What the U.S. press got wrong about South Africa's xenophobic riots.

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
June 20 2008 5:10 PM

"Broke-on-Broke Violence"

What the U.S. press got wrong about South Africa's xenophobic riots.

Shacks burn in the outskirts of Johannesburg, South Africa. Click image to expand
Shacks burn in the outskirts of Johannesburg, South Africa

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."

Finally, we are told that President Mbeki is exacerbating the battle between foreigners and the South African poor. Even the most accurate and nuanced U.S. coverage, a New Yorker piece by Philip Gourevitch, focuses attention on Mbeki's failed economic policies and his complicit silence about his pal Robert Mugabe's reign of terror in neighboring Zimbabwe.

Mbeki's an easy target. In South Africa, he is widely regarded as a distant leader out of touch with the people, an elitist comfortable with elites. As Gourevitch mentions, Mbeki has been rendered a lame duck by the ANC—ousted as party leader in favor of Jacob Zuma, who is poised to claim the presidency next year. By pinning South Africa's recent failures on Mbeki, the press coverage downplays the role of Zuma and the ANC.

Despite having been presented as a minor figure in the coverage, Zuma's role has been hotly debated in South Africa, as has the "Zuma factor" in the riots. Reports have circulated of rioters singing Zuma's controversial trademark song, "Bring me my machine gun." Some of the shacks that were demolished were tagged with pro-Zuma graffiti, and Zuma's rallies have often taken on a decidedly ethnic character, with his supporters wearing "100% Zulu Boy" T-shirts. In his recent court appearances, where he was acquitted of rape and still faces trial for corruption, he has frequently referenced his Zulu background. His leadership of the ANC has brought up all sorts of anxieties about the party's past and future. Some in South Africa fear he will jeopardize the nonracial and nonethnic nationalism that the ANC was built upon. Others see his struggle bona fides and his "pro-poor" populism as taking the party back to its roots.

Zuma is not to blame for the attacks any more than Mbeki is, and both have condemned the violence. But for all his mass appeal within the party, Zuma's policies are much the same as Mbeki's on development and Zimbabwe. And ANC officials at the national, provincial, and local level have reiterated the message that the "flood" of "aliens" from other countries will be the ruin of development for the poor. If anything, Mbeki's fall illustrates that the machinery of political power in South Africa turns around the ANC as a party rather than the office of the president.

Ultimately, xenophobia goes beyond the hatred of foreigners, beyond the scarcity of resources, and beyond the identity of the current or future president. But nothing about xenophobia in South Africa is, as a Time headline claimed, "beyond racism." Rather, xenophobia is racism, wrought from the messy apartheid past and post-colonial present.

Focusing as it does on foreigners, the poor, and the president, the U.S. coverage rarely mentions the old colonial state apparatus that the ANC inhabits. This apparatus includes the police and bureaucrats, some of whom occupy the very same positions they held under apartheid.

The "elbow tests" used in the recent pogroms are instructive. The police used them for years. On the basis of such "tests," poor African migrants and refugees have been sent to the notorious Lindela repatriation center, a place of well-documented neglect and abuse, where suspected "aliens" await an uncertain fate. Wealthy foreigners from Europe and the United States, who routinely break the law by overstaying their visas, are not tested by police, nor are they put in Lindela.

"Elbow tests," say commentators in South Africa, recall apartheid-era "pencil tests" that apartheid officials used to decide a person's race—and hence his ability to vote, to live, and to work in certain places—in essence, his citizenship—by sticking a pencil in his hair. In its simplest form, if it stuck, he was black; if it didn't, he was white. Under apartheid, black South Africans were treated as foreigners, down to the notorious pass books and curfews in the cities.

The election of Nelson Mandela in 1994 meant that claims to citizenship based on race, birthplace, and ethnicity were forever changed. But as Philip Gourevitch noted in The New Yorker, the peoples' struggles continue.

TODAY IN SLATE

Frame Game

Hard Knocks

I was hit by a teacher in an East Texas public school. It taught me nothing.

Chief Justice John Roberts Says $1,000 Can’t Buy Influence in Congress. Looks Like He’s Wrong.

After This Merger, One Company Could Control One-Third of the Planet's Beer Sales

Hidden Messages in Corporate Logos

If You’re Outraged by the NFL, Follow This Satirical Blowhard on Twitter

Sports Nut

Giving Up on Goodell

How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.

How Can We Investigate Potential Dangers of Fracking Without Being Alarmist?

My Year as an Abortion Doula       

  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 15 2014 8:56 PM The Benghazi Whistleblower Who Might Have Revealed a Massive Scandal on his Poetry Blog
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 15 2014 7:27 PM Could IUDs Be the Next Great Weapon in the Battle Against Poverty?
  Life
Outward
Sept. 15 2014 4:38 PM What Is Straight Ice Cream?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 15 2014 3:31 PM My Year As an Abortion Doula
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Sept. 15 2014 11:38 AM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 4  A spoiler-filled discussion of "Listen."
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 15 2014 8:58 PM Lorde Does an Excellent Cover of Kanye West’s “Flashing Lights”
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 15 2014 4:49 PM Cheetah Robot Is Now Wireless and Gallivanting on MIT’s Campus
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 15 2014 11:00 AM The Comet and the Cosmic Beehive
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 15 2014 9:05 PM Giving Up on Goodell How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.