PRESS BRIEFING BY UNICEF GOODWILL AMBASSADOR HARRY BELAFONTE
The global image of Africa -- rooted in the gross distortions originated in old “Tarzan” movies and perpetuated in fatalistic reporting by modern media -- sadly perpetuated the notion that pouring resources into Africa was a wasted investment, Harry Belafonte told correspondents this afternoon at a Headquarters press briefing. For most people, he said, the opportunity to visit Africa and to witness Africans eagerly working in the service of their own destiny was the only way to erase widely held misconceptions and age-old stereotypes that had stigmatized that continent as a place of misery and tragedy.
Mr. Belafonte, a United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) Goodwill Ambassador and legendary human rights activist and entertainer, said it was to examine first-hand South Africa’s efforts to counteract the devastating effects of the HIV/AIDS virus that had led him to visit that country last week.
He acknowledged that his own first “official” image of Africans had been influenced by old movies and the grave news coming out of South Africa. How people perceived Africa was an integral part of the challenge of finding solutions to many real problems facing the people that lived there. Indeed modern depictions of the continent had done little to improve broad misconceptions about the nature of its people, which in turn made it difficult to translate to the wider international community the sense of hope and achievement one felt after a visit there.
Mr. Belafonte said that while in South Africa he had met President Tobo Mbeki, as well as Nelson Mandela, and a host of health-care workers, doctors, artists and representatives of non-governmental organizations. He had been accompanied by his wife, and they had both been filled with a great sense of hope at the progress being made to combat HIV/AIDS. Indeed, South Africa was a country that was looking to secure its future on all fronts.
Mr. Belafonte said he had not only been inspired to do more himself, but to encourage others to “throw away their prejudices and narrow-minded agendas” and help, by participating in the remarkable vision that South Africa was attempting to achieve not only for itself but for the future of the entire continent. “I’m glad to have had this experience”, he added, “and wherever I go where people will listen, I will try to put a different spin on existing information about what is really happening in Africa”.
A correspondent wondered if Mr. Belafonte had put a “face of optimism” on the situation in South Africa? Statistics had shown that the country was indeed facing an uphill battle. Mr. Belafonte said that the “face of optimism” was not an invention, it was based on real experience. Indeed, the people of the country made one feel a great sense of optimism by the very nature of the efforts in the midst of such devastation. He said that he had the opportunity to visit with representatives of the youth group “loveLife”, one of the largest comprehensive national programmes for the prevention of HIV/AIDS.
“Never have I seen a greater illustration of the arc of spirit that a nation possesses”, he said, referring to work being done by that organization. He said
“loveLife” represented all races, economic strata, and gender, including the voices of the victims of the scourge. He added that the group had recently opened a youth centre in a rural area of the country. He was heartened because on his visit there, he discovered that it was not just a place to play basketball or other games, but a centre for the dissemination of information as well as a place to stimulate dialogue and thought.
Mr. Belafonte said South Africa had provided the international community with a huge opportunity to be morally responsible, and to declare its own humanity in the face of the struggle of the people there by rushing in with resources, research and technology.
* *** *