big differences between Bloom and Poplak’s book, and that of Louw-Vaudran. Despite the fact that Louw-Vaudran is also an experienced journalist – she is  a former Africa editor at Media24 – her script follows a more conventional style of reporting. Her material is partly drawn from her own interviews with political leaders, but she also relies quite heavily on second-hand sources. She is less likely to communicate her own point of view or observations than summarize those of her interviewees. As a result the book is an easy read, but one that lacks a distinctive voice. The transition from reporting to long form journalism is not as easy as it might seem.

Louw-Vaudran’s point of reference is the role that South Africa plays on the continent. She questions whether South Africa, as the largest economy on the continent and a country that set the political tone, especially under the leadership of Mandela and Mbeki, can also be seen as a neocolonial power on the African continent. Is South Africa a leader or a bully? Louw-Vaudran uses several significant news events across the past 20-odd years to investigate this question. The South African liberation struggle and the ANC’s years of exile in Lusaka provides the historical starting point, while the moral bankruptcy of the Zuma’s government ends the book on a pessimistic tone about the future of South Africa, and whether it can be trusted again as leader and example for other African nations. Between these historical extremes, Louw-Vaudran aims to highlight among other things Mbeki’s attempts to revitalize the Pan-African ideal, South Africa’s role in the African Union, as well as the country’s sometimes disastrous military interventions – for example the 13 South African soldiers that died in 2013 in Bangui in a conflict with Seleka rebels in the Central African Republic. Louw-Vaudran creates quite a negative image of lost opportunities by the South African government to collaborate more strongly with South African businesses across the continent, and remarks on the damage that xenophobic attacks in South Africa have done to the country’s image on the continent.

Journalism on and about the continent tends to veer between the extremes of neglect or stereotype on the one end, and touristic exoticism on the other. These two books manage, each in their own way, to steer a path between these extremes. The Africa they show us isn’t always “rising,” nor is it always pretty, but it is fascinating.  And much more difficult to sum up than brief headlines can ever hope to do.

*A previous version of this review appeared in the Afrikaans Media24 publication Rapport. The above translation appeared on the website Africa is a Country.

Image of Rhodes School of Journalism and Media Studies, by author.

Marikana and faith in democracy-to-come



The Marikana massacre in 2012 has widely been seen as a low point for post-apartheid
democracy. The clash at the Lonmin platinum mine at Marikana between miners and police is seen by many as a failure of democratic debate and political communication in the country.
Although the consequences were tragic, the expression of anger and frustration
by the striking mineworkers could also be seen as an act of faith in a ‘democracy-
to-come’ where the gap between formal rights of citizens and the everyday
experience of the poor and marginalised was articulated. In this article  I critique
the media’s response to the massacre. In my view the media’s coverage of the massacre was rooted in a normative model of rational deliberation and a monitorial approach to the media’s democratic role. The media attempts to play the role of ‘watchdog’ over power but does not engage enough with the voices of the poor and the marginalised. My article argues that the media privileged the perspectives of those in authority rather than those who experience the democratic deficit in their everyday lives. The article draws
on theories of ‘emotion talk,’ ‘listening’ and ‘acts of citizenship’ to suggest an
alternative role for the media in the post-apartheid democracy, where the media would seek out the voices of those that remain on the margins of society, and take seriously the expression of anger and emotion by citizens who feel that they do not have formal platforms to demand bigger dividends from democracy.

Social media politics and #Feesmustfall

Image: Citizen

The protests in South Africa against rising costs of university education made headlines in media around the world. But it was on the terrain of social media that it became clear that not only was something changing in the political activism of young South Africans, but also in the way they produce and consume media. The increasing importance of social media for South African politics was illustrated very clearly.

My friend Sean Jacobs and I wrote this piece for the Washington Post on the day that mainstream media became old media in South Africa.

Voices of the poor are missing from South Africa’s media


Herman Wasserman, University of Cape Town; Tanja Bosch, University of Cape Town, and Wallace Chuma, University of Cape Town

Poor communities in South Africa feel that their voices are not heard and their issues not taken seriously by the media.

This is clear in the findings of an international research project on the role of media in conflicts arising from transitions from authoritarian rule to democratic government. It focused on four countries – South Africa, Egypt, Kenya and Serbia.

The study shows that in all four countries, citizenship conflicts are frequently reduced to judicial factors. The media’s approach to conflicts is to look at them from the perspective of rights rather than cultural factors.

In South Africa, rather than wilful distortion or neglect on the part of journalists, the findings expose systemic problems underpinning news agendas and coverage.

The project, now in its second year, has drawn on content analysis of print media and interviews with journalists and activists.

Understanding conflict in South Africa

South Africa’s formal transition from apartheid to democracy in 1994 is often heralded as peaceful and smooth when viewed in institutional and procedural terms.

But there are lingering problems. Dissent over the unrealised dividends of democracy for the poor and widespread perceptions of government as corrupt have resulted in ongoing protests.

Anger over unemployment, housing, water and sanitation, electricity, corruption in municipalities, and health and crime have all been listed as reasons for the rising number of protests which started in the early 2000s.

The protests are not only aimed at getting basic public services such as water, sanitation and electricity. They are also part of wider disillusionment at the failure of democracy to meet basic needs as well as an attempt by the poor to be heard and included in democratic discourse and policy-making.

This “rebellion of the poor” can thus be considered “democratisation conflicts”. They are similar to those in other transitional democracies where the struggle for equality and human rights did not end with the advent of formal democracy.

While it is widely acknowledged that violent protests are becoming more prevalent in South Africa, the role that the media plays in the cycle of protest and violence is not widely understood.

Our ongoing study indicates that South African community protests receive unfavourable coverage. The reporting also routinely fails to provide depth and context to explain the underlying issues that lead to the protests.

Frequently protests are reported only inasmuch as they inconvenience a middle-class audience, for instance to inform them where traffic may be disrupted.

While journalists are often sympathetic to protesters, they strive for “objective” coverage so as not to come across as supporting a particular side. The result is superficial and limited reporting. Underlying structural issues are not unpacked.

Journalists list time pressures and juniorisation of the newsrooms as some of the reasons for limited in-depth coverage.

And commercial pressures also result in media focusing on protests as drama in an attempt to attract the interest of middle-class audiences.

Fighting to be heard

Very few media articles about protests include interviews with protesters. It seems that protesters’ voices remain unheard, even as their actions are reported. Communities report that photographers are often sent to take photographs without being accompanied by reporters to interview them.

Activists from poor communities report that they only get media attention when they go to extremes, such as causing damage. Protesters told researchers that when they called the media to cover their issues, they were asked if “anything is burning”. If nothing is burning, journalists don’t come and don’t report.

Activists report that with the failure of government channels of communication, and poor media coverage of their plight, the only way to be seen is to create a violent spectacle.

They say that participating in government-created spaces for engagement, such as ward councils and municipal integrated development plans, does not lead to satisfactory responses.

This suggests that protest actions follow a calculated logic, despite activists’ impressions that they are often depicted in the media as being out of control.

While there is some coverage in the media that protests are related to structural economic circumstances, they do not reflect the frustrations experienced by communities over government’s empty promises.

Also, scant regard is given to the failure of participatory processes to address grievances. No attention is paid to the failures of capitalism to address inequality. The heavy-handed response from government to silence protest is also underplayed.

Media coverage differs noticeably depending on the respective outlets. In print, the Daily Sun provides the most coverage of protests. This bears out the tabloid’s claims to provide news from the perspective of the poor and the working class.

Compared to their upmarket print media counterparts like the Mail & Guardian and Business Day, the Daily Sun is also the most critical of most aspects of democracy. It is often the only newspaper where sources are ordinary citizens. For media serving the middle class, sources are mostly drawn from officials or the elite.

Improving reporting of community protests

The activists we interviewed believe that media could play a big role in boosting democracy in the country by highlighting the issues poor communities face before they spill over into violent conflicts.

A focus on community politics could shine a spotlight on the most marginalised and vulnerable citizens, and in turn could help focus government attention where it is most needed. Media coverage – favourable or unfavourable – added pressure on government to quickly resolve issues.

Activists felt that they would prefer not to have to go to extremes to get media attention. But they also recognised that their protests kept community issues on the agenda.

This article was co-authored with Rebecca Pointer, research assistant at the Centre for Film and Media Studies, UCT.

The Conversation

Herman Wasserman, Professor of Media Studies and Director of the Centre for Film and Media Studies, University of Cape Town; Tanja Bosch, Senior Lecturer in Media Studies, University of Cape Town, and Wallace Chuma, Lecturer in Media Studies, University of Cape Town

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Youth, conflict, governance and the media: South African perspectives


South Africa celebrates its twentieth year of democracy this year. It has been an eventful twenty years, with much debate and contestation around the political values and practices in a new and noisy democracy. The institutions and procedures of democracy are in place and relatively stable: we have had regular elections since all South Africans queued to make their first crosses at the ballot box on 27 April 1994. This year, the ‘born-frees’ – young citizens born after the end of apartheid – will vote for the first time (and how they will vote has been the topic of some debate). We have a Constitution that includes a Bill of Rights and enshrines freedom of speech (including freedom of the media) as well as other rights such as human dignity, equality and freedom of assembly, and this Constitution is guarded by a Constitutional Court. Indeed, the ‘miracle’ discourse  of the South African transition to democracy suggests that we have made the journey from oppression to freedom without the bloodshed and conflict that mark political transitions in other parts of the continent.

The peaceful transition from apartheid to democracy and the continued stability of democratic institutions does not mean that South Africa is without social and political conflict. The mounting frustration with the dividends of democracy for the country’s majority poor citizens and the tensions resulting from levels of economic inequality that rank among the highest in the world have led to an increase in street protests around the country. Researchers at the University of Johannesburg have estimated an average of 2.1 protests per day recorded between 2004-2009.

Youth have been seen as ‘central’ to these protests and the ‘main protagonists’ of the uprisings around the country that have been framed rather narrowly by the media as ‘social delivery protests’ but in fact can be seen as articulations of a more deep-seated disillusionment. These protests are born out of the frustration with the continued high levels of inequality and a revolt against a government that is increasingly seen as uncaring and not listening. The protests that have been taking place around the country are therefore not only demands for the technical delivery of basic services, but a ‘rebellion of the poor’ who are demanding basic human dignity.

Increasingly, these protests are being met with state-sponsored violence. The death of Andries Tatane during a service delivery protest in 2011 in Ficksburg in the Free State province, where he was beaten and shot by police (the officers accused of assault and murder were later acquitted), received widespread media coverage. Research suggested that despite the publicity around Tatane’s death, this fatality of a citizen at the hands of the police had not been an isolated incident. Only this year, two people have been killed and several injured when protesters and police clashed at Mothuthlong near Brits in the North West province. And although it does not fit the media definition of a social delivery protest, miners striking for better wages at the Lonmin mine  at Marikana in 2012 led to a massacre in which 34 people were killed and 78 wounded – an event that sent shockwaves around the world as the post-apartheid state used unprecedented lethal force on its own citizens.

The question that arises is why, in a country where stable democratic institutions are in place, the procedural aspects of democratic life such as elections are functioning well, and a strong, vibrant and robust media continue to operate freely, do young citizens resort to direct action in order to make their voices heard?

This question could be answered, at least partly, by examining the role and positioning of the media in post-apartheid South Africa.

The media – not only in South Africa, but more generally within a liberal-democratic framework – are often seen as central to democracy. In South Africa, the media also regularly lay claim to this understanding of its role. The dominant consensus among media is that it should perform a monitorial, ‘watchdog’ role over power – mostly state power, with less scrutiny over economic power. Consequently a great deal of reporting – in a largely adversarial and confrontational tone – is devoted to issues around corruption and mismanagement in government and the public sector. In other words, the South African media’s role is seen as ensuring that democracy ‘works’. From this point of view, community protests around the country are framed as demands for ‘service delivery’ in response to what is seen as government’s failure to fulfil its technical functions – the protests are seen as signs of places where democracy isn’t ‘working’ (consider in this regard the slogan of the Democratic Alliance-run city of Cape Town: ‘This City Works For You’). In other words, the media’s emphasis in fulfilling its watchdog role seems to be more on procedural rather than substantive outcomes of democracy. The question seems to be ‘is democracy working?’ rather than ‘what does democracy mean?’ From this perspective, conflict that ensues between communities and the state in ongoing protests around the country is a factor of where the system has broken down – rather than an indication that the system itself is being rejected in a process of ongoing contestation around what democracy should mean in the everyday lives of the poor and the marginalized.

This narrow view of conflicts between citizens and the state in post-apartheid South Africa is a result of the South African media’s dominant normative framework that defines its role as primarily in relation to the state rather than in relation to the citizenry. The pressures on media freedom, like the proposed establishment of a Media Appeals Tribunal as an alternative to the self-regulatory (recently modified to a more co-regulatory one with greater input from the public) Press Council, or the Protection of State Information Bill, vigorously opposed by the Right to Know Campaign, are rejected in the name of this belief that the media’s is working in the ‘public interest’. The citizenry’s interests are therefore purportedly what the media has at heart when it attacks government on its failures, but these interests mostly come to be defined by the media’s own social and political position as elite institutions. Too frequently the role of the media is seen as a monitor of the state on behalf of citizens, instead of listening to what citizens themselves have to say. The notion of ‘the public’ is not unproblematic in a country with such a long history of social polarization and continued economic inequalities. The public in South Africa is fragmented, unequal and do not all have the same access to the media. Moreover, the mainstream, commercial media that dominate the public sphere tend to represent a very narrow sliver of the South African citizenry, an elite that is attractive to advertisers and can afford access to their offerings. This results in a mediated perspective on the world that Steven Friedman called ‘a view from the suburbs’.

What role then could the South African media play to facilitate young citizens’ participation in democracy? The assumption of the media is that they represent the public interest, and recent events in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere have often led to optimistic claims about the potential of the media (especially social and mobile media) to facilitate the mobilization of citizens. If young people are central to community uprisings in South Africa as some observers claim, and if these uprisings articulate a widespread disillusionment with post-apartheid democracy, what potential is there for the South African media to act as an agent for change? To answer these questions we have to ask questions regarding the centrality of media in people’s lives, the access and reach of the media, and the media’s ability to facilitate social change.  For instance: do citizens trust media? Does the media reflect their everyday experiences? How influential is the media compared to other social actors and institutions? How widespread is access to the media, including social media? How affordable are mobile phones, for instance, and what are the opportunity costs involved in accessing social media on them? Given the asymmetries of access – the best estimate would be that about one in five South Africans uses Twitter, for instance – how big is the democratic potential of social media in South Africa really?

Research done as part of a research project into media and citizenship at Rhodes University found that the media are not as central to the lives of young South Africans as might be assumed by those that see the media as an agent for social change.  Young people interviewed as part of the study are disillusioned with politics and pessimistic about their chances in the post-apartheid economy. Unemployment has a major impact on young people’s self-esteem and identities as citizens. They feel that both government and the media have failed them, and are disillusioned by the very procedural democracy that ‘watchdog’ media guards over. Voting seems futile because it doesn’t make a difference in their everyday lives. “I voted because I wanted freedom,” one respondent said,” I thought I was going to benefit… But no, anyway I will not [vote] again because there is nothing to be gained.” Another one said the only result of voting is that it “gives people positions”, while yet another remarked that voting only “ improves things at the top and not service delivery”: “It certainly improves the party that is in power or that person who is in power at the time.”

It is perhaps not surprising that in the light of this disillusionment with democratic processes, protests are seen as a way to get the attention of politicians. Although the young people interviewed expressed a sense of trust in the media, and thought they are reliable as social institutions, the media’s representation of South African reality does not resonate with their everyday lives. Although the media provided them with a sense of connection to the outside world, it afforded them little opportunity to speak back and participate in debates in the public sphere. Social media (including SMS and the Blackberry Messaging Service [BBM] functionality on mobile phones) as well as radio provided some conviviality, but the idea that citizens could use the media to enact citizenship and take up agency did not occur to them, and in fact struck them as a rather surprising possibility.

The overall impression from these conversations with young South Africans is that they are using media to just get by, and find whatever information or sustenance they can to cope with their daily struggles. In the words of Nick Couldry, South African young people seem to be resorting to ‘biographical solutions to structural problems’. This sense of powerlessness has already started to breed a sense of being disengaged from the political system and their ability to influence policy-making. . Dahlgren speaks about this disengagement as being something other than a cynical indifference towards politics that “implies a disinterest in politics and the political altogether”. The disengagement from formal politics, seemingly exacerbated by the media’s failure to speak to young people’s everyday experiences, should in other words be seen as a political act in itself.

In the light of the disillusionment and disengagement from formal politics expressed by South African young people, how should we approach the study of young people, conflict and the media in the post-apartheid context? Some preliminary suggestions:

  • We need to move beyond Habermasian notions of rational deliberation in a mediated public sphere. Emotional expressions, whether as angry street protests or personal responses to everyday life via social media or mobile phones should also be considered as having political implications.
  • We should remain attuned for the ‘political’ in the ostensibly ‘non-political’ of everyday life. Just as the disillusionment with and disengagement from formal politics do not mean that young people are disinterested in political matters, so their lack of enthusiasm about mainstream news media does not mean that they will not use other forms of media strategically to cope with the challenges of everyday life in a precarious socio-economic environment.
  • Seductive as the possibilities posed by social media and mobile phones for political participation and activism might be, the example of other uprisings such as those of the ‘Arab Spring’ (although the centrality of social media to these protests has also been heavily disputed) cannot be unproblematically transposed to South Africa. Given the imbalances with regard to access and the exorbitant costs of mobile phones especially for the poor who rely on prepaid services, the political economy of connectivity mitigate the political gains to be derived from new modes of communication. The potential of social and mobile media to facilitate social change should therefore at best be evaluated within the broader media ecology and in relation to other social spheres of influence.
  • The responsiveness of the South African state to criticism voiced via media – a key tenet of liberal democratic media theories derived from conditions in established democracies – should not be assumed. Because of the South African media’ s historical association with white capital, and the continued slow pace of transformation in the industry, media criticism can easily be dismissed as representative of minority interests.

We know that mobile phones and social media should not be viewed in technologically determinist ways. New media technologies such as mobile and social media mobile phones do not only transmit political information needed for rational deliberation in the public sphere, but also transgress cultural and social borders and hierarchies in the way they refashion identities and create informal economies and communicative networks. We also know that social media did not cause the social change in the Arab Spring, but at most amplified the efforts of opposition movements. But given the gap between mainstream media discourses and young people’s everyday realities, and the economic obstacles in the way of the use of mobile and social media by the poor in South Africa, this amplification of social, political and economic dynamics could also go in the opposite direction. Media could also amplify inequalities, turn up the volume of those who already have access to political platforms, shove the marginalised and the poor further into the fringes, and alienate young people further from formal politics. Young South Africans are finding their own ways of expressing their agency through media, but in order to understand what is happening in these spaces, new ways of theorizing beyond models of deliberation or technological euphoria need to be found.

(Based on a talk presented at a workshop ‘Youth, Conflict and Governance in Africa’, Yale University, USA, March 2014)

Revised method to track Chinese aid to Africa


The above graphic from a story in the Daily Nation in Kenya shows how much financial assistance China has pumped into Africa in recent years. It’s based on data from the research initiative AidData collected through an open-source method of tracking flows of financing from China into the continent.

Last year a report from AidData on Chinese spending on aid and development in Africa came out that announced the massive amounts that China has contributed to projects on the continent. As discussed previously, that report was was widely reported on in the mainstream media. The $75 billion that China spent in Africa was framed as a sign of China’s attempts to cement partnerships and allies among African countries. The British newspaper The Guardian said of the report’s findings that it pointed to “Beijing’s escalating soft power ‘charm offensive’ to secure political and economic clout on the continent”. Especially interesting was the report’s conclusion that China had contributed to fewer mining projects than to projects in the areas of health, education and social infrastructure. Examples of these were listed as a malaria prevention center; school for visual arts and an opera house, as well as doctor and teacher exchanges. The Guardian took these examples as evidence of an increasingly strong geopolitical agenda on the part of China.

However, the report was also strongly criticized by experts on China’s role in Africa. Deborah Brautigam, professor and director of the International Development Program at Johns Hopkins University, said the figures in the AidData report were misleading because the methodology relied largely on media reports of Chinese project financing, which are not reliable.

In a recent new development, AidData has released new updates from its Tracking Chinese Development Finance in Africa dataset. Acknowledging that last year’s  pilot project, which relied largely on media reports, was ‘inherently imperfect’, the new methodology cross-checks media reports with data from official sources, NGO reports, and scholarly articles.  AidData believes that there are certain conditions that make the refined methodology an effective research tool. The open source nature of the data makes it possible for users to identify errors. The overreliance on media reports for which the previous report was criticized, is now complemented by other methods such as in-country fieldwork and outreach to personnel involved with specific projects. Information from media reports is cross-checked and supplemented by data from official sources, NGO reports, and scholarly articles.

This refinement in methodology means that more sources are now being used to establish the extent of Chinese financing in Africa. To better reflect the shift to a variety of  ources used, AidData has now changed the name of its methodology from Media Based Data Collection to Tracking Under-Reported Financial Flows (TUFF).

The introduction to the new codebook clarifies that the original name for the methodology, Media Based Data Collection, may have been misleading to critics who didn’t review the whole codebook. Although the initial report relied heavily on media reports, according to Charles Perla, an AidData Project Manager, these reports were not their only source: “In fact, media reports are used only as a departure point, and are supplemented with case studies undertaken by scholars and non-governmental organizations, project inventories supplied through Chinese embassy websites, and grants and loan data published by recipient governments.” To make this clear, AidData has now renamed their methodology. “In the interest of providing greater clarity, we now refer to our methodology for systematically gathering open source development finance information as the Tracking Underreported Financial Flows (TUFF) methodology”. The codebook and an explanation of the methodology can be downloaded from the internet.

 Working with researchers at the College of William & Mary and Brigham Young University in the USA, AidData set themselves the objective of documenting all known Chinese development finance projects in Africa over more than a decade, from 2000 to 2012.  The new release includes more than 100 new projects, and more than 130 updates to existing project records. AidData seems confident that the refined methodology will withstand scrutiny. The pilot project was subjected to a test referred to as a ‘ground-truthing approach’ where researchers visited project sites in South Africa and Uganda to corroborate the data compiled by AidData. This testing involved interviews with local recipients of financing and other stakeholders. The pilot, conducted by researchers at AidData, the University of Cape Town, Zhejiang University, the College of William & Mary, and Brigham Young University in collaboration with local enumerators, did find some new information that was used to amend and correct the TUFF data. By and large, however, these researchers say that the interviews and site visits they conducted supported the open source data gathered by AidData.

The writers acknowledge that there is as yet ‘no consensus’ on how the flows of development finance from China to Africa can be tracked. They claim that this inability to follow the money in a new geopolitical environment marked by rapid shifts, flows and contraflows is a weakness of traditional academic research that cannot keep up with the ‘rapidly changing global development finance architecture’. It is however important to find a way of keeping track of these flows, so that African communities can better understand, interact and engage with the influx of funding from China so as to make best use of the opportunities it offers.

Although these researchers acknowledge that the TUFF methodology isn’t flawless, they see it as a ‘fairly robust method of independent data collection’. Where information gathered on the ground in South Africa and Uganda differed from the information gathered through AidData’s methodology, these differences were fairly minor. The places where two sets of data diverged,  involved issues like dates, contact information and similar details, while the larger, more significant items of scale, scope and sector of financial assistance remained largely the same.

 The revisions of  AidData’s approach remind us that scientific methodologies are never perfect, nor are they complete. And while the media is playing an important role in bringing to attention the flows and contraflows between China and Africa – especially by stimulating debate and interpreting these developments – media reports alone cannot serve as reliable empirical evidence. For this reason, the new multi-source approach by AidData seems like a step in the right direction. By revising their methodology, AidData has also displayed a willingness to open their work up to questioning and scrutiny. It may be expected that in a new, rapidly changing and in many ways controversial area such as Chinese involvement in Africa, research methodologies will be looked at especially closely.  AidData should be commended for undertaking this scrutiny themselves, and for displaying a willingness to engage, revise, and rework their findings. Ultimately such a collaborative effort such as their open source project – as well as the contributions of subsequent critics of this work – can contribute to a better understanding of what has become one of the most important shifts in the global political economy of development and aid in Africa.

To come back from Qunu



I wrote the following piece for the blog Africa is a Country.

Here is an excerpt:

But as we critique the pernicious effects of neoliberalism and attack the current ANC for moral insolvency, let us not forget that the country my children are growing up in is vastly different from the one in which I became an adult. They now live in a country whose founding principles are that of freedom, human dignity, and equality, instead of fear, conflict and hate. They don’t know war, bombs or uniforms. At school they share classrooms with children whose parents I would not have been allowed to play with forty years ago. They can paint the South African flag on their faces and cheer for the Boks, the Proteas or Bafana without thinking about it twice. To invert a cliché: the present is a different country.

But it is not different enough yet.

Read the full piece here