What the U.S. press got wrong about South Africa's xenophobic riots.
Since early May, we've heard about a beacon of African democracy gone berserk. The U.S. press coverage of xenophobic riots in South Africa told of victims gruesomely killed—beaten, slashed, doused in petrol and set alight—and untold thousands displaced. The stories described mobs of poor South Africans armed with sticks and machetes, shouting, "Kill the foreigner!" and President Thabo Mbeki leaving the violence unchecked for more than a week before eventually calling in the army, causing shootouts in the townships reminiscent of the bad old days of apartheid.
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.
In case the photographs of burning shacks hadn't already tipped you off, the rioters and their targets in these pogroms were overwhelmingly poor. The U.S. coverage tells us that much. Given South Africa's history of white racism and colonial privilege, the vast majority of residents of the poorest communities are also black. Comedian Chris Rock, who was touring the country at the time of the attacks, quipped, "It's not really black-on-black violence; it's broke-on-broke violence."
Still, by equating foreigners and victims, much of the U.S. coverage glosses over this race/class dynamic. Newsweek asked, "Can South Africa's Foreigner Killings Be Stopped?" Migrants from other regions and asylum-seeking refugees were certainly targets of the violence, but the South African Press Agency reported that one-third of the people killed—21 of 62—were South African citizens.
Rioters subjected many South Africans to so-called "elbow tests," in which a potential victim is asked to supply the Zulu word for elbow. People married to foreigners, those who speak a different language from their neighbors, or anyone with complexions deemed "too dark" were targeted, whether or not they were foreign. Rather than rooting out non-Zulus—it is unlikely that all who administered the tests are even themselves Zulu—the tests are about targeting those who carry a perceived taint of the outsider.
What's more, it is important to note that the wealthy of any race or nationality were not among the attacked or displaced. In South African cities—in all cities—the rich work, live, and play in separate areas from the poor. Even when the attackers left their home turf, they didn't head to the nearest wealthy Johannesburg suburb nor to the international airport adjacent to the epicenter of the attacks. Busloads of foreign tourists, ubiquitous in many townships, were unharmed.
But South Africa's poor aren't counted among the victims—they are cast as the perpetrators, the embodiment of xenophobia.
The New York Times declared, "Those left behind by the nation's post-apartheid economy commonly blame those left even further behind, the powerless making scapegoats of the defenseless." While some poor South Africans—like some politicians and elites—are hostile to poor foreigners, the attackers cannot be construed as representative of "the powerless." Many township- and shack-dwellers across the country rushed to protect foreign migrants, organizing community watch groups and anti-xenophobic protests. At times, they worked with police (for whom there is no love lost).
Timemagazine wrote of a Darwinian battle over scarce resources that turned the South African poor against foreigners, arguing, "[T]he poor in the developing world are determined not to diminish the little they have by sharing it with foreign migrants." But "the poor," along with churches and the Red Cross, have been at the forefront of the refugee-relief effort in South Africa. Making life viable in townships and shack settlements requires sharing resources like land, space, water, and food.
It is true, as Time suggests, that post-apartheid economic policies—which so pleased Washington and Wall Street—have put undue strain on South Africa's poorest, as have global price hikes in fuel and food. Making matters worse, the ruling ANC and other political parties—backed by state bureaucrats, police, and private security forces—have sought to "clean up" the cities by forcibly removing the poor to the far urban periphery, away from jobs, shops, and schools, especially as South Africa prepares to host the 2010 soccer World Cup.
But xenophobia is not an inevitable consequence of poverty. As the grass-roots shack-dwellers movement Abahlali baseMjondolo declared in a widely circulated condemnation of the attacks, "[T]he anger of the poor can go in many directions."
Kerry Chance is a PhD candidate in the anthropology department at the University of Chicago.
Photograph of burning shacks by Gianluigi Guercia/AFP/Getty Images.