In a newsroom, desks are set in a circular fashion with employees working on computers. A larger illustration of a person shows her running with papers flying behind her.

Mining for stories in Africa: when journalism becomes an extractive industry

The story of Europe’s underdevelopment of Africa echoes still in the pattern of exploitative practices practiced by Western media on the continent. 

Representatives of Western media often rely on African journalists for accurate reporting on African issues. In the documentary industry, they might approach us to produce their content. Oftentimes we are deployed as “stringers” – meaning the people setting up the meetings, creating the structures, explaining the history and more for the Western media outlets to “get their story right”. Our names are rarely acknowledged in the finished product.

As a Namibian freelance journalist trying to make a living in the international structures of storytelling, I was exposed to extractive journalism: the shameless exploitation of local knowledge, personal resources and professional connections in a largely white supremacist industry.

"How Europe Underdeveloped Africa"

In his book How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (1972), Guyanese historian and guerrilla intellectual Walter Rodney described how Europeans deployed trickery, deception and unequal trade practices to gain a foothold in pre-colonial Africa. 

Rodney showed how these forms of engagement with the continent laid the foundation for the mass extraction of people – and later resources during the European slave trade and subsequent colonization of Africa. It also resulted in an unequal and parasitical relationship with Africa via trade, colonial domination, and capitalist investment.

This parasitical relationship, where Europe maintains the upper hand, led to the development of the European metropoles, their social structures, and the success of their communities, on the backs of Africa and its people. Thus, in a dialectical manner, Africa helped develop Europe in the same proportion as Europe underdeveloped Africa, according to Rodney’s analysis. 

Much of what I encountered in today’s journalism worked in the same way. Even journalists who report on and profess to be in solidarity with our struggles often approach us on purely extractive terms.

Decolonial-washing in Berlin

A media company based in Berlin, Germany was one of those outlets that presented itself as decolonial, feminist, and revolutionary. Given its radical window-dressing, I initially had an honourable impression of the outlet. Thus, even when management approached me with a job offer that was below my payment standard, I nonetheless agreed to produce a three-part documentary based on Rodney’s book for them.

I worked alongside a Black co-producer in the USA, a comrade who became a good friend through the ordeal. We understood the importance of the subject matter, were sensitive to the responsibility attached to it and excited about the intellectual and creative possibilities we could explore. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, I was also relieved by the opportunity, as freelance jobs had become less available in the film industry.

As the work began, I quickly experienced how diametrically different the work environment was from what I had been used to from prior work with other employees and freelancers for the company. This time I was working with management.

For starters, I was promised a flexible work schedule with weekends off, but the workload grew so rapidly that I was constantly swarmed. This forced me to pay for additional childcare and transportation to Kindergarten for my child during COVID, expenses I had not prepared for.  

Due to constant demands and updates from management – which often arrived in the form of early morning Whatsapp voice notes — I was on the clock days before I received my contract. When the contract finally came, those days were not accounted for.

The Power to Exploit

Other things were bizarre in ways that can still be difficult to articulate.  I remember how management often dismissed or talked over concerns or suggestions we had as producers. Due to the public profile garnered by other documentaries I had worked on for them in the past, they knew I was of value for their enterprise – which they weirdly also mentioned at any given opportunity. However, at the same time, they sabotaged our prerogative on a story of African exploitation, which – taken to the abstract – was also a personal story for us as producers.

Accordingly, they didn’t want to relinquish narrative or resource control although we were the experts (in theory and body), and thus hindered the progress altogether, turning each interaction into a mediocre outcome.

I became more uneasy about the unequal power dynamics and saw how our situation mirrored the story we were telling. When I voiced my intentions to leave the project, management informed us that they were aware that they had not supported us enough, but promised to do so going forward. “Just tell us what you need,” we were told, “Anything you need, we can make it happen.”

Suddenly, even “the budget” that before had restricted everything including our salaries had more funds available. It was also announced that more time was now available to complete the project the way we envisioned, and without the overwhelming rush that we had become accustomed to. We were informed that we could renew/extend our contracts for this when the current ones expired.

In all this talk about available funds and prolonged workload, there was not a single mention of a monetary raise for us. To me, it was clear that management, who would de facto still remain in charge of the project, would not provide us with all the necessary support to make the best out of the production. I opted out of renewing my contract.

To top things off, I also learned then that I was getting almost half of what my co-producer was receiving.

A Student of Story-Mining

To further this media enterprise, I was exploited in a myriad of gendered, racist and classist ways, including where I as a queer African am located on the international scale of human expenditure. My co-producer in the USA endured a prolonged ordeal until they were finally forced to leave. Rodney’s story did not air. Per the contract, the work we did belongs to the company that successfully mined information, professional contacts and personal stories and sentiments from across the African continent and its diaspora, all needed to run a good story.

This type of exploitation is not exclusive to popular media companies. The structural advantages that facilitate the development of Western journalists also lead to deeply ingrained structural bias by Western colleagues who do not view us on equal terms. That was the experience I had later with a naturalized German Journalist of Color doing her master’s program at a prestigious university in the USA.

Namibia had become a hotbed for Western journalists’ “story mining” of the ongoing legacy of German coloniality. The story became interesting to an international audience after a more than five-year negotiation ordeal between the Namibian and German governments, which resulted in Germany formally accepting the atrocities of the German Kaiserreich as genocide on social but not legally-binding terms. It is worth noting that the resulting mutual agreement between the two nation-states was rejected by traditional representatives of the Ovaherero and Nama communities who were sidelined during the process.

As a “story mining” expert in her own right, this journalist knew whom to contact for a good story: After seeing a documentary I had worked on, she requested me as a stringer for her scheduled travels to Namibia.

Again, this journalist offered substandard payment which I declined immediately this time. Through a series of Whatsapp conversations, I later fell for the journalist’s fabricated image of solidarity and her cry about how broke she was as a student. Eventually, I was lured into the work with an agreement of better pay, provided I take on the extra workload of also being her chauffeur. The story was also of personal importance to me, and I agreed to it.

 Then – after I had set up meetings with activists, chiefs, politicians, and community members including my own family, and shared my knowledge and experiences to portray the reality of coloniality – she informed me on Christmas that I was not getting the pay we had agreed upon. The reason was that she wasn’t able to budget it anymore as well as putting it down to a misunderstanding on my behalf. I organized a new driver for her and quit before we completed the trip, which also left me with unpaid gas expenses for the journalist’s  “research mining”.

Due to the added costs of childcare and arrangements I had to make just to carry out the work, my family was left in economic dismay thereafter. By now, the journalist has – to my knowledge – finished her Master’s thesis with this story. I, on the other end, had left the project with less pay for my work than the payment offer I had rejected right at the start of the project.

"I refused to be forced to survive in exploitative labour"

Leaving both projects behind amidst financial insecurities was not an easy decision for me – or anybody in this position – to make, but I refused to be forced to survive in exploitative labour situations that are reminiscent of Rodney’s critique.

Trapped in these circuits of racial capitalism, African journalists are there to deliver insights, ideas and connections, whilst being bitterly reminded of the exploitative resource extraction this continent has had through Western interests for more than 500 years. To the Western journalists I encountered, these same stories merely served to advance their careers, giving heed to Rodney’s sentiments that: “African development is possible only on the basis of a radical break with the international capitalist system.”

Namupa Shivute is a nonbinary Namibian storyteller mainly exploring art, class, race and gender politics through writing, sound and filmmaking. They count Pan-africanism and Marxism, Black liberation and abolitionist movements, as well as the 90s Hip Hop era and Afrofeminism amongst their biggest influences. Namupa uses any or no pronouns.

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