In Review | Continental Shift

“We are seeing the rise of a new set of ideals in South African journalism, particularly among the new generation,” writes Johann Harmse.

Words by Johann Harmse

Illustration by Jess Jardim-Wedepohl

“As South African journalists, the stories that we submitted to international newspapers encompassed the panoply of Western editorial obsessions: AIDS, aid programmes, conflict, corruption, conservation… Our local media was fixated on the looming succession battle within the ruling African National Congress, and thus back on the parochial squabbles that defined daily life. Our careers were a feedback loop, and the press we consumed was the press that we wrote.”
- Continental Shift

Much praise has been extended to Bloom and Poplak’s ambitious new book, a recounting of 9 years spent travelling Southern and Central Africa and an attempt to shed light on some of this continent’s elusive and often contradictory realities. This praise comes largely from those old hands that reported on Africa during the time of the American “War on Terror” that Poplak and Bloom describe above. But Continental Shift holds a distinct significance for young journalists in this country, journalists who face the challenge of reporting on a rapidly changing society in an amorphous digital culture within what is actively described as a dying industry.

The national protests that captured South Africa’s attention in 2015 were, to those that listened, an exhibition of the myriad values of this generation of politically active students; a hard-line rejection of domineering colonial attitudes, structural exclusion, sexual violence, xenophobia, social apathy and Afro-pessimism. While these ideals have a history in this country and the rest of Africa, they have emerged as the organising principles of a new era of journalists.

It is in this context that Continental Shift is so welcome, offering both an insightful introduction to the modern realities of our African neighbours and a sophisticated example of how to engage with Africa journalistically today.

The original story of Continental Shift, write the authors, was the story of China-in Africa. It appeared to them, as it did to many at the time, that this was the ‘defining phenomenon’ of 21st century Africa. As they actually travelled through the continent, however, this lens proved too unfocused. Obscuring. Insufficient. Bloom and Poplak eventually settled on a new aim: to develop a set of snapshots that would function individually rather than collaboratively. The result? Ten essays, each dedicated to exploring the diverse and often contradictory parallel realities within individual African countries.

‘It’s a heady mix of memoir, ethnography, analysis, travel writing and at times comes close to a type of political poetry… 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.’ — Herman Wasserman

It’s close attention to the African context. It’s comfortability with subjectivity, open questions and loose ends. It’s engagement with the same issues of modern colonial interference, exclusive definitions, xenophobia and Afro-pessimism. In many ways Continental Shift is an expression of the new values of modern youth journalism. Perhaps more importantly, it is presented using the kind of innovative, content-driven marriage of journalistic techniques that will become necessary to transform journalism into a sufficient tool to realise the kind of work these values aspire to produce.

Work, for example, like tackling South Africa’s great continental shame. Throughout its chapters, Continental Shift staggers a heartfelt unpacking of the 2011 xenophobic attack on four Chinese immigrants in the North West settlement of Ganyesa, South Africa. This story tentatively threads together the realities of distinct African countries within a deeper conversation on the politics of difference in Africa and the more intangible processes of becoming and belonging, processes from which immigrants are so profoundly excluded.

It is this same conversation, about difference, becoming and belonging, that threads together the goals and values of the new generation of South African journalists. Affirmed Africans hell-bent on dismantling exclusive and insular ideas about personhood and rebuilding our relationship with the rest of Africa, we are hostile to attempts to reduce our connections to others and deeply suspicious of what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie described as the danger of a single story.

Continental Shift is no such story. Apart from addressing the continental blight of xenophobia, it also performs the welcome work of conducting real-time assessments of modern-day African realities. The scope and skilfulness of Poplak and Bloom’s work makes Continental Shift valuable reading for these budding Afroists, those who wish to sharpen their vague understanding of countries like the Central African Republic and populate their perceptions of these ‘empty’ countries with meaningful and contextualised insights. Beyond that, we need only learn to write as lucidly and accessibly as Poplak and Bloom. In this regard, a thorough reading of Continental Shift is a fantastic place to start.

We are seeing the rise of a new set of ideals in South African journalism, particularly among the new generation. These values are exemplified in Continental Shift just as they were in the protests of 2015, but they are not the brain-child of this generation, indigenous products of our place in time. While Poplak and Bloom were reporting in the South African “feedback loop”, Mariama Bâ, Nuruddin Farah, Camara Laye and others had long been framing this continent and its distinct countries as a places of uncertain realities and complex, elusive truths. South Africa, it seems, is finally catching up.


This review was originally published in Edition 11 of Ja. mag

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