What’s So Funny About Africa?

Patronizing reporting makes a mockery of Africa's real problems.

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

The New York Times ran a story on its front page last Saturday about the king of Swaziland, Mswati III, who leads a life of ostentatious luxury while the people of his small and proud nation struggle with poverty, malnourishment and HIV. The story of a greedy leader bilking his people is a sadly common one in Africa, as in much of the world. Usually these are not amusing circumstances. But apparently the Times finds them so in this case.

In this political season of outrage, why get excited about a front-page story in the paper of record mocking the greedy king of some place in Africa? Because the story highlights how stereotypes and prejudices render real people in caricature, making it almost impossible to seriously assess their problems or devise real solutions to them; this is Africa’s special affliction, and something very familiar to those in the Diaspora.

Just like a fairy-tale, the article begins “once upon a time” and goes on to describe how Mswati is preparing a lavish 40th birthday for himself, a celebration to coincide with the nation’s 40th year of independence.

“Once again, some people wondered how the kingdom, Swaziland, could afford the expense. Some 1,500 of them grumpily marched in protest through the capital after news reports said that several of the queens and their entourages had gone on an overseas shopping trip aboard a chartered plane.”

Grumpily? Well, I don’t know. Maybe those protesters were simply grumpy and not angry or despairing or incensed; not being there like the reporter, I can’t say. But reading that line I thought of another small African nation, Liberia, where 30 years ago another group of citizens marched to protest lavish government spending on an event—in this case, hosting of the annual Organization of African Unity summit. That protest, which came to be known as the Rice Riots, helped trigger a coup d’état, which led to dictatorship, which led to rebellion, which led to years of brutal and violent civil war. The marchers were far more than grumpy.

Then there was this.

“Indeed, most of Swaziland’s 1.1 million people love their monarch. God gave the country to the king, many of them say, and the king was given to the people by God. Mswati III’s father, Sobhuza II, had been especially revered. He was more frugal than his son, transporting the royal family in buses instead of BMWs. But he, too, liked to marry. It was said that he took 70 wives, though some put the number as high as 110.”

It is hard to imagine the Times allowing a reporter to write so smirkingly about polygamist Warren Jeffs or any other leader of a fundamentalist Mormon sect. Nor can I quite imagine the Times writing so dismissively about government oppression and the suppression of political freedom in China or Russia: “Sobhuza II was king when the nation shed the yoke of colonialism, finally free of Britain yet left with a British-style Constitution. The esteemed monarch did not abide by this document for long. In 1973, he dissolved Parliament and rid himself of the annoyance of political parties.”

Tee hee hee.