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Report blames media for xenophobic panic in South Africa

A series of sensational newspaper headlines and the dissemination of false information on social media contributed to the deadly outbreak of xenophobia-related violence last year, a new government-commissioned report says. KHADIJA PATEL rounds up.

“The failure of media houses to contextualise the violent occurrences sent shock waves across the country and around the world,” said the government-commissioned report released on Tuesday that investigated the causes and consequences of the xenophobic attacks in KwaZulu-Natal province.

Seven people were killed and about 5,000 others displaced in a wave of violence against foreign nationals between March and May 2015.

“The spreading of misinformation on social media platforms contributed to widespread panic at the height of the attacks in April 2015,” it said.

A probe headed by Judge Navi Pillay, former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, took place over seven months and also found shortcomings by law enforcement agencies contributed to tensions between locals and foreigners.

Preventive action missing

China Ngubane, a Durban-based activist and researcher who worked closely with victims of the xenophobic violence last year, said effective preventive action by officials and law enforcement agencies is still missing.

“Even up to now there is a lot of fear among African immigrants given that on the streets there are continuous messages flowing indicating that xenophobia is still something that is alive,” Ngubane said.

The report found much of underlying tensions between foreigners and locals had roots in the xenophobia violence of 2008, when 62 people including South Africans were killed. Because these tensions had not been resolved, the report concluded “there is strong possibility of recurrence”.

“The underlying socioeconomic challenges laid the foundation for increased competition for employment, basic social services, and business opportunities within and between various communities,” the report said.

The trigger for the attacks was blamed in part on comments made by King Goodwill Zwelethini. Speaking at a rally in Pongola, northern Kwazulu-Natal, in late March, the monarch is reported to have said that foreigners were changing the nature of South African society.

Zwelithini was quoted as saying, “We urge all foreigners to pack their bags and leave.”

Between March and May, the violence spread to other parts of the province and to Johannesburg. Businesses were looted, homes trashed, and thousands of foreigners were forced to flee and seek refuge in makeshift camps.

Most of those affected were from Malawi, Zimbabwe, Somalia and the DR Congo.

Ndabezinhle Sibiya, a spokesman for KZN premier’s office, told Al Jazeera it was clear from the report that “nothing whatsoever links his majesty to the xenophobic attacks”.

“You guys in the media manufactured stories. Social media and some of the mainstream media houses manufactured stories,” Sibiya said.

Intimidation and violence

There have been a series of reports of sporadic attacks against foreign nationals across the country in 2016.

In Kwazulu-Natal, unconfirmed reports of violence continue to circulate as several foreign nationals told Al Jazeera about daily travails of intimidation and violence in the townships.

Sibiya, however, dismissed the allegations.

“Sporadic reports? You’re going to create another panic. That’s exactly what Judge Pillay was saying that you guys in the media, you just write up something, you create panic, you create anxiety. There’s just nothing like that,” said Sibiya.

Ngubane said social media was particularly culpable for exacerbating tensions through the circulation of false reports and fabricated images at the height of the violence last year.

“So somehow social media had contributed to the perpetuation of xenophobic sentiment and the flaring of xenophobic violence,” he said.

Additional reporting by Aaisha Dadi Patel and Dana da Silva

This article was published in partnership with Al Jazeera

Featured image by Qiniso Mbili
1 Comment
  1. WAKOLI says

    The violence will continue not because there is a lack of means to establish a system that will help to abolish the violence. The law enforcement and the government and its officials are not willing to do so but it is somehow their inner aim to let violence to continue in order to clandestinely make use of xenophobia to get rid of African migrants in SA, it is believed that failing to do so will keep the number of foreigners to growing. which is Yes, it is not bad to stop that, but it should be done in an open away and fair way . Every part of the government departments are blaming the media to have contributed to spread the news on violence and xenophobic attacks on foreigners, yet no one as yet blamed the government reporters for releasing a false number of people who were killed during the April xenophobic eruption. they say seven persons were killed Four foreign Nationals and three South Africans. which is totally wrong, yes three south Africans were mistakenly during the attacks, but report of four foreigners killed should be specified where and where were killed this number or that, so that we believe the report. in Chatworth more that ten foreigners were killed, some were stoned to death and others were burnt, in Umlazi more that Six Foreigners were killed some were put to fire in their contena, in phoenix, KwaMASHU and MAYVILL foreigners were killed. Many other dead were being discovered dead by the police but were not reported… from April last year till today today many Ethiopians are being killed in townships, many are killed in their tuckshops but none of the perpetrators is brought to justice! in April during the looting and the violent attacks on Foreigners, foreigners were advised to take a shelter in a police station then to the camp. THE IDEA TO KILL AND LOOT FOREIGNERS SHOPS IS STILL WORKABLE FROM ONE COMMINITY TO AN OTHER BECAUSE NOTHING IS BEING DONE TO BRING THE PERPETRATORS JUSTICE. but we are told forgive and forget, while the looting and killing is continuing. The system is discriminating foreigners and from 2008 and April 2015 till today there is no law that stands to rebuke the perpetrators of Xenophobic attacks! instead Operations was enforced by government to dehumanize Africans Migrants, while people were still displaced the government introduced OPERATION FIELA which means to sweep… sweeping who? Foreign Nationals, they didn’t stop there, they amended new policies on refugees and migrations. these policies are not welcoming Africans Migrants or reintegrating foreigners who already living here, instead it is pushing them away…the closure of Refugee Reception Offices and now the moving of these Receptions to Boarders areas is not only to control the incoming movement of people but also to make it difficult to refugees and asylum seekers who are already living here. a kinda xenophobic abuse. the government did not allow the constitutions and rights that were amended to protect refugees and asylum seekers to be spread to the grass-root official and people but acting hypocrites to the outside world, many rights are not practiced to refugees but there is always a change on policy, seeing that refugees can still fend for themselves… something which kept many south Africans to believe that foreigners are here illegal so they deserve all sort of violence and today nothing is being done to ensure that no one attacks foreigners National… beside the preaching of ” we condemn violence, we condemn xenophobia and so forth of such… but foreigners are still being killed… their future in limbo.

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