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Opinions Sun, 22 Jul 2001

Racism As Public Policy?

The city of Beijing, (China), has been awarded the 2008 Summer Games by the International Olympic Committee (IOC). Toronto, (Canada), came in second. And, it is well that Toronto did not get the bid to host the 2008 games. That defeat must come as a relief, and indeed, a life-saver for Mel Lastman, the mayor of Toronto (his surname had nothing to do with Toronto's loss!). Where would Mr. Lastman hide with all the African athletes descending onto his city!

You see, in order to promote the city of Toronto's bid, the mayor had to travel the globe to lobby IOC members for their votes. But Mr. Lastman loathed traveling to Africa; and that had nothing to do with the long plane flight! His fears were more mundane!! According to the Washington Post (June 21, 2001 issue), Mr. Lastman remonstrated to a reporter for the Toronto Star on his impeding African trip: "What the hell would I want to go to a place like Mombasa (Kenya)?" Adding, that he feared snakes, the Toronto mayor continued: "I just see myself in a pot of boiling water with all these natives dancing around me". Though the mayor hurriedly apologized when he was faced with mounting criticism for his crude racist comments, the damage was apparently, already done.

Yet, that was hardly the only racist indignity hurled at Africans by a Western government official. Nor was it the most damaging to the image of Africa and Africans. Earlier in the same month, Andrew Natsios, the Administrator or head of the United Sates Agency for International Development (USAID) had provided a more venomous racist comments on Africa and Africans. In an interview with the Boston Globe, and in a hearing before the International Relations Committee (IRC) of the U.S. House of Representatives, Mr. Natsios who oversees millions of dollars of US foreign aid, said that when it comes to treating Africans with AIDS, the USAID just "cannot get it done". Therefore, he argued against providing antiretroviral drug treatment (the AIDS treatment drug currently being used in the USA), for AIDS patients in Africa. Prevention may be better than cure. But in this case, we are talking about people who have already caught the disease!

The reasons assigned by Natsios in promoting prevention and abstention, rather than cure in fighting the AIDS disease in Africa were bizarre, to say the least! In other words, the millions of Africans who are said to be infected with the AIDS virus, could be left to die a slow death, without any treatment; if Natsios' prescription were to become official US policy on AIDS in Africa. And, according to Natsios, the problem lies not with his agency; but with the 'nature' of African AIDS patients themselves!! What is the 'nature' of African AIDS patients?

Well, in an interview with the Boston Globe the USAID administrator gave reasons why he felt African AIDS patients ought not be given the antiretroviral AIDS treatment drug: "Many Africans", he said, "don't know what Western time is". Natsios continued, "You have to take these drugs a certain number of hours of the day, or they don't work. Many people in Africa have never seen a clock or a watch their entire lives. And if you say, one o'clock in the afternoon, they do not know what you are talking about. They know morning, they know noon, they know evening, they know the darkness at night".

He explained his peculiar reasoning, again, in a testimony before Congress against spending money on providing the antiretroviral drug treatment in Africa. He told the House International Relations Committee: "People do not know what watches and clocks are, they do not use Western means for telling time. They use the sun."

As expected, the comments by Natsios was met with intense criticism, with some people calling for his dismissal. Jendayi E. Frazier, senior director of African affairs at the National Security Council tried to provide some levity to Natsios comments, thus: "Andrew was with us on Secretary (of State Colin) Powell's visit to Africa, and we were on time, and everybody whom we met with was on time."

Natsios was not alone in the view that Africans were so ignorant of the concept of time that they could not be expected to take their medicine on time. The April 29, 2001, edition of the New York Times quotes an unnamed official of the U.S. Department of the Treasury as saying that Africans lack a requisite "concept of time", implying that Africans would not benefit from drugs that must be taken on a precise schedule.

Even president George W. Bush seemed caught up in the myths and misrepresentations about Africa. While attending a meeting in Gothenburg, Sweden, on June 21, 2001; the US president remarked to news reporters: "We spent a lot of time talking about Africa, as we should. Africa is a NATION (emphasis mine) that suffers from incredible disease". President Bush's description of Africa as a "nation" was met with much derision, prompting his national Security Advisor Dr. Condoleeza Rice to explain to a reporter on NBC-TV "MEET THE PRESS" program on June 17: "it is absurd to think that the president of the United States (of America) does not know that Africa is a continent"!

The demeaning comments on Africa by the mayor of Toronto, and senior US government officials bespeak of a larger Western negative view of Africa that is at once troubling; and tends to derail African governments' push for Western economic investment and tourism.

For centuries, Western assessment of Africa was affected by two central and related biases, as Dr. Amadou Mahtar M'bow, the former UNESCO Director-General has pointed out. The first bias was/is the principle of racism, described as an irrational emotional reaction, which tends to generate its own set of constructive myths and conventions, with the notion of black inferiority as its centerpiece. The second bias that clouded Western assessment of Africa, was/is the concept of the primitive. This view afforded a selective frame of reference which meant that much would not be seen; and further ensured that much of what would be seen, would not be understood. As a result, whenever these two constructs are employed to explain African circumstances and conditions, the absurdity becomes irrevocable!

I submit that it is these two related biases, and a certain amount of plain foolishness that continue to inform Western prejudices about Africa. That is the only way to explain Mel Lastman's fear of African cannibals; and Andrew Natsios' reference to Africans telling time in the 21st century by the sun! It was/is the rare Western observer of Africa who could see beyond the collective distortions, to present a reasonable opinion on Africa and Africans!

Did Natsios have to make what would seem to be unnecessary comments about a complicated antiretroviral drug regimen? Had Natsios and the USAID engaged in any pilot programs in Africa to determine wether "many Africans" were so antediluvian that they would not take their medication (intended to save them from certain death), on time? Natsios has remained incommunicado since his controversial statements, other than phoning the Senegalese ambassador Mamadou Mansour Seck, with whom he appeared in Congress, to apologize. However, Toby Kasper of Doctors Without Borders which has set up an antiretroviral program for AIDS patients in South Africa denied the complicated regimen argument: "Our patients take two pills in the morning and two in the evening. That's it." So much for a complicated drug regimen!!

One wonders where Natsios got his crude information about Africans from. Again, according to the Boston Globe issue of June 15, 2001, Natsios probably got the idea from Hollywood. The paper cites the October 25, 2000, edition of the NBC Television series "West Wing"in which an actor on the show, explains why Africans cannot be expected to take a "complicated regimen (of AIDS drugs) that requires10 pills to be taken every day at precise times." The actor Richard Schiff (who uses the name Toby Ziegler) dead-panned: "They (Africans) don't own wrist watches. They can't tell time."

In movies and television shows, Hollywood endeavors to portray Africa as a continent stuck in time; and Africans as, at best noble savages. When he visited the USA upon his release from 27 years of imprisonment, Nelson Mandela castigated Hollywood for portraying Africans as wide-eyed savages in movies such as Tarzan, and "The God's Must be Crazy". This negative portrayal of Africa and Africans by such a major media outlet contributes to the continuing view of Africa as a "Dark Continent", bereft of any modern amenities; and therefore not worthy of attracting any serious outside economic investment.

Granted some African tardiness to certain traditional functions, has led to the phrase "African time," by African themselves; it would be wrong to extrapolate that onto serious issues such as that of the AIDS epidemic in Africa. Africa does indeed have some peculiar problems, which the governments of the more than 50 states that constitute the continent are trying to address. But to argue that in this day and age, "many Africans have never seen a watch", and therefore cannot tell the time of day; or that bad roads prevent the transportation of drugs for the sick, as Natsios does, is truly beyond the pale of civilization.

I hope Edward Natsios was merely parroting a personal bias that he had probably heard on television; and not stating official policy. As far as I can tell, when we need to address issues that affect our livelihood,; Africans keep time; know what time it is; and are on time!!!


Columnist: Ellison, Kofi