Graphic Images

Case Study: Xenophobic violence and press coverage in South Africa in 2008

If a picture really is worth a thousand words, what does it mean to use images to illustrate an already complex story?  Do the media have a responsibility to use images more cautiously than words?  And what happens when images of violence are eye-opening to some, but disturbing to many? These are just a handful of the questions media must tackle when dealing with images of a sensitive nature.

Throughout 2007, attacks on foreigners in South Africa by other African nations made headlines around the world. In May 2008, this violence again escalated to such an extent that it was termed "May Mayhem."

South Africa has a significant refugee problem. Since the mid 1900s, people from war-torn neighboring countries such as Mozambique, Zimbabwe and countries further north (Somalia and the Congo) came to South Africa in search of a better life. This migration bred hatred and led to the wrath and jealousy of locals who attacked them and looted their businesses. These migrants were given the name of Amakwerekwere, which literally means foreigner. However, the way it is implied and the tone in which it is used at times (Kwerekwere) loosely translates into scavengers.

At the height of the xenophobic violence, American stand-up comedian Chris Rock performed a routine in South Africa. He referred to these events as “Broke-on-Broke Violence.” Some people may actually find this humor in bad taste, but between the lines/laughs his words give a different yet serious perspective.

On May 19, 2008, one man was filmed and photographed at the very moment he was dying in flames.  For days, he was only known as the ‘Burning Man.’ He was laid to rest in Mozambique, and his murderers are still at large. Variations of the “Burning Man” image were viewed across the world – not only in the print media, but also as video footage on news stations and the Internet. The still picture is in a sense not as horrific as viewing the live scene, though some people may disagree.

Xenophobia was further exacerbated by the local tabloids – especially The Daily Sun, with headlines such as “Alien Terror” and “War on Aliens” being common. These terms were used by the Daily Sun on an ongoing basis. Because of its target market - mainly blue collar workers are exposed to this kind of print media - this could lead to negative stereotypes and further violence. This is what South African journalist Tsepiso Seopa emphasizes when he accuses the Daily Sun of “reporting uncritically on or even stoking xenophobia.” On the other hand, the Daily Sun could also noted the seriousness of the situation, and warned that the violence might get out of hand.

Rosalina Teixeira, an Angolan widow of Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK, military wing of the ANC), says: “We treated the MK very nicely in Angola, like brothers and sisters, but when we come here, married to MK with the children of MK, we are treated like a piece of paper.”

An interesting and critical article in July 2008 by Sikiti, a journalist for Enterprise magazine, points fingers at the media, also accusing them of promoting these attacks by producing xenophobic content that portrayed foreigners as illegal aliens, criminals, adulterers, opportunists, corrupt folks, and as bringing AIDS to the country.

Broadsheets such as the Cape Argus, the Cape Times, Sunday Times and Die Burger had a subtler take on the events. These daily papers are representative of what is generally read by the white collar sector of society. Nonetheless, a variety of extremely graphic portrayals of these violent attacks were seen around the world.

In South Africa, the Media Monitoring Project (MMP) and its partner, Consortium for Refugees and Migrants in SA (CoRMSA) lodged an official complaint with South African ombudsman, Joe Thloloe, and the South African Human Rights Commission.

In the end, the media portrays real events and real people. The “Burning Man’s” name is Ernesto Alfabeto Nhamuave. He was 22 years old, but on May 19, 2008, when he came to this horrible death, none of the tabloids presented his name. For days after the incident, his name was unknown, and he was only known as the “Burning Man.” Today he is frequently still referred to as that.

What is the media’s responsibility in cases such as this?