Why was Africa Rising? The Roots and Perils of Afro-idealization

The third and last commentary in our Imagining Africa symposium, to be followed tomorrow by the author’s reply. Today’s post is from Toussaint Nothias, who is a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford’s Digital Civil Society Lab. Toussaint holds a PhD in Media and Communication from the University of Leeds. His research explores journalism, social media and civil society in Africa. He has done research on foreign correspondents in Kenya and South Africa; on the media production of the Africa Rising narrative; on Kenyan journalists’ reporting of elections, terrorism and international criminal justice; and on the social-media led critique of CNN’s coverage of Kenya. Most recently, he is researching Facebook’s initiatives to increase internet connectivity across Africa, and their impact on local media production and civic engagement. The project engages a range of debates about digital advocacy and activism in the Global South, and about tech corporation’s investments in network infrastructures and civil society. Toussaint’s work notably appears in The International Journal of Communication, Journalism Studies, Visual Communication and Communication, Culture, Critique. He organized the pre-ICA conference “African Media Studies in the Digital Age” in 2017; edited a blog post series on Digital Africa for Africa is a Country; and he is the recipient of the IAMCR’s 2018 Stuart Hall Award.

All posts in this series are available here.


While travelling in Ghana and Nigeria in 1960, the Pulitzer winner reporter Homer Bigart wrote a letter to his New York Times editor, Emmanuel Freedman:

“I’m afraid I cannot work up any enthusiasm for the emerging republics. The politicians are either crooks or mystics. Dr Nkrumah is a Henry Wallace in burnt cook. I vastly prefer the primitive bush people. After all, cannibalism may be the logical antidote to this population explosion everyone talks about” (in Allimadi, 2002, p. 6).

Freedman responded:

“This is just a note to say hello and tell you how much your peerless prose from the badlands is continuing to give us and your public. By now you must be American journalism’s leading expert on sorcery, witchcraft, cannibalism and all the other exotic phenomena indigenous to darkest Africa (in Allimadi, 2002, p. 6).”

Such reliance on crude racist stereotypes testifies to the broader place long assigned to Africa in the imaginary and social order shaped by Whiteness – a multilayered, oppressive system of social hierarchization largely born of 19th century racialist thinking. So when the British magazine The Economist published a cover titled Africa Rising in December 2011 – discussed in more detail in the 7th Chapter of Clive Gabay’s fantastic book – it may have appeared, at first sight, like a radical discursive departure. Could it be that after years of critiques from postcolonial scholars and intellectuals, the media took these comments on board and decided to remedy their shortcomings in terms of representations of Africa?  Against this reading, Gabay offers a clear, powerful, and critical argument. This apparent representational change is neither altogether new, nor does it really constitute a change. On the contrary, this trend for Afro-idealization, most notably visible in the metropolitan appetite for Afropolitan fashion shows and festivals, is the result of broader political and economic processes entangled with a set of racial anxieties about Western decline in the aftermath of the 2007/2008 financial crisis.

Gabay’s much anticipated book provides the most sustained analysis to date of why the early 2010s saw the growth of an “Africa Rising” discourse across a range of fields – from academia and business to politics and cultural productions. One of the book’s main contributions is to provide historical evidence of past Afro-idealizations in Western discourse – from the 1920s debates around ‘native rights’ in Kenya to the 1950s liberal-settler, inter-racial associations and groups in Southern and Eastern Africa.  Through these two case studies, Gabay reminds us that positive accounts of African subjectivities have in fact long been part of the discursive apparatus of colonial power.

Continue reading