BY PHATHISANI MOYO
The South African media’s approach to recent attacks against foreigners living in Africa’s largest economy was resolutely against the government narrative.
The media boldly declared the violence on foreign nationals as xenophobic attacks. And that was hugely important.
Government has been at pains to shed off the ugly tag of being viewed as a xenophobic nation by insisting that the wave of attacks on foreign nationals and looting of their shops were criminal acts.
One of the leading South African daily papers, The Citizen reported that 1500 foreign nationals had to flee their homes.
It further said 800 people, mainly Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe had sought refuge at community halls in the Johannesburg township of Katlehong.
Even the United Nations expressed concern at the violence that killed at least 12 people – 10 South Africans and two foreign nationals.
The xenophobic attacks have been a story too big to ignore and competed for space alongside the scary femicide and infanticide statistics in a country losing the war against crime.
The outrage from countries like Nigeria, Rwanda, Zambia and Malawi was almost instant after learning of the lynch mobs baying for the blood of foreigners they accused of ‘’stealing their jobs’” and selling drugs to their children.
Days later the media demonstrated the international fallout through reports that Nigeria music superstars Tiwa Savage and Burnaboy had cancelled their shows in South Africa.
The Star, South Africa’s most influential daily, had also underlined the outrage from African countries when it revealed that Madagascar and Zambia had cancelled a football match against the national team, Bafana Bafana.
Both print and broadcast media outlets used opinion pieces, expert opinion and documentaries to shine the light on the root cause of attacks against migrants.
The almost unanimous conclusion was that poor border controls, unemployment and poor service delivery were the source of the anger that culminated in the misdirected attacks on the vulnerable.
Voices such as that of opposition leader Julius Malema were also been sufficiently covered despite them slamming the black on black violence.
Speaking live on Sabc, eNCA and Newsroom Afrika – the three main 24 hour news channels.
Malema opened up about xenophobia during a memorial for former Zimbabwe president Robert Mugabe who died on September 6.
In an almost hour along uninterrupted broadcast Malema said: ” You call them foreigners, what is the definition of a foreigner? Someone who comes into your country without papers and doesn’t have anything to show. That includes you, you are foreigners because you have nothing to show.”
Infact, a quick perusal of the headlines revealed that most media houses gave the xenophobia story prominence.
The print media, in particular, the Pretoria News must be commended for being the first to run with the story.
Although most of the attacks were in Johannesburg, the violence captured by the media actually started off in Pretoria and quickly spread to other areas.
The September 2 edition of the Pretoria News accurately warned of an unfolding war on foreigners in the capital just days after taxi driver Jabu Baloyi was killed during an apparent confrontation between taxi drivers and alleged drug lords in Pretoria.
The newspaper ran a front page story with pictures when Baloyi’s death sparked the violence and looting of shops in the capital.
The Pretoria News had done what the South African government condemned as reckless media coverage in the 2015 xenophobia attacks.
Back in 2015 then deputy Police minister Maggie Sotyu launched a scathing attack against South Africa media houses for the way they had covered that year’s attacks on foreign nationals.
She was quoted by the weekly City Press saying: “What the media is showing to the world about South Africa… 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.”
In simple terms, the minister wanted the media to either ignore this story or sugarcoat, which the Pretoria News and most media houses refused to do.
Persistent media coverage of the trail of destruction did not only yank the government into action but also pushed the police to come clean on the magnitude of the problem.
A day after the Pretoria News story, South African police spokesperson Colonel Lungelo Dlamini said besides the five deaths, 189 people had been arrested following violence in parts of Tshwane, Ekurhuleni, Johannesburg Central, Jeppe and Cleveland policing areas.
The wide media coverage was not only restricted to the print media but also carried out prominently on radio and television bulletins.
Power FM, a talkshow radio, flighted harrowing stories from victims of the violence.
A Bangladeshi shop owner in Alexandra township, Kamrul Hasan pleaded to return to his home country: “They burnt everything. All my money is gone. If the government pays for my plane ticket, I will go back to Bangladesh.”
Nigeria, whose citizens bore the brunt of the attacks following sweeping statements that its nationals in South Africa were drug dealers and brothel kingpins, took great exception to the stereotypes.
ENCA, a 24 hour television news channel, on September 5 reported that the owner of a Nigerian airline had offered to airlift Nigerians from South Africa following a spate of xenophobic attacks.
The news channel carried a Nigeria foreign ministry statement that partly read: Allen Onyema, the proprietor of Air Peace, had volunteered to send a plane to evacuate Nigerians who wished to return to Nigeria free of charge”.
The departure of the 500 Nigerians that have fled South Africa through this facility was also well covered by both print and broadcast media outlets.
The xenophobia story continues to be part of South African news diaries although the violence has subsided.
Fake news that finds expression through social media continues to be the biggest challenge to honest coverage of this highly emotive story.
Fake videos and pictures that are shared on platforms such as twitter and Facebook without being verified have diluted the hard work of media practitioners.
The downside of social media is a reality faced by the media industry throughout the world that is here to stay and the South Africa adapt to rise above peddlers of false news.
If there was ever a challenge to do so, this was it.
This article was first published by The Accent, a Media Alliance of Zimbabwe initiative