The Sun, the tabloid that South Africa's chattering classes love to hate, was probably the one place where warnings of the xenophobic violence could have been read, writes Anton Harber in Business Day. The paper's tone was often ugly, but at least it captured the seething anger that has now blown up in the country's face. 

Anton Harber writes in Business Day:

ERNESTO Nhmawavane. Remember that name. He was the 22-year-old Mozambican the world watched burning to death in Ramaphosa last week. Until The Star’s story later in the week, “They called him Mugza”, he was the faceless subject of the horrific image which will be seared into our memories and the global perception of our country alongside those of Nelson Mandela leaving prison or people queuing to vote.

Reporter Beauregard Tromp found out a few details about this man and the misfortunes that led him to become the world’s most famous victim that day and wrote about it movingly. “Mugza” only had a nickname and was heading for a pauper’s funeral, this report said, but at least he was being humanised. The Sunday Times’ Victor Khupiso gave us his name and spoke to a brother-in-law who said he would bury the body.

These reports defy the generalisations people are making about the role of the media in this crisis. The Star has conveyed a sense of horror, had a team of brave reporters and photographers trying to capture what was happening, and urged people to assist, giving details of how to do so. The Sunday Times played things down in week one, but in week two had some useful analysis and tough commentary.

I have been glued to Radio 702, which has made good use of citizen reporting. They encouraged people to phone in and describe what they had seen and, combined with their own reporting and their questioning of authority, they gave us riveting public service radio. How ironic it is that the best public service broadcasting is coming from the profit-seeking private media.

THOSE who wonder why we did not see this crisis coming are probably proud that they do not read the Daily Sun. If they did, and if our intelligence services did, they would see that this paper has been sounding off about “the problem” for months. They did it sometimes in an ugly way, screaming about how many criminals are foreigners, but they had their finger closer to the township pulse than most.

The Daily Sun will stand accused of reporting uncritically on or even stoking xenophobia, which they mock as “the big word for hatred of foreigners”. But they have also been the one media voice to warn repeatedly that this pot was boiling.

They sank to terrible depths last week with a front-page editorial purporting to give us what it boldly proclaimed as “THE TRUTH” about “ALIENS”. The article proffered some of the routine explanations for the violence: unemployment, corruption in housing and a lack of government policy on foreigners. But then it got to the nub: “Many of us live in fear of foreign gangsters and con men. Much terror has been caused by gangs of armed Zimbabweans, Mozambicans and others.” “Not every foreigner is a gangster,” they said, “but too many are”.

There you have it. The victims have become the assailants. Criminals are fair game in our society (remember the instruction from the deputy minister to “shoot the bastards”?) and the Daily Sun is setting them up as legitimate targets of an angry people. The paper conveyed little sense of the horror and destruction until a week later, when editor Themba Molefe wrote an impassioned inside column calling for an end to violence.

Interestingly, they gave equal coverage last week to reports of vigilantism, “when crime-battered people have had enough”. Their “Flames of fury” headline and the picture of two bodies and a burning bakkie was about a community turning on suspected criminals, as was their “Rubbish bin justice” report of a cellphone thief being beaten up and stuffed in a wheelie-bin. Neither had anything to do with foreigners.

Their triumphant description of the thrashing of these suspects will raise hackles, but they are telling us there is another pot boiling on this stove. To avoid being wrong-footed again, our intelligence community would do well to spend the R1,80 cover price for some useful information.

* Harber is Caxton Professor of Journalism, Wits University. This column first appeared in Business Day on 28 May 2008.