The Zuma factor

Date: January 1, 1970
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This article appeared almost immediately after South Africa experienced what some said was a wave of xenophobic violence, despite the targeting of some South Africans in attacks. The article discusses what is, in the author’s opinion, the link between then ruling African National Congress (ANC) party president Jacob Zuma and the violence.

This article may be used to:
  • discuss negative perceptions about vulnerable groups such as asylum seekers and refugees;
  • promote the role of media professionals in efforts to sensitise the public on issues surrounding vulnerable groups;
  • examine sourcing.
Trainers’ notes:
This article attempts to show what was, according to the author, the influence of then ANC president Jacob Zuma’s popularity in the xenophobic outbreaks of May 2008, however the article has serious shortcomings. The is largely descriptive and makes no real attempt to examine issues many experts believe underlie xenophobia such as the host populations ’poor socio-economic conditions and understanding of push factors driving migration as well as a lack of condemnation of such violence at the highest political level. By choosing to focus on what is a loose connection, if any, to the cult of personality around a single political leader, the author looses the opportunity to sensitise the public to these issues. It also may give readers the impression that the violence was a one-time event, tied to the political accession of a single personality – whereas the country has experienced periodic episodes of xenophobic violence throughout its history, indicating that there is a need to continue to examine and address issues fuelling the violence.
The article’s sourcing is also problematic as the journalist does not include the voice of anyone affected by the violence, which would show readers the human impact of the violence and give survivors’ own perspectives of why they were targeted. When dealing with vulnerable populations such as foreigners, refugees or survivors of gender-based violence for example, it s crucial that media professionals strive to include these otherwise marginalised voices in reports on and treat these sources sensitively.
The article’s actual sourcing is weak to say the least. While two prominent migration experts are featured, their quotes do not provide any context to the crimes. These rather flimsy quotes are backed up by 1) an unnamed source heard on the radio, which is assumed to be expressing a sentiment representative of a segment of the general public and 2) another unnamed “Zulu-speaking” source from an informal settlement where violence erupted. Not only are these sources unnamed and in some cases, second-hand but one must question the description attached to the second source: What bearing does the speaker’s language have on the story? Is it necessary or could it perhaps fuel perceptions that Zulu-speaking people were the only ones responsible for the violence? In this instance, despite the fact that IsiZulu is widely used as a lingua franca in much of the greater Johannesburg area owing to the fact that South Africa has 11 official languages, the author is clearly takes language as a marker for the speaker’s affinity to Zuma, who is Zulu, and uses it to back the article’s premise: that the cult of personality around the leader  – especially among Zulu-speaking people – factored into the violence.
The economic powerhouse of southern Africa, South Africa’s economy has historically attracted a large number of migrants from the African continent as well as abroad. Owning, in part, to the poor socio-economic conditions of many South Africans and a perceived competition for resources such as jobs, the country has also historically struggled with outbreaks of what has been termed “xenophobic violence” although it should be noted that South Africans have been among those targeted in these attacks. For instance, in the late 1990s and early 2000’s, the migration research project, the Southern African Migration Project noted xenophobia moved to the fore of the public agenda. Attacks in 2001 prompted public condemnation from then President Thabo Mbeki and saw the establishment of a Counter-xenophobia unit within the Department of Home Affairs. In more recent attacks, political leadership in the country was much slower to respond, leading many nongovernmental organisations who largely organised the initial response to decry the lack of leadership on the issue from government.
While xenophobia is a complex issue, with no one driving force, it may be perpetuated by the public’s poor understanding of the harsh realities facing many immigrants both in their host countries and back home. They may also not realise the positive impact many immigrants make to the South African economy:
  • Immigrants are more than twice as likely to be self-employed as local adult residents (Centre for development and Enterprise,;
  • More than 12 percent of immigrants working mostly in the informal sector employ four employees or more, many of whom are South Africans
  • create jobs with more than 10 percent of immigrants working mostly in (Centre for development and Enterprise,;
  • A study by the University of South Africa found that among Zimbabwean migrants in Johannesburg, 62 percent had passed matric and 32 percent had post-secondary education. The Department of Education recently implemented a policy to facilitate the hiring of Zimbabwean teachers to supplment South Africa’s shortage of teaching staff. (IDASA,
 Discussion questions
  • Can xenophobia be traced to a single person or is it more complex? What are the causes of xenophobia?
  • What responsibility, if any, do journalists have to advocate for the rights of vulnerable populations like foreigners? Is there such as thing as advocacy journalism?
  • How are foreigners portrayed in the media? What kind of stories do we and don’t we hear/see in the media?
  • Did unnamed sources have a place in this story? So they have a place in other kinds of stories, why or why not and what is their role in journalism.
 Training exercises:
  • Profile an immigrant in your community – what made she or he come to the country and what has it been like for them? (NB Many immigrants, especially those who have sought asylum abroad, have experienced trauma owing not only to their status as a foreigner in their host country but also because they may have fled conflict or persecution in their home countries. As a trainer, it is important you discuss how to conduct interview with these sensitivities in mind)
  • Track down an immigrant-run business in you community. Draw a map showing how that business positively impacts your community, i.e. by creating jobs, supporting other businesses or creating the need for new businesses
  • Research the top 5 sending countries to your country. Break into groups and research the current affairs of one of these countries, presenting your findings to the group. What, in your opinion, are some of the reasons driving migration from this country to yours?  

Related Training Resources
The Gendered Nature of Xenophobia in South Africa
Xenophobic violence: one year on – newsroom lessons


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