Exercise in vacuity

BBC1 Geldof in Africa series. Part 1 - 7.30pm, Monday June 20

It seems that Bob Geldof's audacity knows no limits. His latest lucrative project is his much-publicised six-part television series Geldof in Africa which follows his "personal journey" across the continent. Given the left's rather odd relationship with this smug liberal, it is useful to understand everything that Geldof says about Africa - even if that means sitting through an extremely well filmed, but nonetheless totally vacuous series. At times the first programme had a 'Wish you were here' feel to it, set off by rather odd musical interludes that would have been more suited to some eerie sci-fi film. From the very outset Geldof's husky voice dominates the narrative, as he talks us through beautifully shot scenes of Africa's vast landscape and wildlife. However, what really annoyed me about this 30-minute trip into Africa via the ego of the multi-millionaire do-gooder was that - being the type of person who as a child drove his mam wild with the question, 'Why?' - I just could not figure out what the programme's purpose was. It could not be called a documentary in the sense that its 'analysis' was about as detailed as Judith Chalmers guiding an audience through the sights of Florida. At the same time it could not be called a holiday programme due to its underlying gloom, epitomised by the sombreness of Geldof himself - his rare stabs at humour never really hit home. Not that there is much to be cheery about, of course. Africa has been used and abused by the powers-that-be and the situation for the majority of its people is dire. What was successful about the programme is that it refuted any idea that Africa is somehow irretrievably destroyed and that there is no hope for it ever recovering. The camera shots range from hustle and bustle of town life to the sheer beauty of the landscape, and in this sense the audience is challenged to rethink its attitude to Africa and take a look at some of its social structures - ranging from tribes to governments charging poll tax at the expense of these tribes. Although the camera focuses on much of the continent's natural beauty, Geldof and the producers cannot be accused of glorifying Africa - the suffering remains in focus, aided by the melancholy music and Geldof's deadpan voice. A balance is maintained between the sheer magnificence of the continent and the ugliness of everyday social reality (including an improvised 'head transplant' using a goat's skull). On one level Geldof's attachment to a continent that was once stripped to the bone and then left to rot is welcome. Yet this was also the programme's weakest point - a highly superficial examination of the dire situation of modern Africa and a refusal to step beyond generalities and meaninglessly employed terms like 'politics' and 'political geography' - a phrase that poor Bob seems use a lot, but palpably fails to get his head around (maybe it was too hot out there for him). He spews out the same kind of pernicious crap that reactionaries, colonialists and other outright liars have been peddling for years - Africa's "climate and geography" have "hindered human development", and this situation has been worsened by - you guessed it - 'politics'. My favourite scene highlighted the arbitrary nature of Africa's borders and how irrelevant they are on the ground (two sticks in the earth were the only indication that our hero was entering a different country) but how important they are politically. Yet again though, this observation was as far as the discourse went - no mention of divide-and-rule colonialism. But this was hardly the only glaring example of where the 'analysis' was somewhat wanting. Although series director John Maguire described the running of this programme as a "brave decision" by the BBC (quoted in Socialist Worker June 18), it must be said that it presented no threat whatsoever to the establishment - the BBC has a history of screening such utter bullshit and I am sure they are proud of this latest venture too. The fact that Socialist Worker can get so excited about the 'revolutionary content' of this documentary-cum-holiday programme says more about the Socialist Workers Party than the BBC. What annoys me most is not that self-seeking publicist, Geldof, but the missed potential for this programme, considering the resources the production team clearly had at its disposal. Replace Geldof with any honest person aware of African history and the programme would have been informative and enlightening. The plight of Africa should be understood not in terms of demography, climate or 'politics' in the abstract, but in terms of its rape and pillage by the industrialising European countries. This military plunder was followed by trade, but the latter's effects were often even more damaging. For Geldof such insignificant events are presumably to be filed under the incomprehensible 'politics' category! In the absence of an organised and politicised working class movement, perhaps it is not surprising that a section of the 'revolutionary' left acts as cheerleader for Geldof - as if the establishment is not already doing that job for him. His wet liberalism is exposed in a scene where he sits around with the unelected tribal elders of Somalia's 'second chamber' under the shade of a tree - venerating their success in combining the "modern" (elected parliament) with the "traditional" (tribal council) - a revolutionary democrat this boy is not (and never will be). Geldof gives us his version of how humanity originated in Africa - he claims to be tracing the footsteps of the first group of people who left Africa for pastures new and Europe (I presume we are supposed to make the comparison with his march for justice). He recounts how human beings gradually began to control the forces of nature, yet there is no attempt to question whether the tribes he reveres for being 'different' (as if they really have much of a choice) are to a greater or lesser extent still facing the unsolved problems that early humanity did - in so doing carefully avoiding potentially tricky questions like global imperialist domination. Sorry, comrades of the SWP, but the predicament of Africa cannot be put down to "unfair trade" or, in Lindsey German's words, "decisions made by governments" (Socialist Worker June 18), but rather the history of capitalism itself. It is indicative of the state of the workers' movement when the biggest revolutionary group in Britain carries its preview under the headline, "Geldof in Africa throws light on trade injustice". Only through an analysis of that history of capitalism and the imperialism that arose from it can we really account for Africa's plight - but, Geldof being the charity-monger he is, communists should not be surprised by the sheer inadequacy of the first episode in doing this l Ben Lewis