37. Nollywood vs mall mania

Author: Prof Adekeye Adebajo
18 February 2018
Business Day and City Press
Image supplied by: 
ninetua via Twenty20

While Nigeria exports “Nollywood” – its indigenous film industry – as an authentic African cinema, South Africa exports an American-style “mall culture” which represents its deep Western influences. Nigeria is the most indigenously diverse country in Africa; South Africa the most westernised state on the continent. Joseph Nye’s idea of “soft power” is non-military resources which countries can deploy to influence others to follow their lead and to desire what they want.

South Africa has spread its soft power through Nobel peace laureates Albert Luthuli, Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela and FW de Klerk, as well as Nobel literature laureates Nadine Gordimer and John Coetzee. The country successfully organised Africa’s first football World Cup in 2010, hosted and won Africa’s first rugby World Cup in 1995, and has become a magnet for tourists from Africa and around the world. South African-born Charlize Theron became the first African to win an Oscar – for Best Actress – in 2004; while Tsotsi won best foreign film Oscar in 2006. Musicians like Hugh Masekela, Lira, Black Coffee, and Abdullah Ibrahim have bolstered South Africa’s “brand” abroad. The country’s ubiquitous fast food chains such as Nando’s and Spur are further signs of the country’s “soft power of the belly”.

Nollywood is a veritable source of Nigeria’s soft power, which has expanded its values across the continent, creating an authentically African cinema, with which many populations in Africa and its Diaspora identify. World-class Nigerian footballers in European leagues and the national football team, the Super Eagles, who won a gold medal at the 1996 Olympics, also play a similar role. So do renowned writers such as Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka, Booker Prize winner Ben Okri and Orange Prize winner Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie; Afro-jazz superstar Fela Anikulapo Kuti (whose life was immortalised on Broadway with a musical); and singers such as Asa, Don Jazzy, Wizkid and Davido.

Nigeria hosted the Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture (Festac) in 1977, involving an increasingly self-confident nation that had long seen itself as “the giant of Africa”. The festival drew thousands of artists from Africa and members of the Diaspora from the Caribbean, South America, North America and Australasia. Festac involved durbars, regattas, traditional dances and the exhibition of elaborate works of art. It was a celebration of Pax Nigeriana: a national showpiece staged to mark the arrival into the leadership ranks of the nouveaux riches of the world’s largest black nation and to promote African culture as a sign of equality with a West that had often denigrated the continent’s cultures.

The decision to build a brand-new capital in Abuja by 1991 with spectacular highways, conference centres and religious buildings, was taken during the euphoric days of the oil boom. The city now hosts the Economic Community of West African States’ secretariat, as a potent symbol of Nigeria’s regional leadership. Abuja’s street names reflect a Pan-African identity and the Nigerian capital has served as the centre of many continental peacemaking initiatives.

It is, however, the phenomenon of Nollywood that has attracted the most recent positive international attention for the country. Nollywood produces over 2 000 films a year, which is more than Hollywood, but less than Bollywood, making it the world’s second-largest film industry. It employs about 1 million people, including production and distribution, making it the second-largest employer in Nigeria with annual sales estimated at $300 million (about R3.6 billion). The production of Nollywood movies started in 1992. They have since spread like wildfire throughout African societies in which themes of superstition and born-again Christianity are very much part of daily life.

Many of the films are widely watched across the continent and its Diaspora in the Caribbean, Europe, and North America. Nollywood has also massively increased the role and visibility of women in African cinema. These movies deal with relevant contemporary issues of proselytising, polygamy and prostitution; military brass hats and mysterious ritual murders; drugs and dodgy politicians; gangsters and godfathers; Aids and adultery. They hold up a mirror to society which may be uncomfortable for corrupt, corpulent elites. Nollywood may in fact be the first authentic African cinema that has wide appeal across the African continent and its Diaspora.

The industry has inspired film production in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and South Africa. In Tanzania, local griots provide simultaneous interpretation to audiences in Kiswahili. Congolese dubbers do the same in Kinshasa. Even in Togo, interpretations are provided by local pastors in Ewe. The films have influenced the dress of Kenyan politicians; Congolese tailors, pastors, and architecture; and the accents of South African students. But there have also been complaints of Nollywood harming local film production in the Congo, Ghana and Tanzania.

While Nigeria’s soft power has recently been most evident in the area of film, South Africa’s corporate expansion into the rest of Africa has been the most marked cultural phenomena of the post-apartheid era. South African firms have established interests in mining, banking, retail, communications, arms and insurance, often with the active support of host governments. South African companies have operated Cameroon’s national railroad and Tanzania’s national electricity company and managed the airports of at least seven African countries.

Local resentment has sometimes swelled at South African companies, amid accusations of mercantilist behaviour in countries like Kenya, Tanzania and Nigeria. There have been criticisms of what have sometimes been seen as efforts to destroy infant industries and export apartheid labour practices. These, however, should be set against such positive benefits as the creation of jobs and improvements in infrastructure and services in these countries. The presence of South African fast food companies such as Debonairs Pizza and Steers and supermarket chains such as Shoprite, are ubiquitous across the rest of Africa.

South Africa also has many underutilised resources of soft power. The country’s satellite TV service provider, DStv, could be used more effectively to expose Africans further to South Africa, while simultaneously improving South Africans’ knowledge about the rest of the continent. South African soaps such as Isidingo and Generations are ravenously consumed across Africa. Many of Africa’s academics and students can be found at top South African universities. These are rich resources of soft power that South Africa can use to create a Pan-African “brains trust” that can contribute to knowledge production and policy debates about Africa, as well as a South African population more accepting of their African identity. In other areas, South Africa has the potential to power Africa’s development: its mobile giants MTN and Vodacom could connect the entire continent with their mobile phone network, while South African technology and capital, if applied in a developmental manner, could help build the infrastructure that Africa badly needs for its industrial take-off.

Although Nigeria’s film industry and South Africa’s corporate sector have sometimes been accused of destroying local industries; cultural assimilation and access to authentic movies, as well as the availability of more diverse consumer goods and technology, have accompanied this cultural hegemony.

Professor Adebajo is the director of the Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation at the University of Johannesburg