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EXPLORING XENOPHOBIA IN SOUTH AFRICA: THE CAUSE,

COVERAGE AND CONTROVERSY

by

Ms. J. Geldenhuys janneke.geldenhuys@gmail.com


Ms. L.S. de Wet luandewet@gmail.com

Submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree


BCom (Hons) in Communication Management

in the

FACULTY OF ECONOMIC AND MANAGEMENT SCIENCES

at the

UNIVERSITY OF PRETORIA
SOUTH AFRICA

Subject:

International Communication (INK 780)

2008
TABLE OF CONTENTS

LIST OF TABLES................................................................................................................II
TABLE 1: PERCENTAGE OF ARTICLES WITH NEGATIVE REFERENCES TO
IMMIGRANTS AND MIGRATION………11................................................................II
1 INTRODUCTION.............................................................................................................1
ACCORDING TO CRUSH AND PENDELTON (2007:64), THE DEMOCRATISATION OF
SOUTH AFRICA IN 1994 RESULTED IN MAJOR TRANSFORMATION IN ONE OF
THE MOST HISTORICALLY DIVIDED COUNTRIES IN THE WORLD. SINCE
THEN, SOUTH AFRICA HAS BEEN SEEN AS A COUNTRY CHARACTERISED
BY ITS “RAINBOW NATION” WHICH RESTED ON UNITY AND HARMONY.
HOWEVER, AS THE NEWLY ELECTED GOVERNMENT CONTINUED ON ITS
AGGRESSIVE NATION-BUILDING ENDEAVOURS, XENOPHOBIC ATTITUDES
BECAME INCREASINGLY COMMON AND WIDESPREAD. FROM 1996,
VIOLENT ATTACKS OF IMMIGRANTS BECAME FREQUENT AND EVER-MORE
BRUTAL. THE SOUTH AFRICAN GOVERNMENT HAS BEEN ADEQUATELY
WARNED AND ADVISED ABOUT THE INCREASING NEGATIVE ATTITUDES
TOWARDS IMMIGRANTS, WITH NUMEROUS REPORTS AND
INVESTIGATIONS REACHING THE SAME CONCLUSION: THAT SOUTH
AFRICANS EXPRESS THE HARSHEST SENTIMENTS ABOUT IMMIGRANTS
AND VIEW ALL IMMIGRANTS AS CRIMINALS AND NEGATIVE INFLUENCERS
ON THE SOUTH AFRICAN ECONOMY....................................................................1
2 XENOPHOBIA.................................................................................................................2
2.1 THE RISE OF XENOPHOBIA IN SOUTH AFRICA...........................................................2
2.2 CAUSES OF XENOPHOBIA IN SOUTH AFRICA............................................................3
2.3 THE IMPACT OF XENOPHOBIA .....................................................................................5

3 GOVERNMENT...............................................................................................................5
4 DEALING WITH XENOPHOBIA THROUGH CRISIS COMMUNICATION.....................6
7 REFERENCES...........................................................................................................15

i
LIST OF TABLES

Table 1: Percentage of articles with negative references to immigrants and migration………11

ii
1 INTRODUCTION

According to Crush and Pendelton (2007:64), the democratisation of South Africa in 1994
resulted in major transformation in one of the most historically divided countries in the world.
Since then, South Africa has been seen as a country characterised by its “rainbow nation”
which rested on unity and harmony. However, as the newly elected government continued on
its aggressive nation-building endeavours, xenophobic attitudes became increasingly
common and widespread. From 1996, violent attacks of immigrants became frequent and
ever-more brutal. The South African Government has been adequately warned and advised
about the increasing negative attitudes towards immigrants, with numerous reports and
investigations reaching the same conclusion: that South Africans express the harshest
sentiments about immigrants and view all immigrants as criminals and negative influencers on
the South African economy.

The brutal and violent xenophobic attacks that started on 11 May and resulted in over 40
deaths and thousands of people displaced, has shattered the both the image and reputation
of South Africa. However, the Governments inability and incompetence to effectively deal
with the situation and stop the violence has arguably damaged the country’s reputation more
than the actual attacks. The President, Mr. Thabo Mbeki, only publicly addressed the
situation two weeks after the attacks began and only added fuel to the criticism levelled at
Government. The attacks and the subsequent trauma and fear of foreigners will leave a scar
on the country’s history.

Although xenophobia is certainly not indigenous to South Africa, with countries such as
Germany, Belgium, China and the United Kingdom having experienced – and dealt with –
xenophobic attitudes and behaviour. However, these countries addressed the problem up
front and engaged in effective communication to resolve the underlying issues. The South
African Government must take cognisance of how other countries have dealt with similar
problems, in order to learn and adopt the same best practises.

1
2 XENOPHOBIA

The most universally accepted definition of xenophobia refers to “a deep dislike of foreigners”
(McDonald & Jacobs, 2005:295). The term has been derived from the Greek words xenos,
meaning "foreigner," "stranger," and phobos, meaning "fear” (Ominde, 2007). Xenophobia is
a widespread and worldwide phenomenon and certainly not indigenous to any particular part
of the world. As Mogekwu (2005:7) states, it is as much a reality in industrialised countries
such as Germany, Belgium, the UK and China as in the developing countries. Furthermore,
xenophobic behaviour has been part of the historical context of many African countries such
as Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe and is most often expressed through physical and
verbal abuse (Morapedi, 2007:229).

Some authors contend that xenophobia is not really a fear of foreigners, but that the issue
must be contextualised to include that the phenomenon is both a persistent attitude and an
active practice. For the purposes of this paper, the broader definition as offered by McDonald
and Jacobs (2005:296) will be accepted as it encompasses various elements: Xenophobia is
the deep dislike of non-nationals based on fear of the unknown or anything perceived as
different and involves attitudes, prejudices and behaviours that reject, exclude, and often vilify
persons on the perceptions that those persons are outsiders or foreign to the community,
society or national identity”.
.

2.1 THE RISE OF XENOPHOBIA IN SOUTH AFRICA

Although the recent violent attacks that has brought the issue of xenophobia into public focus
and attention, xenophobic attitudes and behaviours have been present for quite some time.
According to Crush (2001:11), claims of increasingly antagonistic attitudes toward foreign
citizens first began to surface in the 1990’s. In 1996, non-South African traders were
assaulted in Johannesburg and in 1998, three foreign citizens were killed by an angry mob of
unemployed South-Africans (Crush, 2001:11). Anti-foreign sentiments continued to increase
and were effectively demonstrated by a field investigation by Human Rights Watch in 1998.

2
This survey concluded that: “South Africa has become increasingly xenophobic in recent
years, with a large percentage of South Africans perceiving foreigners – especially, almost
exclusively black foreigners – as a direct threat to their future economic well-being and as
responsible for the troubling rise in violent crime in South Africa” (Crush, 2001:12).

As can be quite readily seen, xenophobia is not a new problem and evidently one that is likely
to be easily solved. As recently as May 2007, the APRM Country Review Report warned the
South-African Government that the legacy of apartheid is still impacting on South African’s
view and treatment of foreign citizens and that “xenophobia against other Africans is of
serious concern and should be nipped in the bud” (African Peer Review Mechanism,
2007:27). However, government did little to address either xenophobia or the underlying
beliefs and assumptions causing these xenophobic attitudes and subsequent attacks.

2.2 CAUSES OF XENOPHOBIA IN SOUTH AFRICA

The reason for this widespread anti-immigrant perceptions and attitudes can be partly
attributed to the ‘unfulfilled’ promises made before the 1994 elections. The ever-increasing
unemployment and crime figures have led to South Africans believing that foreigners are
‘stealing’ their jobs and their wives.

According to McKenzie (2008) research company Freshly Ground Insights recently


interviewed 550 people across the country to measure the degree of xenophobia. “The
overwhelming message from the research is that immigrants from African countries are not
welcome by South African ‘main market’ consumers, The main reason why South Africans
feel this way is because they attribute crime and unemployment in South Africa to foreign
immigrants from other African countries,” research executive Louise Wheeler told News24.

According to McKenzie (2008), Tseliso Thipanyane, CEO of the Human Rights Commission
(HRC) says the causes of xenophobia are many and complex, with competition for limited
resources in terms of jobs and housing; criminality; attitudes; South Africa’s own development

3
problems, and our violent past being the main contributors. Many are also citing the violent
legacy left by the apartheid years are also a contributing factor. McKenzie (2008) says the
fact that South Africans still resort to violence and intimidation as the primary means of
resolving their issues reflects how problems were dealt with in the past and demonstrates the
fact that much work needs to be done to educate South Africans in other, more constructive
and peaceful conflict resolution strategies.

Relating the competing for scarce resources and the increasingly tough economic climate of
South Africa with the rise in xenophobia, Shindondola (2001:16) cites the scapegoat theory,
which deals with foreigners being held accountable for society’s ills and problems
Shindondola (2001:16) further argues that the occurrence of “scapegoating” is especially
prevalent in transitional societies such as current South Africa. Crush and Pendleton
(2007:76) corroborates Shindondola’s argument, as their research has also found strong
correlations between perceptions of relative national and personal economic circumstances
and attitudes towards foreigners. They point out that in times of slow economic growth or
economic hardship, society requires scapegoats – and it is often the foreigners that take the
blame.

Blaming foreigners for negatively influencing the South African economy and society is in
direct contrast of reality (McKenzie, 2008). He cites the argument by the South African
Institute of Race Relations (SAIRR) deputy CEO Frans Cronje, who pointed out that the
estimated three to five million foreigners have a positive economic impact on the country –
these immigrants are all consumers, have created a massive market by starting their own
spaza shops - which are most likely supplied by South Africans – and increase the success of
businesses by contributing their knowledge of consumer tastes and market conditions in other
markets (Crush, 2001:9). Furthermore, the net economic benefit to poor communities is far
outweighs the perceived losses of jobs and removing foreigners from informal communities
would have a devastating effect, as they contribute to the economy in a vital way (McKenzie,
2008).

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2.3 THE IMPACT OF XENOPHOBIA

The xenophobic attacks started on May 11 2008 in Alexandria. The following days saw the
violence spread rapidly to townships such as Atterigeville and Diepsloot. The Eastern Cape,
Kwa-Zulu Natal and the North West also experienced violent outbreaks. The attacks also
degenerated into random looting by criminals and opportunists and some shops and small
businesses were burnt down or demolished completely. According to McKenzie (2008), one
event in particular grabbed the hearts of South Africans. On May 18th in Reiger Park, a gang
attacked a Mozambican man and beat him up. They took a blanket which was covered with
petrol, threw it over the man and set him alight. Bystanders burst out laughing as the man
screamed in agony. As a result of his substantial injuries, the man later died in hospital. Only
on 17 May was the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) called in to support the
police.

On Thursday 22 May, The Star newspaper reported grim statistics: 42 dead, 15,000 displaced
and 400 arrests in 11 days of violence. On Saturday May 24, The Star reported that after 13
days of rioting, 43 people had died, 23,000 were displaced, it was estimated that the cost of
dealing with the crisis was R100 million and 531 people had been arrested. By Monday, May
26, The Star reported that there were now 25,000 refugees. The figures continued to climb
with the Mail & Guardian reporting that since the xenophobic attacks started on 11 May, there
were 37,500 foreign nationals displaced, 19,453 from Gauteng province, 14,144 from the
Western Cape province and 1,700 from Kwa-Zulu Natal province. Across South Africa, 34
refugee shelters were set up and since the start of the attacks approximately 37,000
foreigners fled South Africa.

3 GOVERNMENT

Maintaining positive stakeholder perceptions of the organisation’s legitimacy in the face of


unpopular decisions and public crises is a concern for both government departments and the
private sector (Rice & Bartlett, 2006:274). However, according to Bosch (2008) the South

5
African government has been criticised for its sluggish reaction to the violence, the worst
since apartheid ended 14 years ago. This ineptitude and incompetence on the part of
government will only serve to further damage the public perceptions about government ability
to deal effectively with public crises. Government received scathing criticisms from various
sources, from among other SAIRR, the HRC and multiple news providers. One such criticism
from News24 highlights not just the xenophobic attacks, but also centres on the fact that
government failed to admit that there was in fact a problem, or blaming the events on non-
consequential factors: “The horrifying xenophobic violence sweeping across vast tracts of our
black communities has been as shocking as the government’s useless, predictable and false
theory of a so-called “third-force” behind it all… In every calamitous instance the answer is
always one and one only: government ineptitude and incompetence is the reason things are
in such a sorry state” (Qwelane, 2008).

SAIRR has been particularly brutal in their comments about the poor and ineffective
governance, equating the violent outbreaks directly to policy failures on the part of
government (Cronje, 2008). They argue that the attacks could have been prevented if
government had actually paid attention to the reports generated by the APRM, which warned
that xenophobic attitudes were increasing. Cronje (2008) furthermore states that government,
although democratically elected by the people of the country, failed to listen to the many
lamentations of its people and this failure created a “perfect storm of lawlessness, poverty
and unfulfilled expectations, which has now erupted into violence”.

4 DEALING WITH XENOPHOBIA THROUGH CRISIS COMMUNICATION

The recent horrific xenophobic attacks by South African township residents on foreigners from
Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Somalia, Malawi and Nigeria has, once again, brought the lack of
crisis leadership, crisis planning and management capabilities in the Government of South
Africa into sharp focus. The attacks were of such magnitude that both the Western Province
and Gauteng were forced to declare a provincial state of disaster as per section 41 of the
South African Disaster Management Act.

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Dealing with crisis situations from a government perspective should not be different from how
businesses respond to crises. In fact, government will go a long way to adopt the very same
‘best practises’ that is prescribed to corporations by crisis consultants and experts. The South
African Government furthermore need to come to the realisation that they have a reputation to
protect - not just the personal reputations of government leaders, but also a governmental
reputation of, at the very minimum, being able to respond to domestic disasters or crises that
affect the people they claim to serve. Furthermore, a positive reputation will serve to improve
South-Africa’s image overseas, which will more than likely result in increased foreign
investment, increased business confidence and improved international relations.

In the business management literature dealing with crisis situations, most authors view crisis
management as more than a mere stop-start activity. Crisis management inevitably also
deals with planning and preparation for crisis situations, focusing on developing crisis
management plans that can be executed when crisis situations arise. It must be noted at this
juncture that the South African Government refer to the planning initiatives and programmes
undertaken by both local and provincial government as Disaster Management.

4.1 DISASTER PLANNING BY GOVERNMENT

In investigating the degree of preparation for potential crises by the South African
Government, it was found that as a result of the Disaster Management Act No 57of 2002
being implemented by Government, a National Disaster Management Centre was
established, as well as Disaster Management Regulations, a National Disaster Management
Advisory Forum and a National Disaster Management Framework (Department Provincial and
Local Government, Annual Report 2005/2006:51). In terms of the Disaster Management
programme, all national and provincial organs of state submitted individual disaster
management plans in November 2005. Thus, it can be concluded that government is in fact
aware of the need to prepare for potential disasters as they have put in place early warning
systems to monitor potential issues, as well as vulnerability profile maps based on national
statistics data (Department Provincial and Local Government, Annual Report 2005/2006:51).

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Although it is clear that government has made considerable efforts in assigning more
importance to disaster management (the budget for Disaster Management for 2005/2006 was
more than was allocated to other programmes such as the Anti Corruption Programme),
government still struggled to impress in their handling of the xenophobia attacks. The attacks
seemed to catch government by surprise, as they only responded in a meaningful and
coherent manner two weeks after the first attacks. By implication, this would mean that the
mechanisms and measures implemented by government are not contributing to the effective
management of actual disasters.

4.2 PRINCIPLES OF CRISIS COMMUNICATION

Consequently, it is proposed that if the South African Government took cognisance of and
really understood the value of communication in crisis situations, government would be better
equipped to deal with these situations. Some basic guidelines of crisis communication
include:

4.2.1 Take control of the situation

Many commentators feel that Pres. Thabo Mbeki was too complacent in responding to the
attacks, as his speech on the xenophobic attacks only came two weeks after the first attacks.
According to Bloom (2008), it is the role of any CEO to take immediate control of the situation.
Not taking immediate action and communicating with all interested parties creates the
impression that the organisation – in this case the Government – is not actively addressing
the situation and permits the media to take control. As the CEO of South Africa, President
Mbeki should have made an immediate announcement about the unfolding events.

Furthermore, all CEO’s usually have their trusted advisors and experts; President Mbeki
should be no different. According to Bloom (2008), a crisis meeting should have been
convened, including the Ministers for Safety and Security, National Intelligence, Home Affairs,
Defence and Social Services. It is also not just enough to decide on a plan; all stakeholders

8
should be kept ‘in the loop’ as to what Government is doing to address the problems through
constant communication.

4.2.2 Designate a single spokesperson

Especially in times of crisis, speaking with one, clear and consistent voice is paramount to
maintaining credibility and trusts. To bolster trust, President Mbeki should have taken prime
responsibility of communicating about the events. Furthermore, according to Gaschen
(2003:12), the spokesperson should know his or her role in the broader context of the crisis
and not try to overreach. Communicating consistently and on a daily basis as to the recent
developments and what measures are being taken is important

According to Lloyd (2008) the President should have engaged the nation through TV
interviews, one-on-one sessions with key print editors and radio broadcasts. This would have
contributed toward positive public perception that someone is taking charge and addressing
the issues actively.

4.2.3 Be open and honest

A vital element in any crisis is being able to accept – and publicly articulate - that you are in a
crisis situation. However, the lack of Government to publicly accept that there was indeed a
crisis situation resulted in a plethora of criticisms levelled at Government of being
incompetent, caring and indecisive. This only served to compound the uncertainty and fear of
those affected. The failure of President Mbeki to openly communicate with the public does
not reflect well on him as the country’s leaders, as leaders are expected to take decisive
action – even in times of crises.

4.2.4 Provide a constant flow of information to a variety of stakeholders

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In any crisis situation, it is imperative to address the different needs of the different
stakeholder group, as each group will have different concerns. Bloom (2008) argues that
President Mbeki should have showed compassion to those directly affected by the violence
by visiting the townships, police stations and community halls where most refugees fled.
Another stakeholder group is the ambassadors representing the immigrants. These
ambassadors should have been engaged in crisis talks to illicit support and possible
recommendations as to what can be done to alleviate the situation. Both President Mbeki
and the South African ambassadors to the African countries affected by the attacks could
have invested in media briefing sessions to address the situation.
As businesses also form part of society and thus also have a vested interest in the situation,
government should also look to ally with corporations and engender positive support and
response from the corporate sector.

5 THE IMPACT OF THE MEDIA

According to Rice and Bartlett (2006:276), media play a significant role in both framing issues
of public concern and influencing and tracking public opinion about government policies that
remains central to the governmental process.

Dealing with xenophobia and other forms of discrimination is a serious challenge for the
media of mass communication. The media is one tool commonly used to address public level
issues because of its ability to reach a wide group of stakeholders (Rice & Bartlett, 2006:274).
The obvious and logical strategy to deal with the situation is to be involved in continuous
cross-cultural communication in their content with the goal being to contribute to the
elimination of ignorance. Since ignorance and the attendant discrimination result principally
from information deficiency, the mass media are placed in a strategic position to deal with the
situation (Mogekwu, 2004:243).

It is now widely acknowledged that realistic perspectives on the political process in the
contemporary advanced democracies cannot ignore the mass media (Helms, 2008:26).
Photo’s of foreigners being burnt, had shattered the dream of a South Africa showing the

10
world how people should live in harmony with each other. Furthermore, research conducted
by McDonald and Jacobs, 2005:304) shows that the mass media generally serves to fan the
flames of negative foreign sentiment, often referring negatively to immigrants (see Table 1).

Table 1: Percentage of articles with negative references to immigrants and migration

Source: McDonald and Jacobs (2005:304)

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However, news providers argue that it is unfair to say that they perpetuate the existence of
xenophobic attitudes, as they are only reflecting public opinion (McDonald & Jacobs,
2005:305).

New media play an important role in the modern propaganda of right-wing groups (Chroust,
2000:108). Going beyond the first two dimensions of the printed media and radio and
television, the World Wide Web enables a thicker structure of political networks through a
system of electronic links (Chroust, 2000:109). Scholars tracking political developments in
various established democracies concur that politics has become ‘mediated’, and that the
news media have attained the status of genuinely political actors or institutions (Helms,
2008:26).

Unfortunately, the U.S. coverage provides an incomplete and distorted picture by relying on
old clichés about African politics. The coverage shows only suffering victims, violent
perpetrators, and a failed African head of state. By slotting foreigners, the South African poor,
and the president into these roles and pitting them against each other, U.S. readers and
viewers never really find out what xenophobia means in South Africa, except for the most
obvious and familiar definition: the hatred of foreigners.

All media, but especially news services through newspapers and television, play a vital role in
“creating and propagating images about foreigners (McDonald & Jacobs, 2005:70). Thus, the
mass media are placed in a central and strategic role to deal with xenophobia and its
associated problems (Mogekwu, 2004:12). Mogekwu (2004:12) also argues that individuals
cannot act or behave outside the scope of their thoughts and thus and thoughts depend on
what information a person possesses: thus, individuals’ behaviour is in large part determined
by the quality of the information they receive. It is in this role, of ensuring that the information
selected and disseminated by the various news agencies serves to expand thought and
provide individuals with information to counteract their negative stereotypes that news
agencies have a responsible and vital role to play. Because media has such a profound

12
impact on public opinion, the news media should shoulder their responsibility and focus on
factual reporting that does not maintain myths or encourage negative stereotypes.

This profound effect that media have on perpetuating xenophobic attitudes has been well
documented in several countries. Mogekwu (2004:12) cites the cases in Europe and
America, where in both countries, the media have been found to promote anti-Muslim and
anti-Arab prejudices respectively. Similarly, in South Africa, the Freedom of Expression (FXI)
organisation has reported that specifically news headlines were to blame for encouraging the
misinformation and misinterpretation that leads to heightened anti-foreign sentiment
(Mogekwu, 2004:12). In one such incident, the media headline read: “Cops nail illegal aliens,
recover luxury vehicles” – creating the impression that the ‘illegal aliens’ were in possession
of the vehicles. At closer inspection however, the article reported that individuals were
arrested for being illegal immigrants and, in a totally separate operation, recovered stolen
vehicles from four South African men.

6 CONCLUSION

The violent xenophobic attacks have wrecked havoc in the communities within South Africa.
Not only are those affected fearful of being reintegrated into their former communities, they
are distrusting and sceptical about promises made to them of returning to their normal lives.
At this present stage, reintegration of foreigners should not be considered, as the underlying
factors that were the catalysts for the attacks have not yet been adequately addressed. In
combating xenophobia, the whole of South Africa needs to realise that it is a collective
responsibility that will require inputs from all parties.

Government has a dual responsibility towards its citizens. Firstly, government should
demonstrate the necessary decisive leadership to deal emphatically with the crisis situation.
Government should therefore employ the principles of crisis communication and also put in
place the necessary follow-up procedures. Secondly, it is government’s responsibility to
address the underlying socio-economic circumstances that were cited as being the primary

13
reason for the violence and brutality. It is paramount that government does not continue to
turn a blind eye towards the evidence of continued anti-foreign attitudes and behaviour. As
was shown above, the media should also play its part responsibly, looking at all times to
report the facts but also to delve deeper to uncover and explore the ‘other side of the coin’.

All organisations and institutions within society should reclaim the unity and harmony that was
once said to be characteristic of South Africa, by banding together to educate themselves and
their fellow citizens. It should be remembered that no campaign can on its own bring about
the necessary change in attitudes and behaviour; rather campaigns from the business sector,
government and NGO’s must all reinforce and strengthen one another and communicate a
consistent message of acceptance. Those in government, civil society and the media should
strive to effectively turn back the tide of xenophobia. The public must be educated that
foreigners make a valuable and necessary contribution to the country’s overall growth and
economic prosperity. Education is the first step towards eliminating xenophobia, by creating a
social culture of greater acceptance and tolerance.

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