Reporting on Xenophobia in South Africa

Ernesto Burning

an analyses of

Dutch print media coverage on

the 2008 xenophobic violence

in South Africa


Carien J. Touwen

Utrecht, September 2009



  1. Representation and othering in Africa’s media image                                       3


  1. Africa’s media image – a historical overview                                                      5

2.1.            The Dark Continent in the colonial era

2.2.            The Dependent Continent in the Cold War era

2.3.            The Lost Continent in the post-Cold War era

2.4.            The African Dream – the post-liberal era

  1. Case study: xenophobic violence in South Africa in May 2008             11

3.1.            Xenophobic violence – definition

3.2.            Case description

3.3.            The Dutch context

3.4.            Research question, set up and methodology

  1. Analyses of data: media images of victims, perpetrators and events                 19

4.1.            The victims

4.2.            The perpetrators

4.3.            The events

  1. The case of Ernesto Alfabeto Nhumuave                                                            24


  1. Final remarks: Africa’s media image in xenophobic violence coverage            27


Bibliography                                                                                           30





I          Wave of hate – timeline of xenophobic violence in 2008, Mail&Guardian Online

II         Data, criteria and list of keywords used in content analyses

III       Overview of news coverage of xenophobic violence in South Africa

by Dutch newspapers

IV       Results of content analyses on keywords used for xenophobic violence

in Dutch newspapers

V         News photos of the burning of Ernesto Alfabeto Nhumuave    

VI       Analyses of the photos printed in NRC Handelsblad, Trouw and Telegraaf






1. Representation and othering in Africa’s media image

Theory on representation is essential to analyse media images. Media images are constructed through language, sounds and images. More over they are constructed by the meanings that language, sound and image represent. Language is not just the sum of a series of words, it is words constructed into sentences, made into stories, told in a certain tone of voice, placed and published in a specific setting. All these different elements of language signify meaning and relate to frameworks that are socially constructed. This is how we understand and interpret things in our society and in our interactions with others.

De Saussure was one of the first to formulate a general approach to representation, based on the notion that ‘language is a system of signs’ (Culler, 1976:19). He deconstructed the process of representation to a form (words, images, sounds) which he called the signifier. In content analyses of print media these signifiers are often referred to as keywords. A signifier can, according to Saussure, trigger a certain idea or concept in the head of the receiver, this he calls the signified. It is the relation between both signifier and signified which sustains representation (Hall, 1997:31). A sign, or representation, is therefore always composed of and can only exist by both signifier and signified. This sign is not necessarily a one-dimensional and clear meaning. In theory one word or image can signify a single meaning, but most of the time elements carry different meanings and -in interaction with others- signify more complex meanings. In content analyses these complex meanings are often referred to as discourses or in media studies as prepositions. They exist in society and therefore in the minds of the receivers.

Stereotypes can be viewed as specific constructions of shared meaning, as ‘repeated and ultimately pernicious constellations of character traits’ (Shohat and Stam, 1994:198). They are often focussed on persons. Stereotypes are signs that often occur in combination with other signs and in that way are part of fixed ideas. As I will show in my research, the representation of Somali as shopkeepers is a sign in itself but is also part of a shared meaning on ‘haves and have-nots’ being at the basis of xenophobic violence in South Africa.

Images work in the same way as words, they are more than just mirrors of a presumed reality. Through light, composition, perspective, colour and -in the case of moving images- sounds, words, music they transmit meaning. But meaning is more than the one-dimensional features of the object in the image. Barthes (1972) describes two phases in representation through images. The first phase or level represents simple messages composed of definable elements of the image, so called signifiers. Barthes calls this the level of denotation. The second phase communicates more complex messages, which are composed of but cannot simply be reduced to the signifiers, they relate to ideas and meanings, the signified, that are linked to the signifiers. Barthes calls this the level of connotation or as Hall (1997:38) states ‘at this level we are beginning to interpret the completed signs in terms of the wider realms of social ideology-the general beliefs, conceptual frameworks and the value systems of society’. Western images of Africa (Hawk, 1997) are none other than general beliefs related to values systems of our western society. They therefore change over time but are nevertheless fixed frameworks at a given time. Interestingly they also linger on or even transform when societal values have changed.

In media, language has for long been the dominant way to share meaning, but images are becoming more important. It is a public opinion that images are more important in this era of (audio)visual technology. Our society is often referred to as an image society. But I think one can’t just dismiss language as less important because other media, such as internet, are using more images than text and people watch more television than read newspapers and magazines. The strength of modern communication is in the combination of language and image. Both are systems of representation (Hall, 1997). With their own strengths and own effects, but most powerful in the combination, for ‘the total is always more and different than the sum of its parts’ as Aristotle has pointed out in his Metaphysics many centuries ago.

Stuart Hall argues that language is one of the media through which thoughts, ideas and feelings are represented in a culture. Culture is about shared meanings (1997:6).  Images and sounds, and the combination of both in audiovisual media, are two of the other important media to represent and transmit meaning. We need shared meanings to relate to each other, to communicate with each other, to make sense of things in our society. These things hardly ever have one, single, fixed and unchanging meaning (Hall, 1997:3)). The meaning of things is dependent on their representation by those who deal with them or communicate them. Unfixed and changeable means that things have a meaning in time and space, they have context. It is no wonder that ‘lack of context’ is one of the most heard critiques on journalism. Facts without context lack meaning or are open to multiple interpretation. If context lacks in representation, the context of the receiver becomes more dominant. Or as Edward Said once said ‘Facts get their importance of what’s made of them by interpretation.’ It is therefore highly relevant where and by whom this interpretation is made. This is a much debated issue in journalism. Are journalists just ‘information brokers’ or do they hold a responsibility to construct meaning within their social environment. However interesting, especially in Africa, I will not go into this debate in this paper but limit myself to deconstructing the media images through which so called facts are framed and focus on the shared meaning that is communicated and reproduced by media. In my research I want to look into the way Dutch print media constructed and reproduced, a ‘shared meaning’ on ethnicity in South Africa, and more in general on Africa and African peoples. I also want to find out if these representation relate to historic images of Africa as described in the literature (see chapter 2). In other words, did the media use conceptual frameworks to make sense of xenophobia violence in South Africa.  The general assumption that a representation is an object with semantic properties such as content, reference, truth-conditions, truth-value (Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy), allows me to analyse the construction of representations by looking at the content and discourse in language.

A part of the representation of ethnicity consists of the concept of the Other or constitutive other. It is a key concept in continental philosophy opposed to the Same. Hegel was one of the first to address this idea. It refers, or attempts to refer, to that which is other than the concept being considered. The term often means a person other than oneself. The other is singled out as different. Arguing along the lines of Saussure’s semiotics, difference is a signifier, it is important to meaning. ‘Without difference meaning could not exist’, Hall argues (1997:234). The Russian linguist Bakhtin takes a slightly different approach. He stresses that meaning is established through the interaction between the one and the other. That ‘meaning arises through difference’ (Hall, 1997:236). The representation of the other gives both meaning to the other and to the self. It is also a way to order the world. The other therefore plays an important role in processes of in- and exclusion. This more anthropological approach sees the classification of the other as part of establishing culture. Mary Douglas argues that within social groups the classification of the other is essential to the feeling of sameness (1987:60) or as Hall puts it, to share meaning. The other is therefore most of all a construction within the framework of the self. It tells us, more than anything, what the point of reference, our shared meaning is.

Constructing images, representing others, are practices in the communication of shared meaning. Practices that communicate codes and signs needed to make sense of complex events inside and outside of our own society (Hall, 1997).  Image construction thus involves ‘creating a positive or negative image of someone or something, crediting or discrediting by referring to the location of actions and attributes in binary pairs of value, all of which has its effect by evoking reactions from audiences’, media critic and journalist Ken Sanes states on his website This definition is in line with a constructionist approach to representation. Stuart Hall describes three theories or approaches to view ‘how the concept of representation connects meaning and language to culture‘ (1997:24). Language can simply reflect a meaning which already exists out there in the world of objects. In journalism this reflective approach is often simplified in to a description of journalists as being middleman for information. Journalists collect facts and report on them, as they are. Language can also be viewed as the personally intended meaning of the speaker. In journalism there is a special genre to deal with this intentional approach, the column or comment. Personal opinions are only allowed in these genres, other journalism genres should be reflective and ‘objective’. I put this between brackets as objectivity is commonly used but just as commonly debated in journalism and I don’t want to go into this at length. But let it be said that truth is always in the eyes of the beholder. The third approach assumes that meaning is constructed in and through language (and images and sounds and so forth). In journalism this constructionist approach addresses media images and prepositions that are present in all journalistic productions, but are often ignored or even dismissed as being less important than the factual (reflective) representations. In my research I will challenge the purely reflective approach by illustrating the strength of myths in media images and prepositions in media texts by use of a constructionist approach.


2. Africa’s media image – a historical overview

2.1. The Dark Continent in the Colonial era

The first images Europeans held of Africa were based on stories by fortune seekers and missionaries. Before 1800 these stories hardly reached the public. The first newspaper in the United Kingdom, the London Gazette, was launched in 1666. Other newspapers followed but for a century they only reached the well educated elite and the content was often still controlled by the state. The first sign that newspapers were reaching and influencing a greater public was the Revolutionary War in north America, in the 18th century. In 1791 the Bill of Rights in the new Constitution guaranteed free press in the United States and from that moment on the media played an ever grow role in the public arena (Streitmatter, 1997). The Industrial Revolution in the 19th century provided the technical possibilities to distribute newspapers and also radio message on a large scale, which further accelerated the development of mass media.

So however the Europeans had been entering the African continent from the late 15th century, the initial reports only reached their employers and other members of the ruling elite. And however the newspaper distribution was growing in the 18th century, no newspapers could afford to send out foreign correspondents until the end of the century, when prominent journalists such as Winston Churchill covered the Anglo-Boer war in South Africa (Roth, 1997). Before that news reports from Africa were based on the stories of missionaries, entrepreneurs and colonial officials. They painted a bivalent picture of Africa. On the one hand the stories were about heroic adventurers, enduring hardship and conquering hostile savages in a pure landscape resembling the Garden of Eden. On the other hand the stories were about barbaric ceremonies, by uncivilized and primitive black inhabitants, who were constantly fighting each other (Mayer, 2002). The encounter and representation of the other was framed in a moral and religious setting, taking the own, European setting as point of reference. One of the most significant examples, and the name giver of this colonial image of Africa, is the book Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. In his book, that was issued in 1899, Conrad critiques the Belgium rule in Congo. Most interesting is that the setting is a classic adventure story, but Marlow is more an anti-hero and the superior European Kurtz turned into an African savage. Which was quite a break from the missionary stories by Livingstone and Stanley, only some decades before[1]. But Conrad was a ‘child of his time’ as well and the colonial images of Africa and Africans are directly and indirectly present in his story. In a survey of Dutch newspaper coverage of the Congo-affair at the start of the 20th century, it became clear that journalists viewed Africa through the frame of missionary stories, as an uncivilized and dark continent[2]. Africans from the Congo are primarily referred to as ‘the negro’. There are frequent references to black-on-black violence and no information at all on the African context. However there is critique on King Leopold’s interference in the Congo in some newspapers, the whole affair is viewed in a European and Christian frame, focussing on the catholic mission and the great imperialist Leopold, reducing Africans to mere side figures in a European drama.

Eurocentrism, as Shohat and Stam argue, is a complex rationale that has developed through time from the classical Greece and ‘is premised on crucial exclusion from African and Semitic influences’ (1994:14). Eurocentrism includes all ideas and attitudes that are related to the European and western society and is no longer restricted to a physical place. For instance the present discussion on multi-party democracy as the best model for freedom and stability originated in an American world view, taking their own free democracy as a fit-for-all model. Critique on this concept of democracy  and on the presumed solution for Africa is much heard in Europe. This example is to point out that Eurocentrism is a highly temporal and spatial concept. The fact that we don’t use words such as negro, or view African’s in the framework of a colonial administration, doesn’t mean that Eurocentrism is over, it just has different manifestations that are linked to the current times and present world order.

But Eurocentrism did first ‘emerge as a discursive rationale for colonialism’(Shohat and Stam, 1994:2), so to speak the ‘colonizer’s model of the world’ (Blaut, 1993:10). The reaction by African intellectuals in the diaspora, such as Blyden and Du Bois, to this model and this superiority of the colonizer was the negritude movement of the nineteenth century, which emphasized and promoted the uniqueness of ‘the negro’(Lynch, 1970)). Another intellectual and prominent member of the abolition movement, Alexander Crummell, voiced these ideas into a more active approach advocating that the common bonds and objectives of all African people can best be achieved through unity and the elimination of white supremacy on the continent. This is commonly known as Pan Africanism (The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition, 2008). Around the 1940s a new group of African intellectuals, including many future leaders of independent states such as Senghor (Senegal), Touré (Guinea) and Nkruma (Ghana) adopted, criticized and reshaped these ideas (July, 2004).  But as an opposing approach to Eurocentrism Pan-Africanism works on the same principles of othering as Eurocentrism. Both are situational manifestations of ethnocentrism. A concept believed to be first introduced by  William Graham Sumner in his prominent work Folkways in 1906. Sumner described ethnocentrism as a view in which one’s own group is the center of everything , and all others are scaled and rated with reference to it. In practice the ‘own group’ often meant a certain ethnic group or race. Kwame Appiah argues that Crummell, who can be viewed as ‘inaugurating the discourse on Pan-Africanism’ at the end of the 19th century, in fact held one single view ‘that there was a common destiny for the people of Africa –by which we are always to understand the black people- not because they shared a common ecology (…) but because they belonged to this one race’.(Appiah, 1992:5). Pan-Africanism thus in fact created and supported ethnocentrism on the African continent.

So however Pan-Africanism tried to oppose the dominant discourse of Eurocentrism it still reproduced images from that Eurocentric view, especially with regard to race[3]. It also supported views that all inhabitants of Africa are black and African, completely ignoring all the differences between peoples, regions and cultures and therefore bypassing the complexity of the continent. Senghor and Nkruma built on that heritage when they further developed Pan-Africanism in the 20th century. But due to the general character of Pan-Africanism, bypassing regional differences, the philosophy maintained a toy for the elite and never grew into a grass rooted movement to unite all African countries and peoples in a joined front against the colonizers. It did however play an important role in the decolonization and the emancipation of individual African peoples and nations and gave them a voice in the international arena. It was also the driving force of many independence movements and was the basis for the establishment of the Organisation of African Unity in 1963.[4]

In the course of twentieth century the colonial powers weakened and were occupied in other (European) affairs. The second world war was the final trigger for the dismantling of the colonial structure but also the start of the Cold War. The nation building that is so much a part of the decolonizing process however started in the late colonial times (Iliffe, 1995). At the end of the nineteenth century and the start of the twentieth, when Britain was the ruling world power, the administration of colonies can be regarded as very imperial. At the Berlin conference in 1884-85, also referred to as ‘the scramble for Africa’ the leading world powers divided Africa and there after shaped their colonies into fixed entities. From that moment on, like it or not, the inhabitants were classified as belonging to those colonies and nations. Shohat and Stam refer to this ‘shaping of national identity’ as part of the ‘imperial imaginary’ (1994:101).

2.2. The Dependent Continent in the Cold War era

As explained above the imperial or colonial paradigm did not end with the end of colonialism. Taking into account that decolonization of Africa actually took almost half a century, from Libya’s independence from Italy in 1951 until the end of Apartheid in South Africa in 1994 it is only to be expected that there is no marked point in time on which suddenly the colonial image changed into a new one. It’s generally not the way it works. Changes in culture and identity always take time and linger on long after the triggering events have occurred. One could speak of a ‘submerged’ colonial presence in the image of Africa (Shohat and Stam, 1994:121). From inside Africa a similar development took place. The liberation movements with their ‘non-western critical voices, started to emancipate a range of populations. This has provoked a diversification of artistic critical voices and forced scholars to recognize that Western modes of thought can not always be satisfactorily applied…’ (Thackway, 2003:16), but the legacy of Eurocentrism remained prevalent. However this might be problematic from the more artistic point of view that Thackway takes, it is, according to Frederickson (1996:280) necessary in the process of emancipation and liberation to have a single clear voice and the non-western feelings were successfully exploited by politicians and liberators to unite the peoples, one voice and one message: Africa for the Africans.

On their path of nation building the new independent states often had no other basis than the colonial administrative structures. Further more, the colonies had been highly dependent on the mother countries, in fact towards the end of the colonial period most colonies were not at all profitable. This situation did not change after independence, it actually worsened and the former colonies became even more economically dependent on their old colonizers as before. Parallel to the emergence of a whole industry of development aid, an image of a dependent and helpless Africa was created. For parts reproducing old colonial images of an uncivilized Africa, while trying to be less ethnocentric and looking more at the specific problems of different African states. But the focus nevertheless was problem oriented. African’s were viewed as people desperately in need of our aid. For reasons of justifying development aid and raising funds this image was marketed not only by the aid sector, but also reproduced in the media (Fair, 1992). Probably feelings of guilt for a colonial past and the general view after the second world war that all peoples should live together in peace created a kind of global sympathy. Nevertheless, the approach was still very Eurocentric, and however the intentions were no doubt noble the development approach strengthened the image of Africa’s vulnerability, incapability and desperation. The unavoidable conflicts that accompanied liberation struggles in Africa only confirmed these images. The instability that came with building new nation states further pushed Africa in the corner of fragility and even failure, as I will illustrate in the next paragraph.

The other major development in society which effected the decolonization in Africa was the growing divide between the new world powers, the capitalist west and communist or socialist east. More specifically the USA and the USSR. As the old colonizers withdrew from Africa new players entered. The African states needed capital and in their struggle for independence had already adopted a more socialist ideology (Bandow, 1998:208). Cooperation with the Soviet Union or Cuba was a logical next step. Thus Africa became an arena for the Cold War. This influenced the image of Africa, portraying Africa as socialist or even communist in ideology. Especially in Southern Africa this created a major contradiction, because South Africa, an international outcast because of its racist Apartheid administration, strongly opposed communism and therefore found allies in the capitalist west (Hagos, 2000:110). On the other hand countries such as Mozambique and Angola were viewed as communist, while in practice the administration of the country was far from communist. These simplified images strongly hindered the liberation struggles in Southern Africa and are still dominant in economic discourses.[5]

South Africa is more or less an outsider in the creation of a dependency image during the Cold War. The country was under Apartheid rule during that era and wasn’t in a relationship of dependency with the west, but more in an ideological and political conflict. With regard to South Africa another media image is dominant, ‘ it centers around a polarized racial dynamic’ (Frederikse 1992: 162). The media image of the Cold War era is an anti-apartheid image, a white against black image, simplified into a discourse that ‘all blacks are fighting for the good course and all whites are racist’. On the other hand the struggle in the eighties and early nineties is often associated with tribal violence (Brock, 1992), punitive methods such as necklacing horrified the world.[6] That representation of the struggle is also composed of lingering colonial images of the primitive.

2.3. The Lost Continent in a Neo-liberal world order

The image of Africa again changed after the Cold War, from 1990 onwards. Two major developments, which are interrelated, are at play. Firstly the end of the Cold War was viewed as the failure of communist ideology (and even socialist), secondly it meant the victory of a capitalist economic system. Both developments strengthened feelings of Eurocentrism. Taking into account that Africa was viewed as predominantly socialist during the Cold War, the fall of communism also implied a failure of African states. The victory of capitalism in the west and the lack of a countering ideology such as socialism caused capitalist ideology to development to the extremes and adopt a strong believe in the freedom of the individual and the power of the free market. Taking this new form of Eurocentrism as a standard to look at Africa, the image of a vulnerable and dependent continent only grew. After all, the African countries were already struggling to link on to the global markets and now found their funding depleted if they didn’t adopt a neo-liberal policy. Key players such as the World Bank and the IMF became the new powers after the withdrawal of the Cold War players. But like the transition from colonial to dependency image this was not a radical and overnight change. The west, especially the USA, tried to keep a grip on the continent imposing their free market ideology and western moral on the continent. Ideologically the African states were now measured for their level of democracy (Easterley, 2006:102), with the multi-party system as the ideal. International funding was linked to stability and democracy, and countries were labelled as fragile, failed or nearly failed states[7]. Many African countries adopted a neo-liberal model. A vision of African progress, a new Pan-Africanist philosophy called African Renaissance, was promoted by statesmen such as Mbeki (South Africa) and Museveni (Uganda) (Okuma, 2002). As a side effect, the success of some countries strengthened the image of failure of others.

The image of Africa as a failing continent  was not just created in the global political and economical arena. The emerge of development studies in academia (Kothari, 2005) and the power of development organisations in the global and national arena’s strongly determined the political and public opinion on development countries. The image of Africa as the lost continent was first addressed by Robert Kaplan in an article in The Atlantic in 1994. It was eagerly adopted by the whole development industry. After all, the evidence was right there on the television screens on a daily basis. At the end of the 80-ie Africa was struck by two major disasters which finally allowed the west to dismiss the continent as lost. The HIV-Aids pandemic, that surfaced in the eighties was now a reality, the figures of international health organisation alarming the world (Jaffar et al, 2004). At the same time Africa, especially the north and east were struck by drought and hunger. Public events such as One for Africa and Live Aid engaged the whole western world but send out only one message: Africa is a lost continent, people are in constant conflict with each other, they are incapable of solving their own problems, the new governments are corrupt, the people suffer and we have to help them to enter into a western and democratic society where there will be food and work for everybody and conflict and crisis will end (Fair, 1992 and 1993).

South Africa however is an exception to this image of failure and conflict. Apartheid had just ended and the transition was more or less peaceful, a true miracle. The vision of Mandela and Tutu that a rainbow nation of all ethnicities living in peace together was becoming a reality was eagerly adopted by the west and their media (Sparks, 2003). From being the outcast, South Africa became a western pet.

Another interesting phenomena is the reproduction of the primitivist image of Africans through eco-tourism and development-aid projects. It is difficult to point down this image to the post-Cold War era as it has little to do with political or ideological issues. The emerge of eco-tourism is probably best described as a side product of the welfare state in which environmental consciousness grew in the course of the 80ies (Hicks et all, 2008). Since the publication of the Brundtland-report[8] poverty and environment were fore ever linked on a global level. Looking at tourist brochures, but also at leisure pages in newspapers and magazines, the image of the pure and unspoiled African is most present.[9]

2.4. The African Dream – the post-liberal era

While development organizations and media eagerly and uncritically presented the public with horrible figures and doom scenarios on Africa, Africa itself started to pick up at the turn of the twenty first century. Economic growth increased and some countries even scored the highest rates worldwide. The African Renaissance was becoming a reality, at least in the eyes of its followers. The western media however completely ignored or missed this for at the same time western attention was abruptly drawn away from the problems in Africa and dragged towards the new threat of Islamic terrorism. The euphoria of the post-Cold War era was over, at least ideologically. This also influenced the image of Africa in the west, especially countries with a predominantly Islamic population. Conflicts in Africa were now viewed through the frame of religion, more over Islam (Frerks, 2007). And as Islam was considered more or less similar to terrorism and thus conflict, the image of Islamic countries as instable and corrupt was strengthened (Frerks, 2007). The general image of Africa however didn’t change drastically in comparison to the time before 9/11 but the representation was different. From a governmental approach using words such as fragile and failing, the emphasis was now on security, using words such as conflict, chaos and corruption (Frerks, 2008). The USA suddenly viewed the Sahara belt as an African axis of Islamic terrorism and went on a quest to establish a military stronghold on the continent (Africom[10]). The fact that Islam has many manifestations and is practised in many different ways, not only within Africa but also in comparison with the so called Islamic world, was ignored by western media and governments, as in the past happened with socialism and communism.

But Africa was only a minor player in the ‘war on terror’, overall the suffering of Africa became a marginalized subject in the international media. Thus creating more space for alternative sounds to be heard. The African Renaissance was eagerly adopted by some contemporary artists, writers and journalists who had already moved away from the classic images of Africa as a dependent and lost continent decades before (see chapter 2.2). However the legacy of colonialism still had a great influence (Thackway, 2003) their stories and films show everyday life and ordinary people, not an Africa still to be westernized and civilized.

With the political down fall of South African president Mbeki in 2008 and the recent economic crisis, the African Renaissance movement seemed to have lost momentum, but this applies only to the economic pillar. In all layers of society the feeling that Africa and Africans have to handle their affairs and are very capable of doing so is still strong. More over, the limitations of the neo-liberal model, both ideologically and economically have created space for African voices in the international arena. Alternative perspectives can not simply be rejected on the basis of neo-liberal and western superiority anymore. In academia critics are opposing the fragile states approach of western governments and development organisations (Kaplan, 2008) and Africa itself shoots back with the controversial plea by Zambian scientist Dambisa Moyo. In her book Dead Aid (2009) she calls out to abandon all development aid and let Africa solve it’s own affairs. But however Moyo’s publication stirred up discussions in the media for a while, the hype seems over and in most western media these critical and alternative voices are still whispers in the background. Little has changed in the way western media and politicians view Africa; the image of development and dependency is still prominent, as became clear in the reporting on the economic crisis. Analyses and predictions on the effects for Africa all focus on depleting development aid (however there is no proof of this) and decline in natural resource price[11]. In fact these approaches communicate that Africa’s growth is purely dependent on western capital, completely bypassing African agency and simplifying Africa’s recent economic growth as a by-product of a western, global market.


3. Case study: Xenophobic Violence in South Africa in May 2008

3.1.  Xenophobic violence – definition

Xenophobia is generally defined as ‘the deep dislike of non-nationals by nationals of a recipient state.’ This definition is also used by the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC). For research on ethnicity in the media however a more precise demarking is required as xenophobia is obviously a ‘manifestation of racism, but on the other hand is also a concept in it’s own right’ as South African media institute MMA[12] states in their 2003 study on racism and xenophobia in the South African media. The research covered eight years, from the first free elections in 1994 and gives interesting insights in stereotypes and prepositions present in South African reporting on xenophobia. I partly used it as a basis for my own research on xenophobia reporting in the Dutch media. MMA describes racism and xenophobia as supporting each other and sharing discriminatory discourses. They both operate on ‘the same basis of profiling people and making negative assumptions’(MMA, 2003:18).
MMA argues that the profiling in the case of racism is on the basis of race, in the case of xenophobia on the basis of nationality. This is a valid assumption as my own research will prove. In my research I have used the commonly used dictionary-definitions of nationality and ethnicity, as they are used in the media. Nationality is frequently described as a more or less neutral quality of people belonging to a certain nation, the nation having geographical properties. This membership of a nation distinguishes one group from people belonging to other nations. In the media nationality is expressed with names related to names of nation states. Ethnicity on the other hand is not geographically determined. It binds together people with certain common racial, religious, and linguistic characteristics, it is not linked to a certain place but to a set of human characteristics. But as people are living both in time and space there are obvious geographical properties linked to ethnicity, which do not always align with their nationality, nor are they fixed in time. On the other hand, as Baumann argues, the West had ‘a romantic vision of ethnicity as the basis of state making and nation building’ (1999:19) and this romantic vision partly determined the establishment of nation borders at the Berlin conference. In a dictionary comparison of nationality and ethnicity in different languages Bauman (1999:31) pointed out that the only difference lies in the basis of their destiny. In the case of ethnicity Baumann points to a common destiny and some political organisation, in the case of nationality the common destiny is based on the state. In the media the difference between ethnicity and nationality is more abstract and simple, clearly linking nationality to the nation state and ethnicity to certain human characteristics, regardless of their geographical location or political orientation.
Nevertheless one should bare in mind that ethnicity and nationality are both constructions, often constructed by ‘outsiders’ and therefore problematic, especially in Africa as Dorman (2007) has illustrated. Nationality is only a recent concept in Africa, much linked to the emerge of the nation states after independence. Feelings of identity linked to the nation state differ greatly among countries depending -apart from obvious geographical, demographical and political differences- on colonial history and the age of the nation state. National identity is a completely different construction in Ghana, which has been independent for over 50 years and originates from a spatially defined colony, or Somalia, which has never been a unity in pre-colonial or colonial times. Ethnicity is a construction as well, often based on permeable borders -culturally, socially and spatially- between peoples living in certain areas on a certain moment in time. It was only institutionalised and therefore fixed –bureaucratically- under colonial rule.
It is interesting to see how these constructions are used in the reporting on xenophobic violence. In a lot of the Dutch articles in my dataset (appendix IV) the victims are referred to as foreigners. From the text it becomes clear that this means foreign nationality. When the xenophobic violence in South Africa lasts longer than a week and journalists and public officials get a clearer picture on the victims it becomes clear that not only foreigners in the sense of a different nationality are attacked but in fact everybody not belonging to the dominant ethnic groups in the main cities, being Zulu or Xhosa. So in fact members of smaller ethnic groups in South Africa are also viewed as foreigners by fellow South Africans. At the same time white people are not viewed as foreigners in the context of xenophobic violence.
The word Amakwerekwere used by black South Africans, paints a more accurate picture of who is viewed as the other than the word foreigner. The word derives from isiXhosa and is a neologism. It describes somebody or something new or unfamiliar and includes economic and political refugees, immigrant workers and seasonal labourers. The South Africans who first used the allocation claimed that when a Zimbabwean immigrant, or a Nigerian, a Mozambican, a Somali, a Senegalese, any African foreigner spoke, ‘all they heard was unintelligible gibberish that sounds kwere, kwere, kwere! Hence Amakwerekwere.’ ( So the identification of foreigners was very much linked to the linguistic characteristic of ethnicity. This also explains why white people are not amakwerekwere, they speak English or Afrikaans, languages familiar, at least in sound, to most black South Africans. As it is linked to the language people speak it can also include other South Africans from minority ethnic groups, such as Venda or transborder groups that live both in South Africa and in the bordering nation states, such as Shangaan (SA and Mozambique), Ndbele (SA and Zimbabwe) or Tswana (SA and Botswana). Media and politics make a distinction between foreigners and South Africans on the basis of nationality, but it actually is a more complex matter of othering, related to ethnicity through language and not to nationality. Who the other is, is predominantly type casted by their nationality, but as a derivative of language and even social or economic position, as the xenophobic violence against Somali shopkeepers in the Cape clearly illustrates. The underlying reasons for othering are not the nationality as such, but the presumed problems related to or characteristics projected on these nationalities. MMA in their 2003 research even conclude that xenophobic reporting appears to be a manifestation of the negative, stereotypical representation of Africa in South Africa’s media. Quoting Danso and McDonald (2000) they state that media ‘reproduce racial and national stereotypes about migrants from other African countries –for example- depicting Mozambicans as car thieves and Nigerians as drug smugglers (MMA, 2003:21).’ In my research on the xenophobic violence in May 2008 I will also look into these stereotypes in the Dutch media. Overall the media in South Africa and in the Netherlands struggle to avoid stereotypes but as they fail to communicate the complexities of xenophobic violence, they end up using stereotypes after all. Another complicating factor are the dominant frames through which media view Africa and African’s. Victims and perpetrators are classified through known criteria, linked to classic images such as ‘the savage’, ‘the dependent’, ‘the incapable’ (chapter 2). If information or images fit these frames they are quickly classified. Media don’t look beyond the first impressions and take too much for granted. Representations are reproduced and believed, for they are familiar.

However this is a fair conclusion based on the results, as I will show in the following section, I will also try to shed some light on the underlying processes causing these simplifications. In my master research I will go into depth to find out how certain representations in the media are constructed and why. For now I will stick to the case of xenophobic violence in South Africa in May 2008 and how it was represented in the Dutch print media.

3.2. Case Description

On May 11 2008 an outburst of xenophobic violence in the Johannesburg township Alexandra triggered more xenophobic violence in other townships. First it only spread in the economic heart of South Africa, the Gauteng province. After two weeks the violence jumped to other urban areas across the country, mainly Durban and Cape Town. But it also emerged in townships in more rural areas such as the Limpopo province and Knysna, a town on the south-eastern coast along the popular tourist attraction the Garden Route.

The violence consisted of attacks both verbally and physically by inhabitants of the townships on other inhabitants. The victims were called foreigners, referring to their nationality being non-South African and predominantly Zimbabwean and Mozambican. As a result many houses were burnt, 342 shops were looted and 213 burnt down. Hundreds of people were injured, thousands chased away and the death toll after the attacks stood at 56.

The response of the ANC-government was to oppress and control the violence by ordinary police force, sometimes assisted by private security forces. After more than a week the military was put into action. Only after three weeks refugee camps were installed. By that time, towards the end of May, the government called the situation ‘under control’. Media attention in South Africa then shifted to the refugee camps and lingered on with some reports until the end of July. The response of the government, especially president Mbeki, was to deny xenophobia as a source of the violence and dismiss it as ordinary crime by unemployed youths and gangs, ruling the townships.

The response in society in South Africa was twofold. On the one hand there was a lot of understanding and even support for the xenophobia, sometimes even justifying the violence. On the other hand there was a strong call from society that this was not the way to deal with matters and that the government should answer to the discontent in society, more specific the poor neighbourhoods and their inhabitants. Several public events were organized condemning xenophobia, websites launched and cartoons published.

How xenophobic South Africans see
other Africans, Zapiro, June 2008

Xenophobic violence in townships in South Africa is not a new phenomena in the media. From the MMA- report it becomes clear that the South African press has reported on xenophobic violence on a regular basis since 1994. It peaked on moments of greater or more significant violence, but overall the topic wasn’t just incidental. The reporting of the 2008 outburst of xenophobic violence shows a new phenomena in the reporting. The South African press is using all the possibilities of modern media technology to report on xenophobia and to commit the public to the issue. Newspapers have special dossiers and archives online and some even facilitate ongoing mapping of xenophobic violence. The Ushahidi engine on the basis of Google Maps is being used to map reports of the current xenophobic attacks in South Africa on a site called News24 uses the same tool to map xenophobic violence[13]. News24 asks the public to actively participate by adding data to the map. From this information it becomes clear that incidents went on in June and July, even with killings. These initiatives show a genuine concern and active participation by South Africans in society. This is not a new development but the recent grow, size and impact can partly be attributed to the increase of fast internet in South Africa and the broad coverage of internet access over the country. A group of engaged citizens, across all layers and peoples in society, speak out against abuses, calling on government and society to take their responsibility. Through the internet the group is growing and exposing their grievances and concerns publically in rallies and pressure groups. Initiatives such as ‘men against sexual violence’, ‘Abahlali baseMjondolo, the South African shack dwellers’ movement and the ‘16-days of activism’ campaign are only a few of the renown examples.

3.3. The Dutch context


The Dutch media picked up the story after a week on Monday May 19th (appendix III). It is unclear why they all together picked it up at that particular moment. Possibly because the ANP had launched a press release in the weekend before or because foreign media (e.g. the BBC) had a report which they picked up. It was definitely not because they were keeping a close eye on the country themselves and followed up the national press, not at that moment nor over the past years, as becomes clear in the previous paragraph.  The fact that Bram Vermeulen, the major Dutch correspondent (NOS and NRC Handelsblad) was at that time in the Netherlands and not at the scene, probably had something to do with it as well. If the NRC would have covered the story earlier other media might have followed.

Figure 1. Articles on xenophobia violence in six Dutch newspapers form May 19th until June 30th 2008. The length (number of words) is indicated on the y-ax.


At the start of Dutch media coverage the official death toll was already thirteen, according to the leading South African newspaper the Mail & Guardian (see appendix I), but increased to twenty in the course of that Monday. Most Dutch media attention faded after a week, in some cases it continued for another week, but towards the end of May the story had disappeared from the Dutch media platform. Most media therefore missed the nuances in representation of events, victims and perpetrators that started to become clearer after two weeks of violence in South Africa. Half way June media attention shifted to the upcoming 90th birthday of Nelson Mandela. Little attention was paid to the refugee camps or to the after flow or consequences of the incident. Neither to the actions of the South African government.

Taking into consideration that xenophobia is not a new phenomena in South Africa, nor has it been ignored by the South African press, it is striking that the coverage in the Dutch press had such a strong sense of surprise. The Dutch media and public seemed completely taken aback by this expression of hate towards other Africans by inhabitants of Mandela’s rainbow country. Their images of South African society and peoples didn’t match at all with reality. In Dutch society there is still a shared meaning that the relative peaceful transition after Apartheid is a miracle. And however this is not at all the opinion of South African analysts and journalists as is brilliantly described by prominent South African journalist, Allister Sparks in his book Beyond the miracle (2001), the image still serves the Dutch public.

Figure 2. Articles on xenophobia violence in six Dutch newspapers in the first two weeks of coverage  (May 19th until June 1st  2008). The length (number of words) is indicated on the y-axis.

Over the past years the image has altered due to continuing reports on the high crime rate and other problems such as domestic violence and aids, but the dominant opinion on South Africa is still quite positive. Nelson Mandela and bishop Tutu are honoured as heroes, even more so in the west than in South Africa itself. It was remarkable that during the past elections the attention by the western press for Nelson Mandela casting his vote was far bigger than the local press. In South Africa Mandela is not such an influential figure anymore. This is important because Dutch journalists have to take this representation of South Africa, this shared meaning on the miracle of the rainbow country into consideration when they report on South Africa. They might use this image deliberately to serve their public, or they might do so unknowingly because they simply see South Africa through this frame. One way or the other,  journalists construct images and use representations to share meaning (Hall, 1997). When a journalist has only little space to communicate the story it is more likely that he will lign up with familiar shared images, it takes much more analyses and context to create a new shared meaning.

From the Dutch context it is also interesting to look at the process of othering. In my analyses I will show that the representations create strong images of ‘we’ and ‘they’. Partly this is a reflection of the actual situation in which immigrants in South Africa are viewed as the other. This is contrary to the Pan-Africanist view the ANC strongly promotes, all black Africans are brothers and sisters. It comes as no surprise that president Mbeki condemns the violence with reference to this supposed shared meaning. It also clearly illustrates the discrepancy between shared meaning in society and in politics. Seen from a Dutch point of view however it is more a matter of ‘they’ against ‘them’. But by clearly sympathising with the victims, the events also become a matter of ‘them’ against ‘us’, representing the perpetrators as the others. There is also a sense of moral superiority involved, the victims are the good guys, the perpetrators the bad guys, and we in the west team up with the victims.

Finally it is remarkable that the denial of the violence as xenophobic by president Mbeki is so strongly criticised in the Dutch media, while on the other hand western media and public have themselves ignored xenophobia in South Africa over the past fifteen years. I will not get into this in detail but it has much to do with the frames through which media described and analysed both South Africa (the rainbow country) and its president Mbeki. His structural denial of all kinds of political and societal issues (HIV/Aids and Zimbabwe) has created an image of ‘an ostrich’ hiding away from reality.[14]

On a more general level the issue of xenophobia is in a way still a taboo in Europe it self. Many politicians and journalists are struggling in their attempts to address expressions of hate and exclusion by European citizens, organisations and political parties.

Only recently in 2006 has the European Union published a report on racism, xenophobia and the media. The report is the outcome of a conference and can be viewed as an attempt of agenda setting and rising of public and political awareness in Europe. Thorough and large scale research, such as carried out by MMA in South Africa seems still absent in the European academia. Just recently an article on xenophobia, in relation to the popularity of right wing politician Geert Wilders, was published in NRC Next[15]. This might be the first indication that the topic is becoming an issue, at last. Xenophobia in the European media will make a good topic for a media research.


3.4. Research question, set up and methodology

In my case study on media coverage of xenophobic violence in South Africa I choose to describe and analyse the way in which the Dutch print media covered the events. I was mostly curious how the country (South Africa), the events, and the ‘victims and perpetrators’ were represented in the Dutch media. And if these representations relate to classic images of Africa or South Africa, or not. I was also interested to find out if newspapers covered the events differently and if this resulted in other media images.

Main question
What image(s) of (South) Africa have been constructed in the Dutch print media as a result of the coverage of xenophobic violence in South Africa in May 2008?


Sub questions
How are the actors,  the events, and circumstances represented and which are the discourses or prepositions and myths?

Are there any differences between newspapers?

What is the role of photographs in the construction of meaning?

How do these image(s) and prepositions relate to ‘classic’ images of Africa in the west?
Do theories on representation, othering and image-construction apply?

To limit the length of this paper I will now continue with a brief description of my research set up and methodology and continue with the major outcomes of the research in relation to my research questions. For a better understanding of the research data see appendix II and IV.

Selection of data
            Within the field of print media I analysed three mainstream national newspapers with different audiences. The social-liberal NRC Handelsblad, the more religious and socially oriented Trouw and the ‘capitalist’ Telegraaf. I also analysed a regional newspaper BN/De Stem, two free tabloid newspapers, Metro and Spits and one weekly newspaper, Elsevier. I tried to analyse another regional newspaper but either news coverage was too limited (Dagblad van het Noorden, Leeuwarder Courant) or too much the same as in BN/De Stem (De Gelderlander). The latter is caused by the fact that all regional newspapers use the GPD (regional press agency). In the foreign news section of different newspapers a lot of the same GPD-articles are used. Metro and Spits use mainly ANP news releases that are rewritten into small news items. Overall Spits puts more effort into own news gathering than Metro. Finally I included Elsevier, out of curiosity and just to see what media image is constructed by a weekly newspaper that only has one opportunity per week to address an issue. I will however not include Elsevier in my analyses.

Time frame and criteria
            I’ve analysed the news coverage on xenophobic violence from the May 19th when the first items were published until two months after the major outburst. I collected general information on the news items, such as length of articles, place in the newspapers, use of images and so on. I analysed the texts using detailed content analyses and general discourse analyses (prepositions).  For the selection of key words used in the content analyses and the choice of prepositions analysed in the discourse analyses I used back ground information on Africa’s media image (see chapter three) as well as the list used by MMA in their research in 2003.

I structured my list of key words along the five building blocks of news: who, what, when, where, and why. The ‘when’ was not a distinctive category in the key word list but I did use it to describe the time factor. I used some simple statistics and presentation methods to illustrate the news coverage over time. The first two categories deal with ‘who’ and consists of words used to describe victims of xenophobic violence on the one hand and, perpetrators on the other. The third category deals with ‘what’, it includes words used to describe the events. The reasons ‘why’ are listed in the forth category. Finally I have collected information on the ‘where’. In the latter category it’s fore most interesting to see how the locations were described and what the level of detail was, in different newspapers. The list of general information and key words is presented in appendix II.
For the analyses of photographs I used Barthes approach to myths. The signifiers and myths in each photograph are described in the dataset in appendix III. To limit my research I’ve focused on one photograph in particular. This photo is not only interesting in itself but it has also been used and cut out differently by different newspapers.

4. Analyses of data:  media images of victims, perpetrators and events

4.1. The victims

The overall image of victims is “harmless and hard working (predominantly male) black immigrants, from bordering states, who fear for their lives due to xenophobic violence”. Nationality is often used to distinguish the victims, ethnicity seems ignored. Zimbabwe and Mozambique are most frequently mentioned as countries of origin. As explained in chapter three Africans are no longer represented by their ethnicity but by their nationality. The only newspaper to clearly differentiate along ethnic lines is NRC Handelsblad, and only in two articles. The reason might be that Bram Vermeulen has been a correspondent in South Africa for almost seven years and is well aware of the ethnic differences and the way in which they matter in the local situation. To the Dutch audience these differences are hardly relevant and only make sense if the story is properly contextualized. Most newspapers don’t have the space nor the priority to do so. Overall the Dutch media use the presumed neutral word Africans, which is actually quite problematic as it disregards the differences between the peoples. No doubt the choice is made for two reasons, most journalists have no idea how ethnicity is at play in these African circumstances and secondly they think that it is politically correct to ‘de-ethnitize’ the issue. Furthermore the representation of victims versus perpetrators is very much through a frame of haves and have-nots and not of through a racial frame. The victims have jobs, in the case of the Somali specified to shop owners, the perpetrators do not. These signifiers create a representation of the conflict as a class struggle more than a racial struggle.

Figures 3 and 4. Typecasting and nationality of victims (see appendix IV for more detail)

The representation of the victims relates for some part to the ‘dependency image’ of the Cold War era. But the victims are not portrayed as helpless, which is a remarkable difference with the familiar image (Fair, 1993). The media image of Trouw most closely relates to that dependency image as the emphasis is on the representation as refugees and social and aid workers are frequently quoted. This image is supported by the photographs. Trouw prints five pictures of refugees and refugee camps, mostly dealing with Zimbabwean and Mozambican migrants. NRC also shows the Somali refugees in a camp near Cape Town. Signifiers such as white tents signify to familiar image of war zones such as Darfur, especially in combination with Somali refugees. Thus a myth of  a ‘refugee problem’ is created. The fact that the South African government declared that they waited so long before constructing these camps just to avoid stereotyping, proves how strong this ‘refugee-discourse’ is. It is only through the words in the articles that the victims are given a voice. The reader gets a more contextualized representation, to the viewer only familiar images and myths are reproduced .

Another question is if the victims are stereotyped. This is actually only the case with the Somali. In all newspapers they are represented as shopkeepers. MMA in their report on xenophobia and racism in the media state that foreigners are often criminalized because the media report on them when they are arrested or deported. The fact that they are arrested for illegality and not for crimes, makes hardly any difference. The contact with the police represents them as criminals. I found no proof of this in the Dutch reporting. The Dutch media hardly ever refer to the victims as illegal immigrants. When they report on victims that are picked up and brought to shelters by the police, the emphasis is on the unfair treatment by the police, thus strengthening the image of ‘the underdog’  and not of the criminal.

4.2. The perpetrators

All media agree, the perpetrators are “angry, unemployed, poor young South African men, predominantly of Zulu origin”. The representation of the perpetrators is clearly very different from that of the victims, not only is the representation one sided and flat, it is also ethnic. When media want to use a neutral representation, especially Telegraaf and Metro, they use the words ‘inhabitants’ (appendix IV). This is however a bit mystifying as in some cases the rest of the text clearly indicates that these inhabitants are groups of young violent males –Telegraaf and Metro even refer to them as gangs.
The image of the perpetrators closely resembles the primitivist image of the colonial era. However the perpetrators are never represented as murders -despite the death toll of almost 60 people in June 2008- their acts of violence are nevertheless type casted as cruel and even barbaric. Trouw is most explicit in its condemnation of the violence referring to killings as cruel and stressing feelings of fear among the refugees. Telegraaf emphasizes riots, burning of houses and looting, thus strengthening the image of gangs of young men and even criminalizing them to a certain extent. They furthermore add to the colonial image of the ‘primitive savage’ by representing the events as black-on-black violence. The photographs of perpetrators in all newspapers show them either as a group of young men on the war path or indirectly represent them as savages by showing their burning victims and burned down houses. Photography played an important role in the representation of the perpetrators as I will illustrate in a separate paragraph.

NRC is the only newspaper that didn’t go at lengths to describe all the types of violence that occurred. It’s also the only newspaper that didn’t print the photograph of a burning victim in a news article but used it when the violence was decreasing and coverage shifted to more analyses and background information. The free newspapers only cover the story in short news items, so there is little space to create a complex image. These newspapers take a less dramatic stance. They do mention the death toll but focus more on looting and rioting than actual killings.

Signifying the perpetrators as of Zulu origin and describing them as groups of young men, dancing and running through the townships appeals to the familiar representation of the Zulu warrior. But the journalists never explicitly refer to them in this way neither are their actions represented as heroic or traditional, nor explained as Zulu rituals. Most of the photographs however, showing groups of young men parading through the townships, strongly resemble familiar images from Zulu-movies such as Shaka Zulu and documentaries on the Anglo-Zulu wars in the 19th century. Many people also know the Zulu dancers from tourist brochures and cultural dance groups. It’s the combination of signifiers in photo’s and text (young men running and dancing, waving of sticks, reference to gangs and Zulu origin) that immediately signify familiar concepts and ideas, which Saussure (2007) called the signified. In the recent setting they together create a myth of modern Zulu warriors on the war path. The fact that it is the only way in which the perpetrators are visualized creates a one-sided representation. In time, when the violence spreads to other parts of the country, the image becomes more complex, but hardly any Dutch newspaper reports on this.
In the representation of the perpetrators stereotyping is also at play. By focussing on young men as the main perpetrators, all young men of South African – more specifically of Zulu origin- are portrayed as rioters and killers. In the news articles no voices of other young South African men are heard. None other but these young Zulu men are perpetrators, no other South African youths are quoted in relation to the violence. To the contrary, young women are quoted twice, but only to state that young South African men are lazy and that they actually prefer Zimbabwean men, for they are faithful and hardworking. This stereotyping and one-sided quoting strengthens the image of ‘the other’. It’s not just the angry young unemployed South African’s against the working immigrants, but also the young men against the young women in the townships. This all adds to an image of youth being irresponsible and disruptive, which is also a familiar media image especially in South Africa as Jean and John Comaroff have described in many of their publications. Comaroff and Comaroff describe an even more striking phenomena. Young white Europeans are called teenagers, ‘their black counterparts are youth, adolescents with an attitude. And most often, if not always, male.’(Comaroff and Comaroff, 2001:16). For this paper I will mainly focus on media images of Africans in general and keep aspects of gender and age out of my analyses. However, it becomes clear from the research by Comaroff and Comaroff, that in the case of black youths –in my case study the perpetrators- both age and gender are major aspect of their image.

4.3. The events

The most common used and most neutral word for the events is violence. Hate and xenophobia is the most commonly used indication of the violence, with racial and tribal violence coming in third. It is remarkable that Telegraaf and Metro do not use this typecasting. On the other hand Telegraaf is the only newspaper to mention witch-hunting  and to stress hate and paint a picture of black-on-black violence. In the end the effect is the same, as illustrated in the previous paragraph. The events are represented within the colonial frame of tribal conflict. But at the same time the dependency image is present. Not only in the way the victims are portrayed but most of all in the explanations for the violence. The events are framed as a class struggle between haves and have-nots. The main difference between perpetrators and victims is believed to be employment. This Marxist approach was common in the Cold War era (see chapter two). After independence a lot of African conflicts were viewed as class struggles rather than racial conflicts, partly as a result of political correctness, partly as a result of development aid focussed on poverty relief.

It’s interesting to see that some articles only indirectly describe the situation as a crisis, using words such as anarchy, emergency, chaos and even war. Newspapers Metro and Spits do refer to the events as chaos or anarchy but refrain from typecasting them as a crisis or conflict. Nevertheless the combination of those signifiers creates a discourse on security, which fits the lost continent image well. The three mainstream newspapers are the ones to accurately paint a picture of crisis and conflict in a environment of racial violence. Almost to their own surprise it seems. Is South Africa finally becoming an ordinary African state and can it be viewed through the same western frame of failed states?




Only newspapers who report on the events for a longer period of time and who use genres such as background stories and features are able to come up with a more complex analyses and explanation of the events, than just unemployment and housing. As far as other explanations are concerned it is highly relevant who claims the explanation. In quotes perpetrators, victims and bystanders mentioned that foreigners are believed to ‘steal jobs, houses and women’. Victims and the government also claim that the perpetrators are criminals and that social reasons are not at the basis. Independent sources such as aid workers, priests or civil servants paint a broader picture of social deprivation and lacking services. Political analysts put it down to a failing government and point at president Thabo Mbeki. Hardly any of the newspapers come up with facts, however. The rate of unemployment is frequently mentioned, but the other issues, such as lacking services, the frequent power cuts due to electricity shortage, figures on domestic abuse, education, health issues and so forth are hardly ever quantified. It’s mostly through the quotes by sources on the streets that the reader forms an image of the underlying reasons for this outburst of violence. That image is rather blurred as different sources voice different opinions on the matter. This mixture of reasons represents the issue as being more complex than unemployment, but doesn’t create new or more precise explanations. So in the end the general discourse remains that unemployment is at the basis of the violence.








Another interesting aspect of the events is the location and the different words that are used in western media to describe the scene of xenophobic violence. Different words not only have different meanings within the African context but also in the western representation of Africa. In most of the articles the scenes are described as squatter camps or slums. In the west most readers have images of squatter camps from aid promo’s and documentaries, showing shacks build of cardboard or corrugated steel, with no facilities and crowded by poor and desperate people. The South African word township is not commonly used in the west. Some newspapers try to avoid stereotyping and simply call it poor neighbourhoods, but the majority use the words squatter camp or slum. This is a complete misrepresentation. Townships are suburbs, with a predominantly poor black population. There are some shacks but most of them have brick houses, electricity, shops, streets and even luxurious villa’s. Squatter areas or shacks only refer to the very poor and informal parts of townships. The neutral word, informal settlement, frequently used in Britain and South Africa is not used by Dutch media. But informal settlement is also problematic as most townships are not informal, to the contrary they are actually best described as poorer suburbs (in a South African context), who sometimes do have parts with informal settlement. But the word suburb obviously rings another bell in the western perspective. One can only begin to image the struggle journalists are having in describing the scene of events to a western public. More contextualizing photographs of ordinary township houses and streets might prove supportive. Most photographs that show glimpses of the scenes show shacks on fire, but what does this mean? Are immigrants living in shacks, are shacks easier to set on fire, are all ‘poor blacks’ living in shacks in South Africa. A photo in NRC shows that in fact they are not. The first photo printed by NRC on May 19th shows a well dressed young women and her children, standing in front of a brick house, the police holding down a presumed perpetrator. This is the only photo in all the newspapers and coverage of the events that actually gives some context on the scene, the others only support stereotypes. It’s interesting to see that however Trouw and NRC try to give context and avoid ‘easy explanations’, their choice of photographs reveals a specific view on the events. Trouw has a strong focus on the refugee issue, which is in line with their discourses in text. NRC however use photographs to add another element to their representation in text. They emphasise the power situation, often picturing police officers at the scenes instead of victims. This supports discourses on security which are an essential part of the lost continent image.



5. The case of Ernesto Alfabeto Nhamuave

Most of the photographs contain signifiers on victims, perpetrators and events, which can be used in the same way as the keywords in the articles. We see young, male perpetrators holding sticks, we see victims as refugees in a shelter. But more than the text the photographs create complex images or myths through a combination of signifiers and, as Barthes (1973) states, they communicate ideas which are more than a simple combination of signifiers. Furthermore the combination of representations on victims, perpetrators and events is stronger in a photograph than in text as the viewer in one glance oversees the whole scene and needn’t take time to consume the information as is the case with text. And however photographs can also show only certain parts of the story, they cannot be taken out of context completely. As text can leave out the description of a scene and focus only on the signifiers of victim and perpetrator, a photograph still shows the surroundings, thus giving context and meaning. The photojournalists decides which story he wants to create, choosing his perspective, framing the image, but he can’t leave context out completely. Next comes in the photo desk at the newspaper, were a selection out of all the photographs is made and sometimes photographs are cut, to emphasize certain aspects. This often results in a loss of context as the example of Ernesto Alfabeto Nhamuave will illustrate. It sometimes even creates new meaning. The way the media have used and not used the photographs of Ernesto makes an infesting case, so  I will focus on this example in my analyses.

On the internet several photographs (appendix V) by different photographers tell the story. A man is lying on the ground in a township. Several black police officers enter the scene and try to put out the fire, using all kinds of materials right at hand, such as pieces of cardboard and a carpet. Finally a white police officer with a fire extinguisher arrives and the fire is put out, leaving the man on hands and knees and covered in white powder. Captions on internet describe that the man later died in hospital.

The photo of Ernesto has become an icon-photo to capture the events. In the same way as Nick Ut’s photograph of Kim Phuc symbolized the horrors of napalm in the Vietnam war and more recently the photo of the dying young women Neda symbolizes the recent bloody resistance in Iran[16]. Bram Vermeulen reflects on the debate following the publication of the Ernesto-photo in chapter five of his book “Help ik ben blank geworden”. In an answer to a letter by a reader who accuses the newspaper of voyeurism (Vermeulen, 2009:110), he argues that the publication of the photo is justified as long as people such as the reader are still affected by them. The danger of too many horrifying photographs is indifference, Vermeulen acknowledges but it can never be an accuse for not publishing the horrors of societies. On the other hand I think it was justified that NRC decided not to publish the photo as an opening to the news coverage for it immediately frames the events through a colonial perspective of the savage African.

The sequence of photos on the internet (appendix V) does not only tell the story in more detail than just the single pictures in different newspapers, it also tells the story of the photographers. When this horrific scene occurred several photographers were present. Another photograph, used in an analytical article by Bram Vermeulen in NRC a year later shows photographers all lining up to take a photograph of a murdered man. This example touches on another heated debate in photojournalism, are photographers just doing their jobs or should they pay more respect. The fact that the photo of the photographers at work, showing the ‘other side of the perspective’ is published, and even in an early stage of the events on May 20th,  illustrates that this debate is out in the open now. However interesting I will not elaborate on it, but as this was no doubt at play in the case of Ernesto as well, I’ve included the photo just to show the other side of the spectrum.

Trouw and Telegraaf both use the same photo of Ernesto covered in white powder when the fire is put out. They also both decide to use it as their opening photo on May 19th and 20th. Both newspapers thoughtfully decided not to use the photo of Ernesto in flames, but minutes after, when the fire was put out. They nevertheless decided to show the most gruesome side of the outburst of violence and thus firmly represented the violence as cruel. They however framed the photo differently. Telegraaf also showed the police officer involved, Trouw doesn’t. The photo in Telegraaf therefore contains more myths (see analyses in appendix 4) or at least a more complex myth. It’s not just the myth of horrific violence in Africa, it’s also the story of a white police officer and a black victim. I’ve described the myth in the photo as: “Xenophobic violence is not a white on black issue as it was in the Apartheid years.”(appendix VI). This is a myth that can’t simply be reduced to its signifiers and in Barthes methodology is a clear example of the second phase of representation. Another myth is present in the photo, the myth of white noble superiority. However it’s a bit farfetched it is my opinion that the white police officer, coming to the rescue, standing over a helpless black man on the ground suggest moral superiority. Not just towards the man lying on the ground but more so towards his assassins, who are (as becomes clear from the text) black too. This is also very much in line with the old colonial image, which communicated white superiority, especially in religion and civilization.

Trouw deliberately cut out the white officer, which is also questionable, for it is part of the reality as captured by the photojournalist. Interviews with the photo desk could reveal the reasons why they did this. Maybe they thought the myths communicated by the combination of white police officer and black victim too problematic or maybe they simply wanted to focus on the victim.

NRC does publish the photo of a burning man, covered in flames with a pole of wood still standing upright to his side. It’s one of the first pictures taken at the scene and far more dramatic than the one used by Trouw and Telegraaf. NRC however chooses to use the photo in a big feature and background article in the Saturday special of May 31st, not as an opening picture on May 19th. At that time the audience was probably familiar with the photographs as they had been all over the television screens and on the internet. NRC -as Trouw- decided to focus on the victim and to cut off the upperparts of the photograph, which more clearly show the black officers coming to the rescue. One could argue that it makes the image stronger as only one dominant myth is created, that of horrific violence. In this particular case however the violence isn’t just horrific it is also very South African. Setting people on fire was common practice in the last decade of the struggle against Apartheid when civil war torn the townships apart and traitors were marked by necklacing. A burning man in a South African township wants to tell us that the old days and ways are back. By leaving out context, this is the one strong message that is send out. A clear myth of the second phase of representation (Barthes, 1973) for the image itself doesn’t show any necklacing and Apartheid is long over. This myth is only created by the association with earlier events captured in the memory of the readers and viewers, not by the actual signifiers in the photograph. As is the case with the white superiority represented by a white police officer. Personally I would have chosen a photograph that also shows the black officers rushing to the rescue and the scene of the township. By framing photographs into one myth it becomes stronger but it makes it increasingly difficult to give context via photography and in a way it also creates meaning, for it is very questionable if there is any relation between the necklacing in the 1980s and the recent burning of people during the xenophobic attacks. To explain the events using single images is difficult as it is, but cutting out the context makes it even more difficult and leaves the interpretation to the viewer, from his perspective, memory and imagination. In the creation of these myths the signified becomes stronger than the signifier. One could also argue that some signifiers are so closely linked to certain fixed ideas and representation in the past, that they should not be shown out of context when they are present in a new situation.

6.  Final remarks – Africa’s media image in xenophobic violence coverage


To answer my main research question[17] I have analyzed the selected print media through a series of sub questions, thus analysing aspects of the media coverage separately. Putting all these aspects together I will try to establish if one of the classical images of Africa, as described in chapter two, is dominant in the coverage of xenophobic violence.


6.1 Representations in the media coverage of xenophobic violence

My analyses show that the victims are mainly represented through a dependency frame, however not too the extreme of helplessness which is common in the representation of refugees in conflict areas in other parts of Africa. Trouw is most outspoken in the representation through this frame. The representations of the economic status of the victims (employed) and perpetrators (unemployed) aligns with representations of class struggle which were common in the dependency image. Trouw also sympathise with the victims, in this way involving the readers in processes of othering in which a moral superiority of the victims over the perpetrators is clearly underlying the discourse.
Telegraaf adds characteristics of the colonial image to the representation of the victims. In this case it is not a moral superiority but  the racial superiority of white over black which is represented through a white police officer in the photo of Ernesto. The representation of the events as brutal adds another ethnic component to the image in Telegraaf.
Most media struggle with the definition of foreigner. The main focus is on the nationality as the larger part of the victims originate from Zimbabwe and Mozambique. But in due time it becomes clear through media such as Trouw and NRC who report on the events for a longer period of time, that foreigner is actually a translation of the isiXhosa-word amaKwerekwere, meaning somebody speaking an unfamiliar language. It is obviously easier for media to refer to foreigners by naming their nationality than trying to explain which non-Zulu or Xhosa speaking people are regarded foreign, which not en why. But in this case it resulted in a sloppy representation because part of the truth was thus concealed. It turned out that over 20% of the victims were South Africans of minority ethnic groups.

The perpetrators are for the large part represented through the colonial frame of the primitive savage. This image is present and dominant in all newspapers and is the only way in which the perpetrators are visualized in photographs. However analyses and interpretation in features and background articles try to explain the actions of the perpetrators, the dominant image remains. Even if the reader is informed on unemployment and social deprivation, the perpetrators are still represented as poor, angry and unemployed. The lack of other images of the perpetrators and the clear contradiction with the victims is also a cause for other discourses such as ‘poor youths are violent’ and ‘youths are unemployed because they are lazy’. In the text also tribal characteristics of the colonial image are present as the perpetrators are frequently referred to as Zulu and not as South Africans. Clearly the media think that their ethnicity matters. It refers to aspects of ethnicity which were reproduced in the representation of the anti-Apartheid struggle, when the emphasis was mainly on Zulu and Xhosa violence (Brock, 1992). So both main aspects of the colonial image, ethnicity and primitivism, are present in the representation of the perpetrators, making it into a very strong image.

The events are only thoroughly analysed and contextualized by NRC and Trouw who  use features and background articles which allow for more context. This more in-depth reporting overall gives more context and explanation, but eventually creates the same media image as the shorter coverage by the other media. It results in the representation of South Africa through the frame of the lost continent. The use of words such as conflict and chaos support the discourse that Africans can’t control their own destiny. This images of Africa, which before was hardly used for South Africa, now becomes the dominant frame, through which the events are represented and explained. In a way NRC and Trouw even add to this image when they criticise the South African government for their slow handling of social issues such as unemployment and housing. Good governance is the central objective of development aid based on the failed states discourse of the post-Cold War era.

This framing of South Africa through the lost continent frame is largely the consequence of the overall surprise in the west that this could actually happen to South Africa. Which clearly illustrates the discrepancy between the ‘rainbow nation image’  that has been fostered in the west and the reality of a multicultural new democracy facing problems of crime and unemployment. South Africa has always had characteristics of the dependency and lost continent images, but these were overlooked by western media as they first did not fit the Apartheid image and later did not fit their frame of the rainbow nation. Apparently the discourses on Apartheid and on the rainbow nation were so strong that South Africa wasn’t viewed as a part of Africa. The recent representation of xenophobic violence, through frames of dependency, conflict and state failure are a clear indication that the rainbow image is in decline and also an indication that South Africa is now represented through the same images as the rest of Africa.

The photographs of Ernesto Nhamuave are probably the most influential in the representation of xenophobic violence. Ernesto became an icon that set the discourse right from the start. A burning victim, set a fire by angry black youths, triggered all the shared meaning captured in classic images of Africa: the primitive savages, the failure of Africa and the helplessness of refugees. It also strongly reminded the public of a specific South African image, the township violence of the last days of Apartheid. This image, as Brock (1992) has argued, consisted of racial attributes linked to the colonial image. But, to follow Barthes, these racial attributes combined with other signifiers such as the scene of poor townships created a specific representation, a myth of violent black resistance in South Africa. As correspondent David Zucchino wrote (1992: 208) ‘When I arrived in South Africa in 1986, the townships were in flames’. A lot of the signifiers that were present in the representation of township violence in the 1980ies are present in the coverage of xenophobic violence twenty years later. In NRC Handelsblad Bram Vermeulen called South Africa, ‘a country at war with itself’[18] many other media characterized the townships as being on fire. This photograph strongly supported the discourse of conflict and chaos and framed the violence as horrifying and typically African, different from violence and resistance elsewhere. As Hawk (1992:7) puts it ‘The message for the reader or viewer is that African events require a different vocabulary than those in Northern Ireland or Yugoslavia. (..) It is “tribal” conflict.’

However most photo’s of Ernesto only show a burning man, the combination with words and other signifiers in the photographs, referring to similar events in the 1980s, created a myth of black-on-black tribal violence. In fact an ethnic myth was created in which the conflict was dehumanized (Hawk, 1992). By using the photo’s of Ernesto as opening photo’s for the media coverage the events were immediately framed as uncivilized black-on-black violence.


6.2 Media images of Africa at play

Taking the whole coverage of events into account it is fair to state that the dominant discourse or myth represented in the xenophobic violence coverage is ‘South Africa has returned to the ways of the anti-apartheid struggle which set the townships on fire in the 1980ies’ This includes all kinds of discourses such as ‘this is the familiar way in which black violence manifests itself in (South) Africa’ and ‘South Africa is part of Africa after all’. These discourses are constructed through representations of victims, perpetrators and events which are linked to classic images of Africa. But the coverage of the xenophobic violence wasn’t framed through one fixed image of Africa alone. Submerged representations from classic media images of Africa and Apartheid images of South Africa are present, together creating a new discourse on South Africa, which can best be described as ‘the end of the rainbow nation’ and is most closely related to the lost continent image, focusing on security. The recent coverage of the upcoming 2010 Soccer World championships in South Africa also has an emphasis on crime and safety.

The analyses of the Dutch media coverage of the xenophobic violence in South Africa most of all show that in media coverage different images can be present at the same time and can also differ between newspapers. To add up the representation into a simple colonial or dependency image is simplifying the complexity of image construction.

The colonial image in South Africa is very much linked to the confrontation between white settlers and black inhabitants, mainly Zulu warriors (Brock, 1992). This image lingers on during the Apartheid years when black opposition is viewed through a tribal frame, as is the case of Inkatha. It is also present in the representation of the perpetrators of xenophobic violence. But the overall coverage is not framed merely through a colonial image.

The media image of South Africa during the Cold War is quite different from the dominant dependency image of the rest of Africa (chapter two). But as Sohat and Stam (1994) have also argued characteristics of images linger on when new images are created. This also means that aspects of the dependency image, however the creation of the image wasn’t based on the South African situation during the Cold War can still be present in the representation of South Africa today. The same applies for the lost continent image of the neo-liberal era. At that time South Africa was a success story, not a part of the lost continent, but nevertheless still part of Africa. Recent reports on crime and conflict are now overshadowing the optimistic images of the rainbow nation and the lost continent image is also applied to South Africa.

It also illustrates the strength of certain classic discourses. The discourses on primitivism (colonial image), incapability (dependency image), failure and conflict (lost continent image) are so strong and so much related to familiar representations that have been used over and over again, that as soon as signifiers pop up people fall back into the classic discourses and view new events through old frames. However the world eagerly embraced the positive developments in South Africa, and the rainbow discourse was going strong throughout the first ten years of democracy,  it seems as if the fixed ideas on Africa and Africans are just around the corner, waiting to be confirmed. This supports Sohat and Stam’s (chapter 2) argument that submerged images are present in new images. I would even argue that they are not just submerged but in fact dormant. Journalists might view signifiers in photo’s and articles through a reflective approach as mere new facts. In truth they signify meaning which is often part of existing images of Africa. If these signifiers are not carefully framed in a new context old discourses and myths are easily reproduced.


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[1] David Livingstone’s Missionary Travels  were published in 1857

[2] Carien J. Touwen, A parrot from Congo, paper for the course Patters of Power Mphil African Studies, 2009

[3] Carien J. Touwen, Bridging the Gap, paper on ethnicity in African Film for the course The Field of African Studies, Mphil African Studies 2008

[4] The Organisation for African Unity was replaced by the African Union in 2002.

[5] Elizabeth Rauber, Chevron seeks to boost Angola’s economy in deal with USAID, San Francisco Business Times, 10 August 2009

[6] Neclacing is a punishment for traitors frequently used by South African freedom fighters in township conflicts in the eighties. A car tire filled with petrol or gasoline is put around the neck of the supposed traitor and set on fire. In most cases the victims dies.

[7] Independent Evaluation Group (2006). Engaging with Fragile States, An IEG review of Wold Bank support to low income countries under stress, Washington: The World Bank

[8] The Report of the UN World Commission on Environment and Development, Our Common Future was published by Oxford University Press in 1987 ( The commission is commonly known by the name of its chair former Norwegian prime minister Brundtland. The aim was to address “ the accelerating deterioration of the human environment and natural resources and the consequences of that deterioration for economic and social development.” Thus linking environment and development for the first time on a global level.

[9] Carien J. Touwen, There’s more to South Africa than lions and Zulu dancers, paper for the course Aims and Results of Africanist Research, MPhil African Studies, 2008

[11] Economische crisis treft Africa hard, NRC Handelsblad, 10 March 2009

[12] MMA is a renown South African organization for media monitoring and research. They have recently changed their name into MMA, the A referring to Africa. Until 2008 they were called MMP, P for project.

[14] Sybilla Claus. Onaantastbare Mbeki nu zelf een crisisfactor, Trouw, 12 June 2008

[15] Hidde Tangerman, Zo vreeemd is die angst voor vreemden niet, NRC Next, 30 June 2009

[16] Rosan Hollak, Toevallig symbol van protest, NRC Next, 25 June 2009

[17] What image(s) of (South) Africa have been constructed in the Dutch print media as a result of the coverage of xenophobic violence in South Africa in May 2008?


[18] Bram Vermeulen, Land in oorlog – met zichzelf. Geweld tegen buitenlanders in Zuid-AFrika, NRC 31 May 2008(see appendix II)

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