25 May, 2013

Xenophobia in Contemporary South Africa

by Hussein Solomon

I write this on the 25th May – Africa Day. It is a day meant to celebrate African continental unity and its achievements since the establishment of the Organization of African Unity – the predecessor of the African Union- exactly 50 years ago today.

Unfortunately, local South Africans chose to celebrate this day with attacks on foreigners – especially African foreigners – in their midst in the townships. These were physically assaulted and their shops looted. Worse, were reports that the South African police largely stood by and watched these atrocities being committed. It was in 2008 when violent xenophobia in South Africa made it to the international stage as the world televisions cameras zoomed in on the torching of a Mozambican immigrant whilst the jeering crowds laughed at his agonizing cries as he burnt to death.

If truth be told, however, xenophobia in this flawed “Rainbow Nation” long predated 2008. As early as 1990, huts of Mozambicans were set alight by local South Africans. As South Africans, drew closer together overcoming its apartheid past, it seems that another “otherness” came into being – “we South Africans against other “other” barbaric foreigner”. Survey after survey taken of South Africans has demonstrated that this virulent ethno-centric nationalism is on the rise. What make xenophobia in South Africa unique from other countries though is that as educational qualifications increase, xenophobia against the proverbial other also increases. In almost all other countries surveyed, xenophobia decreases as educational qualifications increase on the part of the host community.

What all this points to is that South African – across races and cultures – continue to live against Africa as opposed to with Africa. More South Africans are overwhelmingly ignorant of Africa. I recall showing some photos of African and Western leaders to my undergraduate students. Few could correctly identify the African leaders but almost all knew who the Western leaders were. This is unconscionable.

If South Africa’s leaders wish to turn this around we need to re-examine our school and university curriculum and re-educate future citizens on this continent’s rich heritage. The media need to cover Africa more and television and radio executives need to focus more on the African continent.

It is ironic too that in the midst of the nightmare of apartheid, the continent joined hands to liberate South Africa. They bore a terrible price for their commitments to all South Africans freedom. With the dawn of a new democratic dispensation, we have opted to turn our backs on the continent.

09 May, 2013

Boston? Yes. Arusha? No Thank You

by Virgil Hawkins

The bomb blast tore mercilessly and indiscriminately through the crowd, killing three innocent civilians and injuring scores more. Mayhem ensued, as the injured were rushed to hospital and the people struggled to understand why such a tragedy had befallen them. The gathering had been peaceful and the mood, celebratory. And this was not, after all, a place accustomed to such indiscriminate violence – the country had not experienced a bombing of this nature in more than ten years. Law enforcement agencies moved quickly and resolutely in response. Links with organized international terror groups were immediately suspected, and certain individuals of apparent Middle Eastern origin were singled out and tracked down.

No, this is not the story of the events that transpired at the 2013 Boston Marathon on 15 May. This is the story of a more recent bombing – one that occurred at Saint Joseph's Roman Catholic Church in Arusha, Tanzania, on Sunday 5 May. At the inaugural mass held at the newly built church, which was being attended by the Vatican's ambassador to Tanzania and other dignitaries, a bomb was allegedly thrown by an assailant on a motorcycle into the crowd that had gathered for the occasion. No group has claimed responsibility for the bombing, but the arrest of three Emirati, one Saudi, and four Tanzanian nationals attempting to cross the border into Kenya suggests that connections with international terrorist groups are being seriously suspected.

The Boston Marathon, which also left three people dead, and in which links with international terrorist groups were also initially suspected, sparked saturation coverage on a massive scale by the mass media, not only in the USA, but throughout the world. All subsequent developments were reported in a blow-by-blow manner, and even hints of what might appear to be a new twist or turn were also immediately released online, on the airwaves and in print, often with little concern for confirmation or fact-checking. The search for answers was vigorous and unwavering. Detailed backgrounds were sought and provided on the suspects and their origins, offering in-depth analysis and speculation covering all conceivable motives. At the same time, moving accounts of the pre-bombing hopes and aspirations of the victims and their families, and their courage in facing life after the tragedy, quickly filled the news.

The bombing in Tanzania, on the other hand, was met by media outlets around the globe with little more than a collective yawn. As of 9 May, the Boston Marathon bombing had been the subject, for example, of 249 articles made available on the BBC News website, exploring every possible angle of the bombing and its aftermath. On the same website, the bombing in Tanzania has been the subject of just two articles – both of which were released on the day after the bombing. No effort has been made to provide any portrayals of the victims – their backgrounds, hopes or aspirations. And the lack of any follow-up articles reveals little interest in clarifying or pursuing the circumstances behind the bombings, or the arrest of the suspects currently in custody, including their backgrounds, motives and possible international connections. This gaping discrepancy between the attention devoted to these two bombings is not at all limited to the BBC, but is largely representative of major media corporations throughout the world.

The similarities between these cases are clear. Unexpected explosion at a prestigious and peaceful gathering of innocent civilians? Check. Three dead and scores injured? Check. A stunned and grieving community? Check. Video footage available of the attack and its aftermath? Check. The fear of further attacks in similar situations (marathons and churches)? Check. The possibility of the involvement of foreign groups known to use terror as a means to achieve certain political ends? Check.

What makes them different? At the risk of belabouring the obvious, the prime difference is clearly in the value that the media attach to events that impact on the world's economic, political and military 'centre' (predominantly white, Western, wealthy, powerful), and the 'periphery' (predominantly black, African, and impoverished). It is closely linked to the notion of 'worthy' and 'unworthy' victims. But to a degree it is also about the possession of military clout and the willingness to use it. Terrorist attacks directed at the USA have in the past been used as the pretext for massive bombing campaigns and invasions of other countries. There may have been a degree of anticipation regarding the possible global ramifications of a US government response (military or otherwise) had links to certain foreign organizations been discovered.

The stark difference in the coverage of these two incidents certainly serves to reaffirm and bring home something that should already be abundantly clear: the major 'global threat' as perceived by much of the world's media is not so-called 'terrorism' per se. Nor is it the more specific variety of cross-border 'terrorism' that is seen as being linked to extremist Islamic groups. It would appear that the concept of 'threat' is dependent not on the nature or the scale of the act itself or on the actor responsible, but primarily on who (or where) the victims are. Which passport do they carry? Where are they based? And it is clear that in the eyes of the media at least, some victims are far more worthy than others.

07 May, 2013

The News About Southern Africa: Jornal de Angola

by Virgil Hawkins

My previous post looked at how much coverage South Africa's Sowetan Newspaper devoted to the region in which it is situated (southern Africa), and the results did not appear promising. With the exception of Zimbabwe, very little of the goings on in southern Africa were being reported in that newspaper.

This post takes a brief look at the international coverage in Jornal de Angola, Angola's only daily newspaper. While South Africa and Angola are situated in the same region, given different geopolitical environments and historical and linguistic backgrounds, we can expect some differences in the coverage. We might expect, for example, that in the Angolan press, Portuguese speaking countries would attract a significant amount of coverage. We might also expect that the 'gravitational' pull of South Africa, the region's powerhouse, would translate into a relatively heavy amount of coverage of that country.

The period covered was a short one – between November 2012 and January 2013, and as such, although the results should give us some clues as to the paper's perceptions of newsworthiness, they should also be taken with a grain of salt.

Overall, 42 percent of the international news stories in the period covered focused on the African continent, which was more than double the percentage of stories devoted to any other continent (Americas: 19 percent, Europe: 15 percent). This would appear to confirm a firm grounding of interests within the African continent – something that is not necessarily the norm in many other African media publications.

But the more immediate region surrounding Angola seemed to be less of a priority. Coverage of southern African countries (Southern African Development Community – SADC – members) made up only 8 percent of the international news. The bulk of this coverage was on the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) – quite understandably, given the major escalation in the conflict in that country. Zimbabwe, which was of such critical interest to the Sowetan newspaper in South Africa, did not form the basis for a single article in Jornal de Angola.

One trend that seemed to match that of the Sowetan newspaper, was the lack of interest in SADC (the organization and its activities). Only one article discussed SADC, focusing on its handling of crises in the DRC, Madagascar and Zimbabwe, despite the fact that over the period covered, the organization held two extraordinary summits, primarily in response to these same crises.

The results also showed that historical and linguistic ties certainly played a role in the coverage, although perhaps not as much as might have been expected. Portuguese-speaking countries accounted for 9 percent of the total international coverage, with a surprisingly high focus on the tiny island state of São Tomé and Príncipe. Attracting 15 articles it, together with Venezuela, was the fourth most covered country, behind the USA (38 articles), Egypt (28 articles), and the DRC (17 articles). Another Portuguese-speaking country of interest to Angola, Guinea Bissau, also attracted 13 articles, the same number as that for Syria. South Africa was the object of 11 articles.

On the whole, Jornal de Angola, like the Sowetan in South Africa, appeared to show relatively little interest (with few exceptions) in the goings on in the southern Africa region and its regional body, SADC. While the marginalization of SADC may reflect low expectations as to the current role of the organization in the region, the low level of coverage of the region and its countries should be seen as problematic – as one of the obstacles to regional understanding, interaction and cooperation.

(Many thanks to Rui Faro Saraiva, for his help in data collection)

06 May, 2013

South Africa's Withering Democracy

by Hussein Solomon

In April 1994, I joined millions of other South Africans to cast my ballot for the very first time in the country’s first democratic elections following the end of apartheid. The fervent hope of all South Africans that day was to not only turn our backs on our repressive and divisive past but to also provide a beacon of hope for the rest of the continent’s struggling democracies. This was not to be realized.

Nineteen years on and prospects for democratic consolidation in South Africa has never looked more bleak. This past week has witnessed the ruling African National Congress (ANC) pushing for ever greater control internally and externally. Internally this is manifested in it urging its parliamentarians not to pose tough questions to cabinet ministers. At the same time the urge to stifle dissent within the party has been heightened as the country go into electoral mode for the national elections in 2014.

The external controls are manifested in the imminent passing of the Protection of Information Bill which, whatever its supporters claim, will restrict media freedom and ultimately disempower citizens from holding the executive to account. The fact that this truly Orwellian-named Bill is to be passed at the time when President Zuma has repeatedly made known of his displeasure with the media for so aggressively pointing out government failures and especially corruption is particularly ominous. Moreover the passage of the Bill is also taking place at a time when the gulf between government and civil society has never been wider.

On the African continent, meanwhile, the ANC government betrays its own proud history of standing up to the repressive apartheid regime by allying itself with some of Africa’s worst tyrants. Consider here former President Mbeki’s dalliance with Equatorial Guinea’s Nguema and President Zuma’s support for President Bozize’s tyranny over citizens of the Central African Republic.

At the same time Zuma is given to conspiracy theories – claiming that some dark outside forces are seeking to undermine the continent. This is dangerous rhetoric and feeds into the narratives emanating from African governments seeking to criminalize dissent and de-legitimate the political opposition.

Far from serving as a beacon for hope, South Africa is leading the continent backwards. This is not what we had hoped for in 1994. It is not what one billion Africans had hope for.