Rock stars and anti-poverty activists Bono and Bob Geldof teamed up to guest-edit Canada's Globe and Mail for a day, with their edition of the newspaper on Monday examining the world through the lens of Africa and its rising economic importance.
Geldof stopped in to chat with CBC News about their guest editorship, the potential the World Cup brings and the day he'll stop talking about Africa.
Q: Africa is massive and complex, with many challenges. What do you want Canadians to take away from your guest editorship?
A: The main thing is, you touched upon it, [Africa is] such a massive issue. It seems to be one issue and it's quite correct to focus on the issue of poverty. But that's rapidly changing. When you say it's one issue, yes, the issue of poverty is a singular condition, but the African continent is not a singular entity — it's 53 countries. And we tend to think of Africa as some sort of undifferentiated whole, so when there's a revolution in Togo — which is a tiny, tiny country the size of Toronto — we don't invest in Mozambique, which is 3,000 miles away and vast.
The big secret story that Canada really needs to get its head around is that despite all of the agony that we see, the big secret is this rumbling, coming giant.
What the Globe and Mail is trying to tell you today — not Bono and Bob Geldof, but really the intellectuals, the academics, the artists, the economists of the world, including Africa — is, "Look at the figures, look at the size, look at the basic shape of what's occurring." One continent. A billion people — extremely young, rapidly urbanizing. No infrastructure, hence, an opportunity. Massive amounts of telephony and interconnectedness. This is kicking off.
Wake up Canada, you're a resource economy. They can outbid you, they can out-resource you any time of the day of the week. You need to negotiate with Africa in exactly the same way as the Chinese do. It is high politics, this. It's high economics. We ain't coming with our droopy eyes and begging bowl this time. We're saying you must understand this century. It begins at the Canadian G8 and G20, where Canada is tasked with leading the collective world.
Q: The 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing took place amid a wave of rising interest in China in general and turned the world's focus to both the country's achievements and problems. What will the World Cup do for South Africa?
A: If you take China, there are huge arguments there about oppressive authoritarian regimes, human rights abuses. But we're blinded by the glare of their success and the fact that they seem to operate completely different from us and are so hugely successful. Our businessmen beg to be a part of this story.
So you take a huge glittery event like the World Cup and, in our psychologies, we sort of don't think it's in the old Africa we've been thinking of. "It's the World Cup and it's in Africa. Mega! Let's go!" Suddenly, more people from the United States have bought tickets to the World Cup than any other nation, and they're not a particularly big soccer nation. So they're not thinking corruption, conflict, horrors, famines. They're thinking: "World Cup, let's go!"
Our businessmen will be beat a path to Africa's door, just like we do culturally and for sport. And suddenly we obviate all those old images — which are true, which are accurate, but there's a newer story. That new story will make those old images obsolete because trade, sport, culture get rid of poverty.
Q: That "new story" of Africa isn't one that the Western media has typically explored.
A: It's the fastest urbanizing continent on the planet. There's a massive rush out in the countryside. To bore you, the figure is that 62 per cent of the countryside is rural. That will exactly reverse itself in 20 years.
Lagos [Nigeria] is one of the mega cities of the planet today. Kigali [Rwanda] will be. Cairo certainly is. They are growing massively and they cannot contain them and so the conditions are terrible. But they're urban conditions. When we see urban conditions, we kind of understand them: we see shit in the street, we see no water. But in our own history, we understand Dickensian cities. Out of that stew will come massive human endeavours and entrepreneurialism and growth. Also, there is opportunity. They need sewage, they need power … they need consumer goods.
Q: Do you foresee a time when you will no longer talk about Africa and poverty?
A: Yes! I long for the day. Clearly, as we say here, we don't talk for Africa. We speak about poverty. At the point where poverty is clearly on the decline, we're out. It bores me stupid. For your man [Bono], you know, he's a mega rock star. He's got his shit to do. He'd much sooner be creative and in the studio and doing that then, you know, feeling aggrieved by unnecessary poverty.
I know that sounds pious, but you see someone who is unnecessarily hurt and in pain. You kind of go: "This is a madness, a true madness." How do you allow the record to turn that individual's dynamic on? Well [Africans are] doing it by themselves, it turns out, and we'd better wake up to the story. At which point, we're out of there.
Q: How do you respond to criticism about being a "celebrity activist?"
A: It's not a job being a celebrity. It's your fault we're famous, you know.
Q: Well, facing that type of criticism after having spent decades as an activist?
A: I was interested in poverty long before I was a rock and roll person. When I was a kid, I was interested in two things — music and politics — from the age of 11. I was a bit geeky. Frankly, in Ireland, it was better for pulling girls than being a jock, I have to tell you. Probably, you know, shagging had a lot to do with my interest in poverty: you met really clever girls and cute girls. You're 13 and suddenly it's going on and you've got a shared interest and there's no awkwardness.
My point is, long before you're famous, you do it. Your usefulness is amplified greatly by the platform that fame gives you. In Bono's case, it's a celebrity of a whole other order than mine. I'm accepted because I've just been doing this for so bloody long, you know. He's accepted because he's an intensely clever man who's decided to use this massive platform that he has. It's a tight balancing act to talk about this thing that bothers him.
The problem is, you're kind of the problem, really. Unfortunately, in our media-obsessed world, celebrity is a currency. And it gives you access. It's nothing to do with the politicizing of celebrity, it's to do with the celebritization of politics. And that's your fault. It's 24 hours rolling bollocks. There's nothing to talk about. News doesn't happen in neat packages, but you have to fill the day so you examine the fingernails of [Stephen] Harper's third wife or something. That's news. Spare me.
Q: Why do you keep at it?
A: We don't talk for Africa. Nor do we even talk for the north. We don't talk for white people or black people. I talk for me and if you don't want to listen, that's absolutely cool for me. If you don't want to agree with what I say, well, frankly you can go f--k yourself, I don't care.
Bono is a little more discreet than me, but he certainly does not talk for the north or for Africans. He talks for himself. You don't have to agree, you don't have to listen, but he will continue talking because he feels it's worthwhile.
We go on. I completely agree with you. We're a pain. We're a bore. Africans have to talk to for themselves.… [Some] Africans feel a bit chippy about it, but we've never stopped their intellectuals or middle class talking about it. But they've remained criminally silent and [the world has] remained criminally unaware. For a tiny portion of that divide, we create a bridge sometimes, sometimes and this [guest editorship] is one of the little pylons in that bridge.
Jessica Wong writes about the arts for CBC News.