Lena Reuter | 12.07.2020 | 841 Aufrufe | Interviews

"The response by African states cannot be generalized"

Interview with Sean Jacobs about the situation of COVID-19 in South Africa and beyond

The African continent was affected by COVID-19 at a rather late stage. In South Africa, the curve rose very slowly, with the first case of Corona being confirmed on 5 March. Further cases were followed by a prompt reaction from the government of President Cyril Ramaphosa: beaches, parks, schools, and playgrounds were closed by mid-March. The infections, which initially affected European travelers, are now spreading rapidly throughout the country, especially in poorer areas where people have little access to health care.
With 3,200 people having died in connection with the virus and almost 200,000 confirmed infections,[1] the country is the most affected on the continent. It is also one of the countries with the largest gap between rich and poor in the world. The virus makes this even more visible.
Professor Sean Jacobs from the New School in New York, founder of the website africaisacountry, shares his insights into the situation in his home country, South Africa.

Professor Sean Jacobs in front of The New School, left the logo of AIAC

"I wanted to undercut the dominant media narratives about Africa"

L.I.S.A.: Professor Jacobs, not only are you Associate Professor of International Affairs at The New School in New York, you also founded "Africa Is a Country" in 2009, "a site of opinion, analysis, and new writing", focusing on the African continent from an African perspective. How did you come up with the idea for this project? Can you tell us about its development and also about the effects you see from those more than ten years of your work?

Professor Jacobs: In 2001, I came to New York City as a visiting student at The New School. At the time I was doing a Ph.D. in Politics at Birkbeck College at the University of London. Not long after I started blogging about Western media debates about Africa, including as “Leo Africanus”. Mainstream media coverage of Africa in Europe and the US was abysmal. Outside of the large, mainstream and most popular media outlets, the popular sources about African politics and culture were blogs that highlighted development debates, NGO issues, the pros and cons of US or EU foreign policy for Africa argued between Americans, and aspirational politics of African elites like the idea of the “Afropolitan” or the “African Renaissance”. They had very little to do with actual African politics, aspirations, or perspectives. I saw Africa Is a Country (AIAC) as intervening in those debates. But I also wanted to introduce audiences to leftist perspectives on African affairs and to undercut the dominant media narratives about Africa. Much of the inspiration for such perspectives come from my background coming of age in South Africa in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when an alternative or Left press, publications like Grassroots, South, New Nation, The Weekly Mail, Work in Progress and South African Labour Bulletin, left a lasting impression on me. I wanted to emulate that media. Outside South Africa, I was particularly influenced by the style of the Ugandan magazine, Transition.
AIAC's founding coincided with political debate moving from traditional media to almost exclusively online. I am not naive about the internet (we all know it is a cesspool of rightwing propaganda and misinformation), but the ability to self-publish, has vastly contributed to democratizing the public sphere. I also know that despite our best efforts most Africans still source the news they read about themselves or other Africans elsewhere on the continent, via non-African sources. Nevertheless, I am very proud of the work we have done. I think we have managed, particularly in our early work, which was mainly media criticism, to make foreign correspondents think twice about the way they portray Africa. We have also created space for over 1,000 contributors, including a number of first-time authors, to write to a global audience. More recently, we want our work to be seen in languages other than English and we are keen to produce more visual media. Today, Africa Is a Country is considered one of the leading sites providing thoughtful and incisive commentary from the Left, about the continent.

Cuban Health Specialists arrive in South Africa to support efforts to curb the spread of COVID-19. The arrival of the 217 Cuban Health Specialists follows a request made by HE President Cyril Ramaphosa to HE President Díaz Canel Bermúdez of Cuba. Aufgenommen am 27.04.2020

"Scenes of long lines of people queuing for food became common"

L.I.S.A.: Would you give us your insight into the Corona situation in your home country, South Africa: The country is in lockdown. How is the atmosphere in the streets? What measures have been undertaken by the government to protect its people, and how do people react?

Professor Jacobs: South Africa's government deserves credit for how it initially handled the pandemic. The country's lockdown brought down the rate of increase in new infections. As a result, it was praised by the World Health Organization. It made the response to COVID-19 by the USA or much of Europe seem haphazard and irresponsible. The ANC government had been unpopular for a while because of the corruption, inefficiency, and indecisiveness associated with it. But President Ramaphosa's leadership during the lockdown won some goodwill back. Even among whites, not usually fans of the country's post-apartheid governments. But two other developments were decisive. First, the lockdown was accompanied by excessive police brutality and abuse. In fact, to date, 12 people had been murdered by police and 230,000 others arrested. This all because they allegedly broke the rules of the lockdown, like having a drink in their yard (the government also banned the sale of alcohol and cigarettes) or for sitting outside (most of those arrested are poor and black; townships are overcrowded, and people often sit outside). Second, for the lockdown to work it had to be accompanied by government programs like feeding schemes, food baskets to help poor people or those made unemployed by COVID-19 (many businesses had to close). But very little of this happened, and when it did eventually, it was ineffectual as few people eventually received any grants. Take into account that in South Africa, without a pandemic, the unemployment figure is well above 30%. So, the lockdown was accompanied by hunger. Scenes of long lines of people queuing for food became common. From my interactions with family and friends who live in South Africa, it is clear that the rich and middle-classes, a mix of mostly white and some black, can insulate themselves from the ravages of the pandemic even if and when they do get sick. They can also afford to get a test. In Cape Town, where I was born and grew up, the epicenter of the pandemic is in the crowded townships. You must also take into that winter is only beginning in South Africa. In recent weeks the government has relaxed some of the lockdown rules because of pressure - some real but also frivolous and selfish (some middle-class people, mostly white, complained about being denied to surf or no haircuts and took the government to court; it is telling that this was often accompanied by silence over the deaths and arrests) - so everyone's watching to see how it will pan out. There is now a fear that South Africa may have moved too quickly with opening schools, for example, and that cases may still skyrocket.

"It is not the same if you are black and poor"

L.I.S.A.: The slogan “coronavirus doesn't discriminate” is important to raise awareness. It is, however, not entirely true when it comes to the United States of America: poorer people and especially Black people and People of Color are disproportionately more likely to come into contact with the virus, according to the Economic Policy Institute. How would you assess the situation in South Africa in this regard?

Professor Jacobs: As I said before, like in the U.S., it is clear that if you are middle class or white in South Africa, you can insulate yourself from the effects of the pandemic. If you live in a suburb, basically the former white “group areas,” you do have the resources to self-quarantine, and if you get sick or need to be tested, you can. It is not the same if you are black and poor.

"News can be a lot of opinion"

L.I.S.A.: You have published your research on media politics in South Africa and you live in New York – the state which is affected the most by the virus. Do you notice a difference in media coverage of the situation in the U.S. and South Africa regarding the crisis and people's reaction to it?

Professor Jacobs: Like elsewhere in the world, news in South Africa can be very little actual reporting, but a lot of opinion and 'analysis'. That's because journalism has suffered cutbacks. If you watch TV news, there is very little reporting and a lot of talking heads. But there is one major difference. South Africa is a black majority country and much of its media are public, especially broadcasting. I read, watch, and listen to South African media online. I also get articles forwarded to me via social media. While the private media is focused on those audiences who are attractive to advertisers (middle-class people and in the main white people), the media feel compelled to cover how black people experience and cope with the pandemic. In public media's case, like TV and radio news, this is considered is part of their mandate as broadcasters. But it is also clear that the coverage of how the pandemic affects people in the townships is often very general. And, often the poor are weaponized in the rhetorical wars between the middle class and the government or between blacks and white middle classes over the government's response. Because the media doesn't do its job, one problem is that a lot of fake or unverified information is shared on social media, especially Whatsapp and Facebook, by lots of South Africans. Luckily, like elsewhere alternative media are emerging like Politically Aweh or The Daily Vox.

"The problem with generalizing about the African continent is that we did not learn much"

L.I.S.A.: Assumptions and estimated numbers of deaths by the UNECA, WHO, and others predict a horror scenario for the African continent. However, numbers are low, and many countries are dealing well with the situation so far. Where does this gap occur from? What is your opinion on that?

Professor Jacobs: The response by African states cannot be generalized. It depends on the kind of regime, what region they are in, the state of their health services and infrastructure, how dense their cities are, among others. For example, take authoritarian or one-party regimes. Burundi had no lockdown and is facing a disaster (the president’s wife is being treated in Kenya for COVID-19, while he died suddenly), while Egypt suppresses information about positive cases, giving its citizens a false sense. Meanwhile, Rwanda sought to punish people who were caught outside during its lockdown by making them sit in the hot sun in an open stadium as punishment. South Africa, Kenya, and Nigeria were exceptional for the use of force by the police. Madagascar promoted quackery in the name of “African solutions” - it has been exporting an herbal drink as a cure for COVID-19 despite there being no scientific evidence for this. There were reports that Equatorial Guinea and Congo-Brazzaville bought up large quantities of the drink. It is no coincidence that they're both authoritarian states. Ethiopia, however, has been praised for its response using primary health care methods. In any case, most African states lack legitimacy from its citizens and had to resort to punitive measures to get people to comply with lockdowns. The problem with generalizing about the African continent is that we did not learn much. Finally, I think Africans, instead of looking to the usual suspects in the West (Britain, the United States, much of Western Europe) who dismally failed at protecting their populations (though Germany was an exception), and should instead look to other societies with some of the same conditions they face, but had success containing the virus: for example, Vietnam, or the Indian state of Kerala, where people's health and welfare during COVID-19 was viewed as a public good, the government got a buy-in from the population and they instituted mass testing.

To have a look on the website, please go to

Professor Sean Jacobs has answered the questions in written form.


[1]  Quelle:, Stand: 06.07.2020

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