Al Jazeera Journalism Review

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Members of the South African anti-migrant group, Operation Dudula, march on the Diakonia Council of Churches offices, demanding they cease assisting undocumented African immigrants, in Durban, South Africa, July 7, 2022 [Rogan Ward/Reuters]

‘Border jumpers’ and ‘spreaders of disease’ - how South African media incites racial hatred

The evidence that mass violence and vigilante killings have been sparked by the media in South Africa is undeniable


South Africa has a history of xenophobic violence, and its media - the digital mainline media in particular - has been implicated in the past for inciting anti-immigrant violence through inflammatory and sensational reporting. 

Towards the end of 2021 and the beginning of last year,  there was an increase in hate speech against foreign nationals of African origin by politicians and right wing groups. In a research paper for Al Jazeera Media Institute, we examined the role of the media, in particular the electronic version of the Daily Sun, in contributing to the increasingly xenophobic climate in South Africa. 

Although it is hard to assign specific blame to the media, there is nevertheless evidence that the media has played a key role in mis-characterising international migration, and this coverage may have also incited anti-immigrant violence that have rocked many parts of South Africa.

The majority of the articles published by the Daily Sun’s online edition from January 2021 to January 2022 were largely negative, inaccurate and biased, portraying immigrants as “criminals’’, “undesirable,’’ “outsiders’’ and “spreaders of diseases’’. Though there was no mention of derogatory terms like “Makwerekwere” (a term used to describe foreigners from other African countries) as was the case in previous studies, the Daily Sun’s online edition still uses problematic terms such as “undocumented immigrants’’, “outsiders’’, “foreigner’’, and “illegals’’, during the period under review. In most cases, immigrants from other African countries were stereotyped as “rapists”, “murderers”, “border jumpers”, “drug dealers”, “hijackers”, and “illegal miners”.


Guilty by association

The paper had a tendency to associate crime with immigrants, even in cases where immigrants were not the perpetrators of the said crime.   

To illustrate, an article written by Sifiso Jimta published on June 8, 2021 reflects exactly that. “Four illegal immigrants were arrested... Suspects were found to have committed crimes that included assault, possession of drugs, dealing in dagga, murder, fraud, house breaking, reckless and negligent driving, as well as possession of stolen property.’’


In another article that speaks to police crackdown on criminal activities, written by Kgomotso Medupe entitled, “Festive operations: COPS pounce on 600 suspects!”(November 15, 2021), the writer in a single sentence wrote: “69 undocumented immigrants were bust, as well as 29 people dealing in and having possession of drugs.”


There are many such problematic stories. In most cases, the articles were incomplete as the reporters did not specify who was responsible for the spate of killings and hijackings that had rocked the province. The people involved in these hijackings could have been local South Africans, but the writer chose not to mention them thereby putting immigrants in a very bad light by association. Since the only humans mentioned in these articles are immigrants, it follows therefore that, to an average reader it can be assumed that “illegal immigrants” were the ones responsible.

Even when quoting authorities such as the police, the writers uncritically accept stereotypes and generalisations such as “immigrants are criminals’’.

In his article, Kgomotso Medupe also cited District Commissioner Brigadier Samuel Thine, who said: “Fifty-seven people were nabbed for drinking in public, ..., contravention of immigration act, rape, assault, contravention of protection order, malicious damage to property, fraud, shoplifting, and theft of motor vehicles.” (November 15, 2021).  The statement by the police commissioner is vague and attempts to stereotype cross-border African immigrants as the perpetrators of the said offences, which the reporter did not challenge. By uncritically reproducing these statements from police authorities the writer intentionally or unintentionally perpetuates negative stereotypes that immigrants are criminals.


In an article written by Joshua Sebola entitled "Candlelight prayer for dumped women bodies!" (November 15, 2021), the writer reported: "The women had been reportedly missing between August and October and were found after a Zimbabwean (34) confessed after one of the victims’ cell phones led cops to him."


Although the killer is reportedly a Zimbabwean, we see no reason why his nationality should have been shown, except to portray Zimbabweans as murderers. In the same article, the writer further stereotyped Nigerians as shown by this sentence: “Three more bodies were found with his Nigerian counterpart.’’  

It only served to inflame hatred and stereotypes against all Zimbabweans and Nigerians residing in South African communities. It is not surprising that about two months after the publication of this story, hatred against immigrants in South Africa particularly in big cities such as Johannesburg worsened.

We find that when such stories pertain to South African criminals, their nationality is not shown. For example, in a story written by Sibonelo Zwane, published on November 9, 2021, entitled “PICS: Suspect linked to heist bust”, no nationality of the suspects is mentioned. 

In another story written by a Daily Sun Reporter, entitled “Armed Robbers sentenced!’’ on September 1, 2021, no nationality was given, even though judging from the Nguni names of the accused, it is highly likely that they were South Africans.

If this can be done for South African citizens involved in crime, we see no reason why this should not be done for foreign nationals involved in similar acts. If what motivates the reporter to label foreigners with their nationality and not local South Africans is not xenophobic, then what is it? 

We find the practice of naming the nationality of immigrants malicious with hidden intentions particularly when the nationality of local criminals is not shown. This is not to advocate for the inclusion of the nationality or ethnic origin of suspected perpetrators of crime when reporting but a plea for fairness and justice.
This possibly gave a burning urge for South Africans to get rid of illegal immigrants, who have been found guilty by the media and who are “not part of us.’’ Today, even in cases where the perpetrator is a local, the named foreigner is the first suspect.


Narratives not backed by data

When a member of operation Dudula was killed in Soweto last year, Nhlanhla Lux Dlamini, the leader of Soweto Parliament, a right-wing, xenophobic group, implicated Zimbabwe and Lesotho nationals, even without a police investigation. “We are here because of Kgotso Diale, a South African who was shot and killed by illegal foreigners.” (Newzroom Africa, 2022).

This narrative that foreign nationals are criminals which is packaged by the media and supported by xenophobic groups is however not backed by data.
Speaking during the Council of Mayors conference in East London last year police Minister Bheki Cele indicated that only 18,000 of the 544,000 inmates in South African prisons were immigrants.

We have seen a general tendency in most articles analysed to include a sentence or two on illegal immigrants largely in a negative light, in stories that totally had nothing to do with international migration as if by doing so the newspaper’s sales rise. The net effect of this is to arouse hatred against people from other African countries.
An article written by Thokozile Mnguni, entitled “Campaign launch held in rape capital’’ (November 26, 2021), makes it difficult to understand how immigrants ended up in the article that was purely about a campaign to mark the 16 Days of Activism against Gender Based Violence.  It can be argued that the writer intended to portray “foreign’’ nationals as rapists and women abusers.


In most cases international migration is portrayed as a threat. In an article written by Emily Mgidi entitled “Dabula sweeps through Soweto!” (June 17, 2021) the writer reinforces stereotypes and rarely challenges them on foreigners taking jobs of locals and women. “Diepkloof community leader Zandile Dabula (35) believed the youth had nothing because illegal foreigners had taken over.’’(June 17, 2021). The writer went on to say, ‘Some men claimed illegal foreigners took their women.’ Besides being unethical and dehumanising, the wording used is meant to incite and portray immigrants as a real threat.



A failure to challenge stereotypes

Another article published by Joseph Mokoaledi uses problematic terms to portray non-locals as a threat by exaggerating immigration population. “But the closure of borders between South Africa and Lesotho has seen an influx of illegal immigrants making their way into Mzansi at all costs.’’ (November 14, 2021). In the same article, the writer quoted a local: “Musa Nkosi (37) claimed starting a business was hard because illegal foreigners sold the same goods, but at cheaper prices.”

The writer ignored a golden opportunity to challenge these stereotypes. The narrative is meant to convincingly justify the eviction and attack on foreign nationals. The eviction, which was obviously illegal, organised by a controversial organisation, was sanitised and justified by the reporter.

In a statement, Stats South Africa (2021), warned the media about erroneous reporting of undocumented immigrants in South Africa following exaggerated media reports about the numbers of undocumented immigrants in South Africa.

“The census migration module asks the province and country of birth, date moved to South Africa, and the country of citizenship, and not the document status of an individual.”

Most of the articles written lacked immigrant voices even on issues that affect them. Yet xenophobic groups and locals enjoyed copious coverage. And where foreigners were cited, they were portrayed as victims and powerless. “Valodia Cande (25) said she had nowhere to go and did not have relatives in South Africa.” This was after Operation Dudula had ejected them from their residence, an unethical act, which the reporter did not question.

Furthermore, there was a deliberate attempt to portray non-locals as “spreaders of diseases”, particularly COVID-19, which has cost many lives in South Africa.

In an article written by Joseph Mokoaledi entitled “Illegal immigrants make a way into Mzansi!”, he wrote: “A resident told Daily Sun that they were vulnerable to infection as they always crossed paths with those immigrants, who were likely not tested.” (January 14, 2021). Such reporting could cultivate feelings of fear among locals and the urge to get rid of foreign nationals. It is not that these stories should not have been reported, but should have been covered in a truthful, accurate and ethical manner.


Though the media may not be the only culprit, it is possible this kind of coverage may have set the stage for anti-immigrant violence that rocked South Africa for the greater part of last year. 

It follows, therefore, that from January 2022, a sustained and prolonged attack against “foreign” truck drivers, vendors, tenants, low skilled workers, tuckshop owners and other categories of the immigrant community was launched, culminating in the murder and burning of Elvis Nyathi, a Zimbabwean immigrant - reportedly because he was undocumented.

Such xenophobic mobilisation which hit mostly the Gauteng Province was led by Operation Dudula and Soweto Parliament and supported by some politicians in the ruling African National Congress, ActionSA, Put South Africa First (PSAF), the Patriotic Alliance and other populist right-wing groups.


Populist approach driven by profit-making

The Daily Sun is a newspaper owned by Media 24, a company which is part of Naspers, a multinational group of media and e- commerce platforms. As an investment company, Naspers has its primary listing on the Euronext Amsterdam, and its secondary listing on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange.

Operating in a very competitive environment the paper’s business is profit making. Most of its Board of Directors have backgrounds in finance, business and corporate law. At the height of COVID 19, Naspers contributed R1.5 billion of emergency aid to support the South African government’s response to the pandemic. The paper, including its online edition, is seen to be very close to right wing groups and is sympathetic to their cause.

According to PAMS (2017) the paper, which developed a digital component in 2020 had a readership of just over 3.8 million people in and around the major cities of South Africa. Most of the reporters on international migration are freelance journalists and are local South Africans.

Even though, as an online newspaper, the Daily Sun is read across South Africa and beyond its borders, the “threat” of immigrants is highly felt in communities where such stories are covered.  Though xenophobia has been felt across South Africa’s nine provinces, it is not surprising that Gauteng tops the list of communities heavily hit by persistent xenophobic violence.

This is because the majority of the stories reported on international immigration analysed report issues in Gauteng and the adjacent Limpopo province. This explains why the province became the centre for xenophobic mobilisation by right wing groups and politicians. Positive portrayal of international migration was limited, inadequate and shrouded in negativity

Colonial and dehumanising terms describing international migration such as “undocumented immigrants”, “refugees”, “illegals”, and “outsiders’’ are popular vocabulary among locals and leaders of anti-immigrant groups.

Even though it can be argued that the community influences media content, without undermining indigenous knowledge production, it is highly unlikely that local South Africans influenced the media - the Daily Sun online newspaper in this case - to use these terms. If the community did not learn these terms from the media - including the Daily Sun’s online edition, then where did they learn them from? 

Danmore Chuma is a frontline human rights defender, radical educationist and journalist


The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera Journalism Review’s editorial stance



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