On May 26, New Lines published a story titled “Xenophobia in South Africa Mimics Apartheid-Era Violence” by journalist Kwangu Liwewe. In her piece, Liwewe wrote about the recent anti-immigrant demonstrations that occurred in the provinces of Gauteng and KwaZulu Natal and the prominence of anti-immigrant groups such as Operation Dudula, Put South Africa First, The Patriotic Alliance Party and All Trucker Foundation. The story examines the historical context that surrounds the continued rise in xenophobia against other Black Africans in South Africa and the ways in which the acts being committed may mirror Apartheid-level violence.
Liwewe is an experienced journalist who first began reporting in South Africa in 2008.
“I remember being in the newsroom and the xenophobic attacks happened and my editor says to me, ‘Go and cover it,’” she said to me over Zoom. Being a foreigner — Zambian — Liwewe was surprised that she would be assigned to cover this topic. This specific story, however, was one she had begun working on in a class called Reporting on the Global South at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism. “I did two stories for the class,” she recalled. “But then I thought about the historical context, something that’s never really been looked into.” Thus was born an essay that garnered an expected but contentious mix of reactions.
A look at mentions of Liwewe (@kliwewe) on Twitter can tell you everything you need to know. Twitter users — many of them based in South Africa — have attacked the Zambian writer with vitriol, claiming she did not know her subject matter and demanding she “stay in her lane.” One Twitter user, @mayiselk, wrote, “All i can say about your first article is disappointing, wrong , factually incorrect and you should do more research before you right another article. Also please focus on Zambian issues.” Many, presumably supporters of Dudula, claim that Liwewe is “protecting foreign criminals” by speaking out on the deep historical context behind the movement. In ways that eerily parallel the public backlash against immigration in the West, including especially the far right, many Twitter users keep trying to point Liwewe toward articles about Zimbabweans who committed crimes in South Africa. Though she expected the pushback — after all, it goes to the very thesis of her article — Liwewe remains surprised by the level of animosity directed toward her. “Every time I look at my Twitter I see 200 comments,” Liwewe said. “It still hasn’t died down. And this is like a week on.”
This is not to say that Liwewe hasn’t received positive feedback. “I actually have spoken to South Africans as well who haven’t criticized the article,” she told me. “That was interesting.” Even South African journalists, she said, have privately supported her coverage, adding that they’ve learned a great deal about a topic that has been unfolding under their noses. In terms of other African nationals, Liwewe said that only those who live or have lived in South Africa have responded to her, which may not come as a surprise given that the rise of xenophobia in South Africa has been so under-covered that hardly anyone outside the country is aware of the trend.
Indeed, the 200-plus disparaging Twitter comments offer some understanding of how difficult this issue has become.
It is safe to say that supporters of the anti-immigration organizations do not respond well to stories that question their motives or contextualize the meaning behind what they do. They don’t like to be called xenophobic, even as they continue to use such rhetoric. After all, “Dudula” in Zulu literally means “to force out.”
What becomes striking are the parallels in ideologies between these movements in South Africa and white nationalist movements in the United States. “Initially, I wanted to go so strong on that angle,” Liwewe said. “But then I decided to go with the historical angle just to explain when, why and how far back this stuff goes. I wanted to explore the root of this xenophobia.”
For Liwewe, a key to understanding the xenophobic trend in South Africa is to look at the economy of the country and the promises that the African National Congress (ANC) government has made. “The promises that haven’t been achieved by the ANC government is something that is really getting to the South African population, especially those living in the townships.” Among the mostly unmet promises: reducing unemployment, stabilizing the economy and providing basic services for all. Liwewe believes that a feeling of being ignored and pushed aside by the government has driven people toward the anti-immigrant movements. Like elsewhere in the world today and in times past, it is too often easier to blame foreigners for society’s ills than to take an unflinching look at inherent dysfunctions. In South Africa, there is the added factor of disappointment in a government that promised to lift up the country’s Blacks after living under the decades-long oppression of the white-minority administration.
“I wanted people to understand that it’s not easy,” Liwewe said.
As journalists, feedback — solicited and unsolicited — is inevitable. When it comes to sensitive subjects like xenophobia in South Africa, the approach taken to cover it becomes that much more important. Liwewe has been covering this story for over a decade, and the nuance she brings to it cannot be expressed in a tweet. So like many of us in the profession, she chooses not to respond to the negativity but incorporates the overarching reaction into her next piece. Our stories don’t unfold in a vacuum, and the reception they receive from outsiders — no matter how negative — is just as revealing as the words we write on the page.