Brad, Angelina and the rise of ‘celebrity colonialism’

What gives two Hollywood actors the right to shut down an African nation so that they can have a special experience?

Over the past six weeks a Western security force has effectively taken over the small African nation of Namibia. A beach resort in Langstrand in Western Namibia has been sealed off with security cordons, and armed security personnel have been keeping both local residents and visiting foreigners at bay. A no-fly zone has been enforced over part of the country. The Westerners have also demanded that the Namibian government severely restrict the movement of journalists into and out of Namibia. The government agreed and, in a move described by one human rights organisation as ‘heavy-handed and brutal’, banned certain reporters from crossing its borders.

However, this Western security force is not a US or European army plundering Namibia’s natural resources or threatening to topple its government. It is the security entourage of one Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, the celebrity couple better known for living it up in LA than slumming it in Namibia. They reportedly wanted their first child to be born in Namibia because the country is ‘the cradle of human kind’ and it would be a ‘special’ experience (1). And it seems that no security measure is too stringent in the name of making Ms Jolie feel special. Welcome to the new celebrity colonialism.

Pitt and Jolie went to Namibia, a small and largely impoverished nation of 1.8 million, six weeks ago. Their daughter - Shiloh Nouvel - was born on Saturday night. As they awaited the birth they reportedly surrounded themselves with their own personal security detail and armed Namibian police. According to the Independent there was even a no-fly zone, enforced by the Namibian government, over the luxurious Burning Shore beach resort where Pitt and Jolie were holed up.

Apparently, the stars also got to dictate which reporters could and could not enter the country. According to one report, the Namibian government ‘bowed to pressure from the duo and granted them the right to ban foreign journalists from entering the country - a remarkable move for the government of any sovereign state’. The government is said to have granted this extraordinary veto to Brad and Angelina after the couple told ministers that they would be ‘forced to quit the country unless allegedly intrusive journalists and paparazzi were brought to heel’ (2). Namibian ministers hope that a trip by two Hollywood bigwigs to their shores will do wonders for their tourism industry, and thus have done everything they can to keep the couple happy (3).

The Pretoria News newspaper in South Africa reports that the ‘Namibian embassy in Pretoria has told journalists seeking visas for Namibia to [cover the birth] that they must have permission from Pitt and Jolie in writing before they will be allowed into the country’ (4). The Namibian Embassy in Washington confirmed to one American reporter that ‘the government has decided that it will issue visas to journalists to go to Namibia and cover Angelina and Brad if they have consent from the parties’ (5). Even the Prime Minister of Namibia, Nahas Angula, who surely has better things to do than worry about Brad and Angelina (or Brangelina, in tabloid-speak), has weighed into the debate. ‘The lady is expecting’, said Angula, shortly before Jolie gave birth. ‘You guys are harassing her…. Harassment is not allowed in Namibia.’ (6)

We’ve heard of stars like Michael Jackson and the late Princess Diana demanding that London stores such as Hamley’s and Harrod’s close their doors to the public so that they can browse toys and jewellery without having to breathe in the fumes of the shopping masses. But celebs effectively shutting down national borders so that they can give birth in peace? As the Washington Post said, ‘Surely Hollywood stars can’t dictate who enters and leaves a sovereign state’ (7). The Philadelphia Daily News wondered if, instead of posting thousands of National Guard troops along the US-Mexico border, as President George W Bush recently suggested, ‘we should just make illegal immigrants seek permission from Brad and Angelina’ (8).

Brangelina’s security posse, in cahoots with the Namibian government and police, created what it called a ‘paparazzi-free zone’ around the Burning Shore resort. Some journalists have complained of harassment, including of the physical variety. It is reported that, in the run-up to the birth, some foreign photographers were warned to leave Namibia or face arrest. Namibia’s National Society for Human Rights (NSHR) complained that ‘freedom of expression was being compromised’. The NSHR condemned the ‘heavy-handed and brutal tactics selectively directed against local and certain foreign journalists’ as the ‘security personnel of Pitt and Jolie and Namibia police members conducted unwarranted door-to-door searches of the homes of local residents for paparazzi and other media workers’ - actions which are only constitutionally ‘allowed on the grounds of inter alia national security, public safety or the economic wellbeing of the country’ (9).

Leon Jooste, Namibia’s tourism minister, explained to the UK Independent on Sunday how Brangelina’s diktats work: ‘What we’ve done is that every time they’ve got an appointment with a photographer or a journalist they contact me and tell me that “Mr So-and-So” is coming, and I contact the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, and they contact the Ministry of Home Affairs, and they inform the immigration department.’ (10) That is a quite extraordinary position for two actors to be in: to not only have the ear of Namibian officials but also their support in deciding who can and cannot enter the country. It is as if two absolute monarchs had arrived for a state visit to Namibia, rather than a couple of actors who haven’t even made a good film between them for at least five years.

Perhaps the most depressing thing is that Namibian officials reportedly feel they have to cater to the couple’s whims in order to keep them happy, in the hope that the international fuss created by Brad and Angelina’s visit will increase tourism to the country. Tourism minister Jooste said: ‘For a small country like ours, with a small economy and a growing tourism industry, this is of major marketing value for us.’ (11) In an online poll conducted by one of Namibia’s main music radio stations, 48 per cent agreed that Pitt and Jolie’s decision to have their baby in Namibia was a ‘major PR boost for the country’ (12). (More hearteningly, perhaps, 16 per cent of respondents said the couple’s decision to give birth there was ‘a chance for sycophantic losers to seek fulfillment….’)

Here we can see how celebrities, whether knowingly or not, can easily exploit the weaknesses of small impoverished states. If the reports are to be believed, then Brad and Angelina used their decision to stay in Namibia as leverage in getting what they wanted from the Namibian government. And they also seem to have got the government to do the kind of things that would be frowned upon in the West, such as ban journalists from entering the country and deporting others. The Namibian government feels itself reliant upon the patronage of two internationally known actors, while those actors take refuge in the Namibian government’s apparent willingness to enforce draconian measures. It is an unholy marriage of today’s celebrity-obsession with the backwater politics of a small African state.

It may sound shocking, but in truth Pitt and Jolie’s trip to Namibia is really only a more extreme version of today’s ‘celebrity colonialism’, where celebs go to Africa (or some other poor part of the world) to make themselves feel ‘special’. Africa in particular has become a stage for such moralistic poseurs - and their posing can have a detrimental impact on the people who live there. How many Western celebs or wildlife-watchers have visited Africa to ‘raise awareness’ about the problem of elephants, rhinos or gorillas being hunted by uncaring locals? This has led to international laws restricting Africans’ ability to hunt wildlife, and a situation where some ex-US soldiers have set up something called Green Knight Ltd, a company ‘aimed at mobilising environmentally-minded former soldiers to fight the threat to African wildlife’.

Elsewhere, Bob Geldof and Bono’s campaigning over African poverty has reduced the continent’s problems in many people’s minds to a simple morality tale, where all Africans need is some ‘focking money’. And it isn’t only celebs. Politicians, too, continually partake in moral posturing over Africa. UK chancellor Gordon Brown has tried to revamp his image by becoming ‘Mr Africa’, the man who cares. As Mick Hume has argued on spiked, ‘Campaigning over Africa…offers our isolated, unpopular leaders a rare opportunity to connect with popular goodwill’ (13). It also allows them to connect with celebs. Last month Brown held a media conference call with Angelina Jolie, then awaiting the birth of her child in Namibia, in which he praised her ‘good work’, which is known in ‘every continent…’ (14).

Of course Africa still has vast problems of under-development and poverty - but they will not be helped by the kind of campaigning or patronage offered by Brown, Bono, Bob or Brangelina. Rather, this brand of moral grandstanding suggests that Africa has become a kind of plaything for some campaigners, a backdrop against which they can make themselves feel good and ‘special’. They are searching for personal meaning and purpose in the deserts and grasslands of Africa, not kickstarting a meaningful debate about how to take Africa forward. Africans might be better off telling Brangelina and the rest to get lost, instead of indulging their wacky whims.

Visit Brendan O’Neill’s website here.

(1) Angelina Jolie’s Namibian connection, Hindustan Times, 13 April 2006

(2) To Brad and Angelina: a C-section (and the keys to a hysterical nation), Independent, 28 May 2006

(3) To Brad and Angelina: a C-section (and the keys to a hysterical nation), Independent, 28 May 2006

(4) Pitt, Jolie decide who gets Namibian visas, Pretoria News, 26 May 2006

(5) Hey, media types: no messing with the movie stars, Baltimore Sun, 29 May 2006

(6) Namibia gives Brangelina a unique, all-inclusive package, Canada.com, 30 May 2006

(7) To Brad and Angelina: a C-section (and the keys to a hysterical nation), Independent, 28 May 2006

(8) Pitt-Jolie pix by permission only, Philadelphia Daily News, 25 May 2006

(9) The Pitt Factor: Paparazzi Seek Brad Pitt, Not Angelina Jolie, National Ledger, 6 May 2006

(10) To Brad and Angelina: a C-section (and the keys to a hysterical nation), Independent, 28 May 2006

(11) To Brad and Angelina: a C-section (and the keys to a hysterical nation), Independent, 28 May 2006

(12) Pitt, Jolie - and Permission Slips, E-Online, 24 May 2006

(13) See Africa: a stage for political poseurs, by Mick Hume

(14) And finally the good news: Jolie loves Brown, Daily Telegraph, 27 April 2006

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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