The reports about the past few days’ xenophobic violence in Johannesburg directed against foreigners, mostly Zimbabweans, are shocking. While incidents like these are clad in the discourse of racism and ethnocentrism, they should in the first place be understood as directly related to material factors. No doubt some might want to construe these clashes as ‘black on black violence’ in the same manner as the state-sponsored violence between the ANC and Inkatha in the apartheid era was infamously described. Already the South African columnist David Bullard, fired from his job at the Sunday Times for his racist commentary, is gloating. But these clashes are firstly linked to the dire material circumstances in which the majority of South Africans live, almost 14 years into a democracy. In an environment where the competition for scarce resources is relentless, the poor are turning on themselves. Of course this also has to do with immigration policy (as suggested by The Guardian) and pres Thabo Mbeki’s refusal to acknowledge the crisis in Zimbabwe, which prevented him from declaring the Zimbabweans fleeing to South Africa as refugees and ask for UNHCR assistance; it also has to do with crime and an under-resourced police force ill-equipped to control the violence; it has to do with a general erosion of human dignity after decades of oppression.
The media’s reporting of these events has as usual been largely event-driven, with little attempt yet to understand them as part of larger socio-economic circumstances and policies (although there have been some good analyses, for instance here and here). While front pages such as the one posted here (the Cape Town-based newspaper Cape Times, owned by the Independent group) raise familiar questions regarding the ethics of the representation of violent acts, there is also an imperative for the media to analyse these events holistically, as part of the precarious living conditions of the poor in the country, one of the most unequal in the world, and the political response these conditions demand. Journalism should be at its best when it defends human dignity and respect for life. This is such a time.