Opinionista Vanya Gastrow 2 February 2015

Soweto xenophobia and the foreign cowboy

Recent media coverage of the 2015 Soweto xenophobic riots has revealed a disturbing shift in the reporting on xenophobia. While it is undeniable that widespread and violent hostilities against foreigners persist, a troubling storyline of the lawless foreign ‘cowboy’ shopkeeper has emerged. The media’s treatment of this issue is problematic at best, as it fails to ask basic questions about police responses to xenophobia, showing carelessness towards how victims of xenophobia are represented to the public.

Journalists have eagerly emphasised that the recent spate of xenophobic attacks erupted after a foreigner allegedly shot and killed a 14-year-old robber, and that 10 foreigners were subsequently arrested for possessing illegal firearms. They have also quoted government sources to the effect that part of the ‘problem’ is that foreigners fail to comply with business regulations.

This is a conveniently sensational narrative for journalists and readers, as it breaks with the standard story of xenophobic looting and typically chaotic and inadequate police responses. However, in their eagerness to expose a new perspective, journalists have uncritically repeated the politically convenient narrative that government spokespeople have espoused, without fact-checking or considering the broader legal and criminal dynamics at play.

When inspecting SAPS’s crime statistics for Dobsonville, Soweto over the past ten years, one is struck at the dramatic increase in business robbery in the area. Ten years ago the number of reported business robberies in Dobsonville stood at zero, and it remained that way until March 2007. For the financial year of April 2007 to March 2008, business robbery suddenly increased to ten cases. Business robberies have risen even more dramatically since then, reaching a peak of 130 cases during the most recent financial year (April 2013 to March 2014). National business robbery statistics also reflect a similar trend, with foreign nationals making up a disproportionate share of victims.

The crime of robbery – unlike theft – commonly entails the threat or direct use of force. In the case of foreign nationals, robberies are often accompanied by armed assault with intent to inflict grievous bodily harm as well as murder. In their reporting on foreign national firearm possession, the media have failed to highlight this context. Nor have they asked SAPS precisely how they have attempted to tackle the trend in business robberies, how many cases have been successfully prosecuted, and how they believe foreign nationals should best defend their shops and lives in light of the above.

This links to another a facet of the new narrative, namely the arrest of foreign national shopkeepers for the possession of illegal forearms. In the aftermath of Ferguson Missouri and the global highlighting of racial profiling by law enforcement, one would expect that the media would explore why almost only f oreigners were arrested (one South African was arrested for possessing an unlicensed firearm), when most of the violent crime involving their shops stems from South African youth. There is no investigation into the method SAPS used in its search operations and whether police relied on any factors other than national origin in singling out their targets. The media’s treatment of these arrests is therefore problematic at best, as it fails to ask basic questions about police responses to xenophobia, and shows carelessness towards how victims of xenophobia are represented to the public.

Lastly, the government claim that foreign nationals fail to adhere to regulations governing their businesses has been repeatedly re-stated without any basic journalistic fact-checking being adequately conducted. It would help if the media could enquire as to which particular laws government spokespeople are referring to, whether foreign shopkeepers do in actuality fail to comply with these laws, and whether South African shopkeepers behave any differently. In Cape Town for example, claims that foreigners do not comply with relevant laws are often ignorant of the legal framework governing spaza shops, and lack reliable factual basis.

While it can be expected that the media will uncover and represent new perspectives in their reporting on xenophobic attacks, they need to go beyond uncritically reiterating the government narrative, and to analyse and investigate matters thoroughly and independently. Otherwise the public discourse that emerges is simply a crude rehash of government spin, which yields an inaccurate, shallow and misleading account of events. This approach reduces the plight of foreign traders to a deeply flawed casting as lawless cowboys, which places the blame on victims of regular, violent crime and ultimately fails to deal with the challenges of xenophobia, crime and policing in South Africa today. DM

Vanya Gastrow is a freelance researcher based in Cape Town, and a PhD Candidate at the African Centre for Migration & Society at Wits University.


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