Sean Jacobs: Countering the Narrative With Africa Is A Country

by Chris McGivern, 11 January 2023

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Created by Jason Hudson (CC BY 2.0)

Sean Jacobs is a South African journalist, political researcher, and associate professor of international affairs at The New School in New York. He is also what he modestly calls an ‘accidental publisher’ and founder of Africa Is A Country: a platform elevating underrepresented voices in African politics, culture and media.

Launched in 2009, Africa Is A Country (AIAC) quickly built a reputation for challenging conventional Western wisdom about Africa and its people. It asked interesting questions and proposed new ideas. It brimmed with righteous anger tempered by hope, compassion, and humour. Writers, artists, bloggers and scholars - many lacking the opportunity or journalistic lexicon required to publish their work - were invited to share their thinking, experiences, and visions of the future.

Over the next decade, AIAC continued to make a name for itself despite receiving little in the way of financial support. Give or take the occasional small grant, it was almost entirely self-funded: Sean worked in his spare time and relied on an ever-changing community of volunteers for their contributions. When he became a Shuttleworth Fellow in 2019, it was the first opportunity to invest in his vision at scale and realise his ambitions for the platform.

“I knew we needed money to invest in infrastructure and people,” says Sean. “But there was no business proposition, and NGOs and foundations don’t support this type of work unless it fits in with their mission plans. It was difficult to see where it could go.

“I mean, we were interested in spreading this Gramscian, counter-hegemonic information about Africa and Africans,” he smiles. “Nobody was going to fund that.”

We were delighted to welcome Sean to the Fellowship. AIAC painted pictures of a vibrant, innovative and culturally diverse continent utterly unrecognisable from the needy and dangerous homogenous land mass described by corporate, global media.

It was a vital, unique space for authentic African voices to begin taking control of their own global narrative, and a natural extension of our previous work supporting access to knowledge issues and fact-checking. Additionally, it took open into the intriguing new context of mainstream global media: could an open publishing model work in a mainstream environment dominated by private, opaque interests?

The Fellow

Africa Is A Country is undoubtedly a product of Sean’s life experiences. As a child of the 1980s, he grew up in a South African township and was exposed to the harsh realities of systemic injustice. But apartheid also gave him the chance to develop an interest in protest and resistance.

“It’s ironic,” he says. “Censorship was part of the system, but there were so many magazines and newspapers being very critical of the state at the time. South Africa had a really robust resistance culture. But now all those independent outlets have died out or been replaced by this neoliberal thinking that’s intrinsically linked to Western elites. Africa Is A Country is definitely inspired by the culture I grew up with. But I also wanted it to reflect some of the tensions that exist between my generation and today’s young people.

“I am the product of the 1980s and newfound freedom - we had the chance to build a new country. But maybe my generation was compromised. Contemporary teenagers are the ones living in the country we built and experiencing the impacts of our failures. They are less accepting of the continuation of some of the structural issues, and there’s some hostility to my generation because we didn’t fix things.”

If Sean’s upbringing was the backdrop for Africa Is A Country, his decision to move to the United States was undoubtedly a catalyst. He arrived just two days before the tragic events of 9/11. The ensuing atmosphere of tension, fear and suspicion quickly led to the war on terror, and almost immediately, Africa was implicated. Linking the continent with terrorism was yet another example of the West’s insistence for newsrooms and press reports to only discuss Africa in terms of violence, helplessness, and corruption. In 2005, Sean decided to start challenging this lazy, pervasive narrative.

“I started a website called Leo Africanus”, he recalls. “It was named after a 16th Century traveller who wrote a book to correct European thinking about Africa. I took on the persona to give people alternative ideas. It was like a personal blog but it wasn’t just about me writing long articles; I would share the thoughts of other people who I thought were saying interesting things. I always thought of myself as more of a middleman.”

“The landscape changed when social media exploded. People were able to share quotes, articles, or music videos in an instant so my function as a middleman was redundant. I knew the website needed to change tack and tone, and soon after decided to rename it.

“The name Africa Is A Country came mostly through exasperation. After all this time, the West was still talking and writing about Africa as if it was one country. And I think it was a small way for me to talk back at a time when it wasn’t a good idea to talk back. Especially in America.

“But eventually I decided to get other people involved and try to build a community around this idea. I’m an academic and surrounded by academics. Most of them were writing about Africa in a positive way, with an understanding of its real people, real history and real challenges. But they wrote with that dry, inaccessible prose. I thought if I worked with them and helped them write in a way that could engage more people we could learn from each other and start publishing some interesting ideas.”

The Fellowship

By 2019, Africa Is A Country had carved out a significant niche for itself, winning over a large and loyal following among journalists, researchers, and the African diaspora. It had the look, feel, and archival depth of a well-funded online publication and few casual observers would guess Sean was self-funding the platform and relying on volunteer writers. A few sporadic grants helped - including a Shuttleworth Flash Grant - but the platform was fuelled by little more than free time and goodwill.

Africa Is A Country appealed to us on several fronts. It added a new layer to our previous support for work in the fields of access to knowledge and fact-checking. It took open content from the periphery and introduced it to a mainstream media setting: a challenging environment dominated by privately-owned, profit-motivated global corporations. We were also keen to explore the participatory aspect of Sean’s project.

Historically, the mainstream press has consistently failed to provide opportunities for authentic, marginalised voices from Africa, who have no space on the global stage to express themselves and build their own narrative. Not only are Africans voiceless, but invisible. Watch most news from anywhere on the continent - usually screened in times of war, famine or major disaster - and you’ll see real people with real lives relegated to be no more than wallpaper for a camera shot and a backdrop to the Western reporter’s interpretation of events.

But a continent of more than 50 countries and over a billion people has always been capable of telling its own stories. All it ever needed was a platform.

“It was a real shock to get the Fellowship,” says Sean. “Our biggest problem was people and infrastructure. We couldn’t retain people for longer than a year or so, because we couldn’t pay them and we could never scale properly without investing in the infrastructure. So the Fellowship allowed us to start putting some of our ideas into practice in a controlled way, and try to create a sustainable future.”

Outcomes

Sean made exceptional progress over his three-year Fellowship. Today, Africa Is A Country is a fully-fledged, modern media organisation with multiple strings to its bow. It works on film projects, documentary series, podcasts and radio shows. Writers and contributors are paid, which represents significant progress: free time is a privilege; payment enables a broader range of underrepresented people to express themselves.

“We have staff writers, now,” he says. “I’m commissioning freelancers and building a roster of regional specialists and contributors in different countries. We started a Fellowship of our own: out of a cohort of ten new Fellows, four became staff writers afterwards. So we are helping people grow into their roles and developing this great mix of young people who aren’t just writing. They might be working on video productions, making Instagram explainers, or contributing to our documentary film about climate change. There’s also a political podcast going out 40 weeks a year.

“Investing in infrastructure is another important piece,” he adds. “There are systems and processes that didn’t exist before and are helping us become bolder and more confident. And it’s enabled us to start building partnerships with organisations like Al Jazeera +, Progressive International’s The Wire service, and The Elephant in Kenya, which publishes translations of our work.

“Our open model has actually facilitated a lot of these partnerships. It helped our articles span the language divide and find new audiences in many different parts of the world.”

This is an exciting development. Sean joined us from outside the open world but already had a journalistic understanding of openness as a value: information should be freely available, transparency is critical, and people should be allowed to share. Now it is central to his strategy and the key to disseminating knowledge as widely as possible.

It’s not unreasonable to suggest the open movement’s greatest progress has been achieved in important but relatively niche areas such as data, government, scholarly publishing, and education. But Sean’s Fellowship shows it is possible to explicitly publish openly in the context of mainstream, global media and use it as a basis to attract partnerships. His open model is a higher-order application of openness than we have seen before: enabling engagement with some of the world’s leading left-leaning organisations and clearly demonstrating openness as a strategy; not only to amplify underrepresented voices at scale but also to make authentic knowledge more accessible.

“That’s what open allows,” says Sean. “Our articles get translated or republished quickly and easily and go further out into the world. We cannot compete with the likes of Fox but Creative Commons is the engine that’s taking us closer.

“Open licenses probably account for around 75-80% of the work we publish. Sometimes you find out some unscrupulous publication with lots of money just takes our work and doesn’t credit us, but that goes with the territory. And it doesn’t matter. I want people to see this stuff. I want as many people to see this stuff as possible at as little cost to them as possible. And if that means a mainstream publication publishes it, I’m good with that.”

Learning

Our investment in Sean paid substantial social dividends. His considered use of resources has essentially institutionalised what started life as a hobby project and unlocked opportunities for Africans from the continent and its diaspora. And while Africa Is a Country is now a robust, well-established media organisation exploring a far broader range of topics, themes and formats, it has managed to retain its original soul and spirit.

In a broader context, this demonstrates the importance of funding independent media. Journalists, writers, and broadcasters are undoubtedly society’s best tools for holding power to account and shaping public opinion. But in the current climate, the media ecosystem is twisting our perceptions. Those with power own and control the flow of information. Newspapers reflect the interests and aims of their owners. Governments all over the world and on both sides of the political spectrum are increasingly interested in eroding press freedom.

Today, mainstream media is largely driven by market forces: our perspectives of the world are not being shaped from the ground up by journalists, but by corporate advertisers and powerful, opaque groups with the resources to exert control over editorial decisions. Consequently, we see the world through an increasingly narrow lens and are experiencing endemic polarisation in our civic spaces: it’s yes or no, in or out, friend or foe.

Africa Is A Country offers a glimpse of an alternative media ecosystem. Our learning over the course of Sean’s Fellowship shows how an open approach to philanthropy might help it take shape.

Firstly, its open publishing model has successfully shown us how to amplify underrepresented people and what they see, feel and think about the world. It’s also given more people the opportunity to access those voices and learn where power really lies and how it shapes their opinions. Secondly, AIAC is built around collaboration, perspective, and openness: not only in what it publishes but also in how it operates. It’s created a refreshing environment for the polarised, angry media we endure today: though defiantly left-leaning and seeking righteous justice, it is even more defiant in its refusal to pick fights or engage in shouting matches. But the biggest lesson we can share with philanthropy is that it must be willing to place bets on the right individuals and furnish them with the appropriate resources at the appropriate time.

“Nobody thought this was fundable until I was funded,” says Sean. “The Fellowship definitely opened doors and made us attractive to other foundations. So now we can look much further down the road and imagine a long-term future for Africa Is A Country. And I’ve realised that now, with the infrastructure and people we have in place, the whole project has moved beyond me: it will continue to exist even if I’m not involved.

“I’ve been doing this almost alone for 13 years but now we have key people sitting on the editorial board. We have lots of regular contributors, too, and I want them all to feel like they have ownership and are part of the Africa Is A Country community. You know, it’s like: this isn’t mine anymore - it’s ours.”

Final reflections

Our Fellowship is about investing in people and Sean’s personal transformation over these three years is an example of why we are committed to this model. A decade of struggle to maintain AIAC meant Sean came to us with a scrappy, street-fighting, anti-establishment approach. It was also his first real experience building an organisation. That he managed to institutionalise his project in such a relatively short time is a testament to his extraordinary appetite for learning and his ability to internalise new ways of working.

Sean happily admits it took him a while to find his feet as a Fellow, but he soon carved out his own space to become a valued, respected and trusted member of the community. He worked quietly in the background; often unrecognised and without fanfare, and was incredibly generous with his time to offer help, advice, or support to his peers.

“I was lucky to get all three years,” reflects Sean. “Being in a peer group like that where we share ideas and advice - it was invaluable. It helped me put the right structures in place and sharpen my focus on the long-term picture. It helped me develop a bigger vision.

“The love and support I received from the Fellowship was incredible. There was a real feeling of camaraderie and that was really important during the pandemic: I really appreciated the regular meetings during that time, and they helped me through some tough personal moments. The other part of that is the confidence it gives you - every time you get another year it’s a real boost.

“As for the future, well, I remember getting some advice from Fellows in my very first year. They were insistent that I made plans for what happens after the Fellowship. I’ve taken that advice. Right now, Africa Is A Country has enough funding to see us through two years at least.

“And it’s through the Fellowship that I started imagining Africa Is A Country growing beyond me and inspiring me to start working on a transition plan. Someone else will take on a more prominent role at some point, although for the time being, I will still be the public face who goes out and raises money. I like to say we’ve built this big house on the left with many different rooms. I want it to retain its character. But now I have housemates, and it’s not just my place.”


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