The attacks that have come to be described by us in the media as xenophobic attacks left about 62 people dead, a third of them South Africans. The stories carried in all media – newspapers, online, radio and television – assume that the South Africans were caught in the middle of these attacks and were killed either while resisting their properties being looted, or were maybe mistaken for foreigners.
The attacks were widespread and from all indications of the coverage that is still continuing today, their reasons were equally varied. But the fact that we as South Africans – who had prided ourselves in the main for being “too cool” to target people by virtue of their nationality or tribal affiliations – were witnessing the impossible happening, affected the media too.
As City Press, we took the unusual step of issuing a press statement making our strong views known, over and above the editorial we had written. The statement read in part: “City Press as a newspaper is a proudly African product that believes in the unity, brotherhood and sisterhood of humankind, from whatever quarter of the world people may come from. That these shameful deeds are being done under the guise of defense of South African interests is something we denounce in the strongest language.
“As a newspaper, like many other institutions, we are home to workers from all over the continent and beyond. That diversity strengthens us instead of weakening us. It empowers us instead of threatening us. On behalf of our staff, we are moved to declare for all to hear that the dastardly deeds being heaped on our fellow Africans cannot be done in our name.
“We stand with the victims of the barbarism that is bringing shame to this country and to us as a people. We stand fully behind the victims and will do our bit to help. We accept that as a newspaper the language we use in describing foreigners, before these attacks, now in the middle of the attacks and beyond, can have a role in influencing how our readers understand the presence of foreigners in our midst.
“We reaffirm that we will not ever use language in this paper that denotes foreigners in terms that reduce them to levels below humans. We commit to continuing to respect all people, irrespective of where they came from and irrespective of why they came here.”
This statement was particularly important for us as a newspaper that shares the same offices with the Daily Sun, seen by many people as fanning the flames of hatred. Already accustomed to accusations of being demeaning to blacks, Daily Sun had been running a logo on its coverage of the carnage which was criticised.
They eventually changed it, signifying that even they were realising that their language may not be helpful to processes to curb the scourge. Overall, media companies did not only report on the issue. Many amassed resources to help the displaced people, with Independent Newspapers raising well above R5-million. The Star organised a well-attended seminar at Wits University where an attempt was made to unpack the attacks in ways that could lay the foundation for in-depth understanding of root causes and where lasting solutions may lie.
We spent over R20,000 of our own money to buy food, particularly for children and babies, while staff collected clothes and other items that was distributed in several camps. In doing this, all of us acknowledged not only the hurt of the affected, but our own role and responsibility as South African institutions with such immense influence in creating an environment in which such attacks would themselves be alien.
Mathatha Tsedu is the editor-in-chief of the Media24 (RCP Media) Sunday paper City Press.
- This column first appeared in The Media magazine.