‘African migration is not the actual problem, people drowning in the Mediterranean Sea is.’ [INTERVIEW]

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A discussion about South Africa, migration, our perspective on the continent and personal experiences with Dutch correspondent and documentary filmmaker, Bram Vermeulen.

By: DAAF BORREN

As a journalist, interested in Africa, Bram was high, if not on the top of my list for an interview about what is possibly the most fascinating continent our planet has to offer. I have always highly admired his work as a correspondent for Dutch media, wherein he offers new insights and in-depth stories, by conducting a more thematic approach, instead of solely covering events and daily news. Further, as a documentary filmmaker he has made several series, wherein he clearly explains complex issues like migration and a significantly changing Africa. Over the years, I spoke with Bram several times about a variety of subjects, and I appreciate his open-minded approach and his ability to ease his interlocutor. A quality which can be convenient in sub-Saharan Africa, I presume.

Bram Vermeulen

Ever since Bram (NRC Handelsblad, NOS, VPRO) – currently based in Johannesburg, South Africa – left the Netherlands in 2001, he tries to understand and learn from different cultures and distant worlds. In order to share his experiences, he wrote the book Help ik ben blank geworden (Help, I became a white man) about his work as a correspondent in South Africa. Further, during his journeys through Africa, the Middle East and Turkey, he developed a significant interest in national borders and migration, about which he made several documentaries. His latest production De Trek, discusses the African migration flows in a four-part documentary series. By exposing the main characters in the general debate on migration – human traffickers, drowning migrants, xenophobes and deported ‘illegals’ – Bram tries to deepen the knowledge of his readers and change our perspective on African migration. His passion for these topics is inspirational and was clearly noticeable during our discussion, which intensified when we started speaking about migration flows and the European position on this matter.

Our discussion:

In your book Help, ik ben blank geworden (Help, I became a white man), you described your idealism and willingness to integrate in the South African culture. Were you successful?

 The book was a confession wherein I tried to describe the complexities of being a Dutch correspondent, working in South Africa. Objective was to expose the confrontation I felt and barriers I noticed, being a white male, trying to integrate in the black South African community. Clearly, I was not able to totally overcome the stereotypical perspective, of a white journalist in South Africa and this still applies today. Despite my initial idealism, reality is not as simple. The South African history unfortunately does not facilitate integration. Colonial times and decades of Apartheid significantly complicate the white-black relationship and result in a lack of mutual trust. From the moment I set foot on African soil, I was pulled in the ‘white bubble’ due to a variety of reasons. Even though I am constantly writing and reporting about black South Africans, trying to understand and share their feelings and thoughts, I cannot break through the barrier between black and white. The historical division is still tangible in South Africa’s society, and hard to dismantle. Therefore, as a correspondent, it is hardly possible to position yourself in the middle of South Africa’s society. From the very first moment I was drawn in the world of foreigners and expats, living in South Africa. As a result, I will always remain an outsider.

How have you seen South Africa evolve politically, economically and socially over the years?  

As mentioned earlier, colonial times and Apartheid, still have a major impact on South Africa’s society. A strong division is still noticeable which has not significantly improved in the last decade. I have not seen any reason for optimism over the last years. On the contrary, the situation worsens. South Africa’s economy suffers from today’s poor demand for natural resources and the sluggish mining industry – South-Africa’s backbone – is becoming increasingly weak. Continuous strikes affect the functioning of the industry and the South African-British mining company Anglo American has cut thousands of jobs. Aside from the economic deterioration, an up rise in political unrest is noticeable. President Zuma is increasingly cornered by accusations of irresponsible acquisitions and corruption. Additionally, the political opposition is gaining momentum which further complicates the rule of the ANC. Consequently, the political and economic instability affects South Africa’s society. Social agitation grows and xenophobic violence increases. So, altogether it cannot be said that the situation in South Africa has changed positively over the recent years.

Interesting to share, is that at first, Bram misunderstood the previous question and thought I was asking about how he has seen Africa change in the last decade. It is valuable to share his reaction on this matter as it underlines a widespread misconception about our approach on the African continent:

Are you asking me to describe the changes of an entire continent? That is a basic mistake. Africa is a mighty continent, home to 54 nation states and hundreds, if not, thousands of different cultures and ethnicities. Africa is very diverse, and describing it as one small and uniform country, is a common mistake and a totally wrong and deficient approach of the continent.

Considering this widespread misunderstanding, do you notice a gap between what you witness during your work as a correspondent and what you eventually read in the newspapers? In other words, do media provide a comprehensive, all-embracing and truthful perspective on the sub-Saharan African region?

Unfortunately, as a correspondent in Africa, I am not always able to cover the news on the spot, which complicates comprehensive reporting. There is just not enough time to cover stories at first hand. However, the actual problem of bringing the news from Africa, is the lack of general knowledge among Europeans, about African countries. For example, when the news covers a terrorist attack in Paris, people get scared, might cancel their holiday trip to France, but will not solely link France with terrorism from that moment onwards. On the other hand, when Boko Haram – A Nigerian terrorist organization allied to Islamic State – carries out a terrorist attack and the media cover the aftermath, Nigeria will then be known solely for the presence of terrorism. This is where misconceptions arise and where our perspective on African countries becomes superficial and deficient. Most Europeans unfortunately don’t know more about Africa besides from what they hear and read in the news.

This shortsighted view on African countries, cultures and people will not change easily. The fact that I am currently enjoying a day on the beach, surrounded by friends while looking at children fooling around with surfboards in the breakers, is not something people would associate with the African continent.

Improving and complementing the Western perspective on Africa can be realized by producing in-depth stories and documentary-series, as such coverage buys you time. It enables you to do more research and cover themes more comprehensively. Eventually this will result in more in-depth knowledge, which can improve the general view on African countries and make Europe lose its blinders for ‘the bright side of Africa.’

Richard Dowden, a well-known British Africa-journalist, once said that “not governance or the economy of African countries where the greatest victims of colonial times, but the psychological wellbeing, which led to the destruction of African identity.” Do you agree?

Yes, I agree that the identity of Africans is the greatest victim of colonization. Imagine colonizers setting sail for South Africa, driving native men and women from their lands and homes. They lost everything. All possibilities for South Africa’s native population to gather wealth, power and sustain its identity, was taken away by colonial powers. The colonial history is therefore something which still strongly affects the daily life of numerous South Africans. Many suffer from alcoholism, there is widespread violence against women and the greater part of South Africa’s money is still in the hands of white Africans. All are indirect effects of colonial times.

Credits: VPRO

Agadèz, Niger (by VPRO)

To what extent does this deterioration of the African identity continue through the present stereotyping and victimization of sub-Saharan Africa?

In recent days, the African feeling of inferiority and a lack of identity is still firmly settled in the society of many African countries. In certain ways, the strong and unwavering Eurocentric worldview can be blamed for this feeling. Many Africans suffer from an increasingly negative self-image and lack of confidence. A while ago, when I was in Nigeria, I spoke a man who seemed to give up, and openly asked for ‘the whites’ to return as life was better when Nigeria was colonized. I was shocked. To hear a Nigerian man asking for the return of white rule, is not very promising.

In line with this problem lies the fact that the mainstream discussion about the African continent on a political level, is incoherent and unfair. For instance, the Dutch populistic leader, Geert Wilders, keeps on telling lies about African migration flows, by constantly speaking of ‘billions of African migrants’ setting foot on European shores in the next decades. This is an absolute hoax and as most journalists do not feel the urge to refute such statements, the European view on sub-Saharan Africa will move further away from reality.

Concerning African migration, don’t you agree with European leaders, that the flow of migrants, setting sail for European shores, is getting out of hand?

I cannot disagree more on this matter. African migration flows and routes already exist for many centuries and the western world played a significant role in paving the road. Obviously colonial times initiated the migration of Africans between different continents, but also during the World Wars, migration was supported as African soldiers were recruited to fight for imperial powers. In more recent history France has ‘imported’ many African workers for its car factories.

As a result, migration is a way of life for many. For instance, during the production of De Trek, I visited a region in Senegal, where the economy completely depends on migration. Similar to Agadez, a ‘smuggler-city’ in northern Niger, it is the economic engine of the region. Although it is questionable whether you can call the former a city of smugglers, as the transport of people has been their profession for many centuries.

Also, be aware of the fact that migrants living in Europe send money back home to their families, which is a quite a profitable business. This financial current, directly addressed to the African citizen, has outgrown the financial support of non-governmental and humanitarian organizations by three times.

In other words, migration is not the result of weak living conditions or a lack of opportunities. On the contrary, the wealthier African families more often choose for a dangerous life on the road, as they are able to pay the expensive smugglers. Furthermore, migrants hardly ever decide to undertake the dangerous journey to Europe, when none of their family members have travelled to Europe in an earlier stage. The roads are paved and African migration flows will not decrease when the European Union sends more money to African countries in order to improve their regional border control.

Then what is your advice on countering and reducing the African migration flows?

I don’t have any advice on this matter. There is no solution for the migration flows from Africa to Europe, as there is no problem to solve. As I mentioned earlier, migration flows and routes exist for many centuries now. The only difference is that nowadays, Africans are forced to illegally travel to Europe. Consequently, they are increasingly pushed to pay great amounts of money to smugglers and set sail in leaky boats, while the EU further complicates the ability of Africans to travel. Further, we should not forget that many Europeans migrate in the opposite direction. The main difference is that European citizens are able to easily obtain a visa for a safe trip by plane. Africans are mostly denied such privileges. So once again, to be clear: We should not be looking for a solution to prevent Africans from migrating, as this is nothing new. People drowning in the Mediterranean Sea is the actual problem.

To conclude, what is your expectation for South Africa’s future, looking at the next decade?

It is hard to tell. But once again, I don’t see any reason for optimism. I am slightly concerned about the growing political crisis in South Africa. Opposition parties are gaining momentum and increasingly pressure the government led by the African National Congress (ANC). I presume that this might result in a more populistic stance of President Zuma towards certain parts of the population, blaming them for the lagging prosperity. A possibly dangerous cocktail, in a country marked by a history of division.

During his career, Bram has been awarded with the price for Dutch Journalist of the Year (2008), the Dick Scherpenzeelprijs (2013) and the Lira Correspondentenprijs for best foreign reporter (2013) and the Herman Wekkerprijs (2014) for best reporting from English speaking countries.

[Pictures by VPRO]

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