Compelling tales of afrophobia and media selective blindness

By Anton Harber

A South African woman living in a building called Fatties Mansions in Hillbrow, Johannesburg, with her Burundian boyfriend and three-month-old daughter was woken one night in May by the police and soldiers of Operation Fiela kicking down their front door.

Fiela means “to sweep away, to clean up, to remove dirt” in the Sotho language. This was a joint operation launched by the police, municipal police and the military in response to a wave of xenophobic violence which had taken seven lives. It should be seen, said Gwede Mantashe, secretary-general of the ruling African National Congress, as “an attempt to rid the country of illegal and undocumented immigrants”. In other words, it was aimed at the victims rather than the perpetrators of the violence that had gripped the city a week earlier.

Documents filed in court over the next few weeks said, “They asked for the boyfriend’s papers and he was slapped when he showed his passport. She tried to show them her South African identification but they refused to look at it, she says. They were sent downstairs with the baby, but with no blankets, nappies or food, and taken to the police station where she says people had to sit on the floor without food or access to toilets. Eventually, she managed to show an officer her ID book and was released around 12.30am.”

Little of this was reported in the mainstream media, and only cursorily covered was the fact that lawyers had to return to court twice to get access to those detained in Operation Fiela. In its first few days, the security forces took journalists with them to make a public show of their clenched-fist response to the violence. Pictures that emerged showed the humiliation and degradation of scores of people – the documented and the undocumented, local and foreign. Front-page images of many being made to lie down half-naked in the corridors of their buildings as police searched their belongings were reminiscent of security force action at the height of apartheid. Media response, though, was muted, in line with public sentiment, which is strongly anti-crime and anti-immigrant.

Operation Fiela began as a short-term response to the violence, but quickly morphed into a prolonged crime clean-up which targeted both locals and migrants. Policemen on the ground were less circumspect in their description of what they were doing than the politicians. Before a raid in Bellville, Cape Town, a police spokesperson said: “The focus for today will be on illicit goods, whether it is firearms, illicit cigarettes, counterfeit products, drugs …” There was little mention of immigrants. The reporter said they then “tore” through the area. An officer was quoted saying: “We are here to protect the businesses, to ensure that business is conducted in a way that is free, so that … the economy can grow.”

Stephen Faulkner of the SA Municipal Workers Union said at a media conference called to decry the operation: “With the chronically misnamed Operation Fiela, we have witnessed a terrible assault on what had become a symbol of refuge and asylum and a symbol of safety for those who most needed it … migrant communities are being compared to rubbish at the same time as our government at all levels is declaring itself in favour of tackling xenophobia.”

There was little media questioning about how a short-term operation became open-ended, how it came to widen its scope to take in a range of crime, how it failed to discriminate between the undocumented and the documented and how it packaged this so that it gave the impression that crime and migrants were part of the same problems.

Hard-pressed media as idle myth-makers

“The media is lazy,” said Prof Loren Landau of the African Centre for Migration and Society at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, “and it perpetuates many myths about migrants. If the government says there are 30,000 cases a year of child trafficking then it is reported without questioning, and the figure is out there – even though the government’s own figures don’t support this. If a minister says that migrants are stealing jobs, then that is how the problem is framed: people are naturally upset because they are unemployed and blame foreigners for taking the jobs. The myth is perpetuated, even if the evidence is that migrants create more jobs than they take.”

Laziness is not the only explanation. Newsrooms are depleted, having seen large-scale retrenchments in recent years, and newspapers are unable to do the kind of day-to-day reporting they did a few years ago. There are few specialist reporters and certainly none who have expertise in the migration question, even though it has been a major political and economic issue.

Another factor that counts when the media are under financial pressure: immigrants, particularly the undocumented, seldom feature in the audience surveys which increasingly hold sway over editorial strategy as traditional media grapples with diminishing audiences. This means that migrants are largely invisible both as consumers and subjects of the media.

One would have thought that bringing soldiers onto the streets, which had not happened since apartheid, would be questioned in the media, but strong anti-crime sentiment meant the operation had public support, and media attention quickly faded. Reports of whole townships being surrounded and of house-to-house searches, with hundreds of people caught up in them, were only rumours recounted by activists, because the media was not there.

This stood in strong contrast to the coverage just a week earlier of the xenophobic violence. Professor Landau and Rashon Dadoo, who runs the Consortium for Refugees and Migrants in South Africa (Cormsa), agree that coverage of the violence that drove many people out of townships and into temporary refugee camps was generally quite good and mostly sympathetic. It also gave more context and explanation than during the previous such outbreak in 2008, when the media were caught completely off guard and struggled to understand what was happening.

A company called ROi Africa, which monitors media, said the level of reporting and social media conversation during the week of violence was “incredible”. Tracking it against other major trending stories, xenophobia monopolised 66 per cent of the news media. On social media, this was on the hashtags #NoToXenophobia and #NoToAfrophobia. The most popular theme – in about 40 per cent of the discussion – was calls for the government to act.

This is the pattern of media treatment of migrants: when there is a wave of xenophobic violence it is on the front page and coverage is full and detailed. It is often accompanied by campaigns for assistance for victims and coverage of those who volunteer to assist or who protest the violence. For the rest of the time, migrants largely appear only in reports of crime.

The overwhelming majority of mentions of non-South African origins are when criminals are identified. While South African media has developed a sensitivity towards identifying the race of criminals and has largely broken with the apartheid tradition of describing “black” criminals and “white” victims, there is less hesitation in labelling criminals as foreigners, particularly “Nigerians”. Because there is strong anti-crime sentiment, this has major implications for the way foreigners are seen.

In addition, there is seldom any differentiation between refugees and other migrants, or between those who are documented and those who are not. They are simply “foreigners” or “aliens”, even if they have citizenship or permanent residence. Interestingly, this applies mainly to black Africans. White middle-class immigrants are quickly integrated into the society and seldom labelled as foreigners.

Justice denied for an invisible community

Johannesburg is a city transformed in the last two decades by immigration from the rest of Africa since the end of apartheid, turning a city of segregation into a richly cosmopolitan and multicultural one. It is not clear exactly how many migrants there are, but significant sectors of the city and the informal settlements which surround it have strong populations of recently-arrived immigrants.

There are some quarters where more French is spoken than English and there are areas known as Little Addis and Little Kinshasa, alongside the older Chinatown. The official census figure is 2.2 million immigrants across the country, but The New York Times recently stated as fact that it was 5 million, a figure now often quoted. Africa Check, a fact-checking website based in Johannesburg, showed that there was no research basis for it and, while the census figure may reflect some undercounting, it is unlikely to have been so great.

This population is visible around Johannesburg – in fact, it is impossible to miss. It is evident in boardrooms and lecture theatres, on the streets and online, where there is a significant presence of bloggers writing about being what is routinely – and derogatorily – called “makwerakwera”, a black immigrant from elsewhere in Africa.

But this significant segment of city life is largely absent from mainstream media, other than in crime reports or where there are outbreaks of violence. Read the newspapers or watch television and these areas are near-invisible. Part of this, according to Dadoo, is because – like migrants of uncertain status in many countries – they often choose to keep a low profile and avoid media attention. But they are vulnerable to abuse and maltreatment and there is little interest until it blows up into a major conflagration, threatening the peace of middle-class suburbia.

What coverage there is often feeds the view that migrants bear responsibility for joblessness and crime, two of the country’s most severe problems. Alfani Yoyo from Cormsa said of Operation Fiela and its media coverage: “It feeds the perception that migrants are to be blamed for the social ills of this country … It cements the attitude of ‘us’ and ‘them’.”

Operation Fiela was presented as a clampdown on illegal immigration and the crime associated with it, but the majority of those arrested were locals. Police reported that by the end of June, 1,650 foreign nationals and 2,264 South African citizens were arrested for crime including drug possession, murder, rape and robbery.

“They would say that they had arrested hundreds of illegal immigrants and found large amounts of drugs, as if the two were conflated. Many of those arrested were just caught without their papers and many of those involved in drugs were South Africans as well as foreigners, but an impression was created of a successful clampdown on illegal activities by illegal immigrants,” according to Dadoo.

It was photographs of those two outbreaks that defined them, raised public horror and galvanised official reaction. And the debate around those photographs, overlaid with the concerns and issues of a young democracy with a troubled racial past, tell us a great deal about how the country grapples with the issues around migrants.

During the anti-immigrant violence of 2008, it was a photo of a man being burnt alive that brought attention to the horrors of what was happening. Ernesto Nhamuave, 35, was one of the many Mozambicans living quietly in South Africa and largely invisible in the media until his neighbours set upon him and the image of him being burnt alive was sent around the world. The use of that picture on many local front pages brought accusations that the media, still largely white-owned, treated black bodies, particularly dead ones, with less circumspection than white bodies.

Such pictures are seldom used as prominently if the person in them is white, it was argued. This sparked furious debate, overlaid with the accusation that the media is insufficiently transformed from its apartheid days. But it was the media investigation into the burning man and his identity that changed the coverage from that of “others” being attacked, to someone with a face, family and history. It brought horrified citizens out on the street to demonstrate their repugnance.

Attention faded, though, until the fresh outburst of anti-immigrant violence in 2015. And again it was a photograph – of three thugs knifing a foreigner to death in Alexandra township – that brought it home and galvanised the government into action. The picture was splashed over the front page of The Sunday Times, the country’s biggest newspaper. “Kill thy neighbour. Alex attack brings home SA’s shame,” was the headline.

Journalists had been sent to Alexandra to cover attacks against migrants when they came on this scene. Emmanuel Sithole, a street trader from neighbouring Mozambique, had asked these three for some money he was owed for cigarettes he had sold them earlier in the day. They turned on him and stabbed him repeatedly in front of a crowd, including photographer James Oatway.

The journalists took Mr Sithole to a local clinic, where the doctor was absent because he was from the Congo, and had stayed away presumably because he feared for his own safety. By the time they got Sithole to a hospital, he had bled to death.

An immigrant and three township thugs, characters normally absent from our media, were suddenly thrust onto the front page of a leading family newspaper. Within days, all their names, ages and backgrounds were known and for a brief moment this segment of South African life was in the public eye. Some of the best coverage came from The Sunday Times delving into the dead man’s background, friends and family, as well as those of his killers.

The political response: pressure on media

President Jacob Zuma leapt quickly into the furore, saying that the picture “made us look bad”, fuelling a common government accusation that an overwhelmingly anti-government media focused on the negative. Speaking at a Freedom Day rally, marking the anniversary of SA’s first democratic election in 1994, Zuma said: “When we listen to media who sometimes exaggerate, we might think we have a problem, but it’s not true.”

He described the murder as “callous” but pointed out that Sithole was an illegal immigrant who had adopted a local name to disguise his origins. The implication was that Sithole deserved different treatment because he was one of many undocumented migrants forced to hide their identities.

Deputy Police Minister Maggie Sotyu said the problem was misinterpreted and exaggerated by the media, calling on them to show a patriotic bias: “There are worse things happening in other countries but you will never see them in the media. The media is part of the community, so please, it must be biased when it comes to South Africa,” she reportedly said, adding that she now understood why there was a call for greater media regulation.

This is part of a broader and consistent government-driven narrative: a news media insufficiently transformed since apartheid needs to adopt a developmental agenda. This would mean playing the critical watchdog less and being more positive about the country and its transition, including being less obsessed with issues such as crime and giving more coverage to the country’s achievements since the advent of democracy. This is accompanied by calls for – and often threats of – greater regulation, including a statutory tribunal.

A parliamentary committee that launched an investigation into this year’s violence against foreigners took issue with the media’s depiction of it as xenophobic violence. It was an ordinary act of thuggery, the kind of crime that happened all too often in areas like Alex, they argued. It was abhorrent, but it was wrong to suggest Sithole was targeted because he was foreign.

“South Africans are not xenophobic,” said the committee chair, Ruth Bhengu, citing the number of legal foreigners who lived in the country without problems. Bhengu argued that “xenophobia means having extreme hatred, which we don’t have as South Africans.

“We must move away from this xenophobic word because it brings us to the wars, and makes it seem like South Africans hate foreigners,” she said. She was reflecting a general discomfort in government at accusations that other Africans were not welcome, especially since many now in government had been given refuge elsewhere on the continent during the fight against apartheid.

Underlying it, though, was another uncomfortable reality. It was not that South Africans targeted foreigners, but that they targeted certain of them, notably those from Africa who were setting themselves up as township traders and allegedly taking business from locals. Some commentators argued that we should talk about Afrophobia, rather than xenophobia, though even this was not quite accurate, as some of the targets were not from Africa – such as Pakistani and Bangladeshi shopkeepers – and not all Africans were targets.

What was clear was that the primary target were those seen to be taking trade and jobs in a troubled economy. Locals most hit by high levels of unemployment were targeting the most visible and vulnerable of those that were easy to blame for taking those jobs – the foreigners, both documented and undocumented. One only has to spend some time on the streets of Johannesburg to pick up that xenophobia is rife and any attempt to disguise or rename it feels like denial.

During these outbreaks of violence media coverage is extensive and detailed, along with coverage of anti-xenophobic activities and calls for assistance for the affected. It is very different, though, the rest of the time.

When the Somali community drew attention to a wave of killings of their compatriots, particularly in the Eastern Cape in 2011, one local newspaper known for its investigative bite, The Daily Dispatch, took up the story. It reported over 100 Somalis murdered in their region alone, and told of 400 graves of murdered Somalis in the cities of East London and Port Elizabeth. Some were put down to intra-Somali rivalries, including fighting over business territory. The national newspapers barely reported it and the story slipped away.

As one activist, who asked not to be named, told me: “When there is an outbreak of violence, it seems to come from nowhere. But that is because the incidents that are happening all the time are not reported or noticed until they burst into something big and can’t be ignored. But when we try and get coverage of some quite serious incidents then we can’t interest the media because they are not directly affecting them or their target readers.

“There is no sustained coverage. It is hard to get space in the newspaper, and they send junior reporters to cover these things. There are series issues of diversity here, but we cover the issue in Europe more than here.” To cover it in Europe is both easier and cheaper, as the material is bought from agencies or international media. To cover it locally is politically challenging because of the issues in our media and expensive, at a time of newsroom cutbacks.

Main photo: “Didier camp refugees” by Tawedzerwa Zhou licensed under CC BY 2.0



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