Negative images of Africa have a lingering persistence. And nowhere are they more powerful than in descriptions of Zaire, the former Belgian Congo and setting for Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. With its equatorial climate, its luxuriant rain forests and its larger-than-life strongman ruler, Zaire still evokes Conradian associations.
In its December 4, 1964 issue, Time magazine reported on an uprising in what is now Zaire's Shaba province. "The rebels were, after all," the magazine said, "only a rabble of dazed ignorant savages."
When Shaba exploded again in 1978, Walter Cronkite opened the 6:30 p.m. feed of the CBS evening news for May 19 with these words.
"Good evening. The worst fears in the rebel invasion of Zaire's Shaba province reportedly have been realized. Rebels being routed from the mining town of Kolwezi are reported to have killed a number of Euro-peans."
Obviously, somebody had goofed. By the 7:00 p.m. feed, the lead had been rewritten to avoid the suggestion that white deaths were the worst possible development in a war whose casualties were overwhelmingly black.
But the earlier version typified the agitated tone that prevailed in hundreds of newspapers and radio stations across the country.
"Rebel tribesmen on a rampage of murder and rape slaughtered as many as 200 persons in a 'hunt for the white man,'" screamed the Associated Press. "Rebel troops went into a frenzy of killing and looting in which they massacred at least 150 whites," said UPI. Front page stories in the Washington Post held rebels responsible for "what may turn out to have been the worst massacre of Europeans in modern African history."
But when passions cooled, and criticism by Africanists began to mount, discomfited reporters realized that the number of white casualties were far lower than the early reports suggested and that most of the killings appeared to have been random. As many whites seemed to have been killed by government soldiers as by insurgents.
"In retrospect," said the Post's David Ottaway in a May 28 analysis that was buried deep in the paper, "it seems some of the initial reports from French and Zairean sources of whites being massacred were deliberately exaggerated to gain quick Western public sympathy" for the French-Belgium airlift of troops into the province. "As for the rebels," Ottaway said, "there are many reports of their commanders acting to protect whites rather than ordering their execution."
More than a decade later, the U.S. media is all but silent on Zaire. Even the killings of between 60 and 150 Zaire university students by government troops in May 1990 - reported widely in the European press and prompting a Belgian cut-off of aid and loans - went almost unnoticed.
"I've gotten old and cynical enough to say that this is normal," says University of North Carolina historian David Newbury. A Zaire specialist, Newbury sent off dozens of information packets to newspapers and television stations in an unsuccessful effort to stir some interest in the growing conflict between the Zaire government and its critics.
One television producer, who doesn't want to be named, suggests that the killings of the Zaire students failed to capture media attention for a familiar reason - the general negative image of the continent. If African despots kill their own citizens, the producer said, it isn't news, because the American attitude is, "Well, what do you expect?"
This article was published originally in "Capturing the Continent: U.S. Media Coverage of Africa," a special 1990 edition of Africa News.