Right now, race relations in South Africa are in crisis, as more than 1,500 people have fled their homes amid a recent surge of deadly violence targeting migrants from other African nations such as Nigeria, Ghana, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Zambia, and Mozambique.
Gangs armed with sticks and machetes attacked foreign-owned businesses, mainly in Johannesburg, with the unemployed blacks blaming these migrants for taking their jobs.
Politicians, economists, and other experts from the SADC region have expressed different opinions on the matter.
While South African politicians have responded by either denying that xenophobia is the motivation behind these attacks or suggesting that xenophobic anger be redirected toward South African whites, commentators from other countries in the region have blamed the South African government for failing to curb the attacks, labeling them xenophobic.
But do journalists in the region and beyond think about these race attacks?
South African-based Independent Media and Communications Consultant, Fiona Musana-Marwa, says journalists in South Africa have a critical role, now more than ever, to understand and unpack the systemic issues surrounding the country’s educational, economic and political crises.
“Blaming the rest of the continent for South Africa’s multi-layered societal issues is simply a bandage. As media, they have a big role in asking the right questions, holding their leaders to account and also beginning to tell the good stories of Africa, of the immigrants who have made a difference in SA. We need to hear all sides of the story on multiple platforms and we look to media to take lead on telling the African story while also investigating the underlying causes of tensions. Let’s move beyond this facade of “us”& ‘them’. "
Zimbabwean freelance journalist, Michelle Chifamba, agrees with Fiona in that journalists can help to curb “xenophobic” attacks in South Africa by writing more about the topic.
She says, “As journalists, our core business is to write about the truth and informing the public. So, on the issue of xenophobic attacks in South Africa, it affects the continent as a whole, and journalists have the mandate to carry out thorough in-depth analysis, and investigation that would trace the origins and what triggers these attacks.”
Michelle likens the race attacks in South Africa to the unresolved Gukurahundi massacres in Zimbabwe that took place in the mid-1980s.
“The wounds have become generational, as there has not been enough closure with regards to what happened and the government has been failing to come up with a proper strategy that compensates and heals the affected people,” she says.
According to Michelle, currently some journalists are tracing back the causes of the Gukurahundi and the past information that they are investigating is forming part of the healing process for some, and the government is being held to task to come up with effective policies that deal with the issues.
“I think the same ought to be done on the attacks in South Africa,” she says.
“Journalists are relevant to curb these attacks because when they investigate the origins of xenophobic attacks, they would also interrogate critical stakeholders on what needs to be done to address these problems. While also talking to the affected people, it will be a process for those who have been affected to find closure.”
Nigeria journalist, Owoseye Ayodamola, attributes the race attacks in South Africa to, among other things, insecurity, lack of employment, corruption among the political class, and low educational status among the locals.
She says, “The politicians in South Africa are still suffering from neo-colonialism/ apartheid mentality, corruption, lack of exposure and constructive developmental policies, a leadership gap between the politicians and the citizens, and ‘xenophobia’ is an integral part of South Africa’s politics, which is the only way the politicians can justify their failure and blame it on other African countries.”
According to Owoseye, engaging in solution journalism can help in educating the masses and changing the wrong perspective.
Zambian journalist, Juliet Makwama is of the view that journalists are trendsetters through what they write.
“Even with xenophobic attacks in on foreign nationals in South Africa, the media across Africa has the potential to place a positive impact on the minds of perpetrators while emphasizing that it is not every South African who hates foreigners in their land. The media can also highlight how the world is a global village and that no country can survive on its own,” Juliet says.
On the other hand, South African journalist, Lucas Ledwaba, is of the view that the bottom line is that the South African government has no plan to deal with the migration issue
“The migrants at the lower end of the economic ladder are not integrated into South African society which makes them easy targets for thugs,”
According to Lucas, it is, unfortunately, there are migrant communities involved in drug and human trafficking which also stirs emotions.
Lucas says, “The jobs issue - employers are keeping South African citizens out of certain jobs and prefer migrants, who are perceived easy to exploit, have no papers, they cheap labour and can't be unionized or fight poor labour practices in the courts. If the government ensured everyone, regardless of origin, was paid legal minimum wage this wouldn't be a problem.”
Ethnic and racial hatreds are creating huge problems in South Africa, and, indeed, journalists think a multi-sectoral approach is required to deal with the vice.