“Broke-on-Broke Violence”

21 06 2008

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

Since early May, we’ve heard about a beacon of African democracy gone berserk. The U.S. press coverage of xenophobic riots in South Africa told of victims gruesomely killed—beaten, slashed, doused in petrol and set alight—and untold thousands displaced. The stories described mobs of poor South Africans armed with sticks and machetes, shouting, “Kill the foreigner!” and President Thabo Mbeki leaving the violence unchecked for more than a week before eventually calling in the army, causing shootouts in the townships reminiscent of the bad old days of apartheid.Unfortunately, the U.S. coverage provides an incomplete and distorted picture by relying on old clichés about African politics. The coverage shows only suffering victims, violent perpetrators, and a failed African head of state. By slotting foreigners, the South African poor, and the president into these roles and pitting them against each other, U.S. readers and viewers never really find out what xenophobia means in South Africa, except for the most obvious and familiar definition: the hatred of foreigners.

In case the photographs of burning shacks hadn’t already tipped you off, the rioters and their targets in these pogroms were overwhelmingly poor. The U.S. coverage tells us that much. Given South Africa’s history of white racism and colonial privilege, the vast majority of residents of the poorest communities are also black. Comedian Chris Rock, who was touring the country at the time of the attacks, quipped, “It’s not really black-on-black violence; it’s broke-on-broke violence.”

Still, by equating foreigners and victims, much of the U.S. coverage glosses over this race/class dynamic. Newsweek asked, “Can South Africa’s Foreigner Killings Be Stopped?” Migrants from other regions and asylum-seeking refugees were certainly targets of the violence, but the South African Press Agency reported that one-third of the people killed—21 of 62—were South African citizens.

Rioters subjected many South Africans to so-called “elbow tests,” in which a potential victim is asked to supply the Zulu word for elbow. People married to foreigners, those who speak a different language from their neighbors, or anyone with complexions deemed “too dark” were targeted, whether or not they were foreign. Rather than rooting out non-Zulus—it is unlikely that all who administered the tests are even themselves Zulu—the tests are about targeting those who carry a perceived taint of the outsider.

What’s more, it is important to note that the wealthy of any race or nationality were not among the attacked or displaced. In South African cities—in all cities—the rich work, live, and play in separate areas from the poor. Even when the attackers left their home turf, they didn’t head to the nearest wealthy Johannesburg suburb nor to the international airport adjacent to the epicenter of the attacks. Busloads of foreign tourists, ubiquitous in many townships, were unharmed.

But South Africa’s poor aren’t counted among the victims—they are cast as the perpetrators, the embodiment of xenophobia. Read the rest of this entry »