In May 2008 between 60 and 70 people were killed and thousands were displaced in xenophobic attacks that shocked South Africa.
The pictures of the last moments of Mozambican Ernesto Namhuave captured the horror of people rounding on foreign nationals on the grounds that they threatened the livelihoods of workers jostling for jobs in a competitive labour market, that they caused crime, “stole” women and illegally gained state housing.
During the attacks and in the aftermath, news and condemnation of the attacks flooded the media. Online news sites set up special topic platforms, talk shows took calls from people wanting to have their say. News organisations churned out countless statements and video sharing sites hosted clips of the attacks and people voicing their opinions.
Media coverage came under fire for possibly contributing to stereotypes with the Media Monitoring group lodging a complaint against the Daily Sun, and the SA Press Association is challenging a claim in an Idasa report that it had previously used the term “job stealers” in copy.
Appeals for food, blankets and baby clothes for the displaced were made at schools, shops, businesses.
It seemed that everybody wanted to say something. Do something.
“We had a massive spike in blogging,” says Justin Hartman, a co-founder of www.afrigator.com, a blogging aggregator which ranks blogs according to their popularity.
Afrigator set up a special focus area on its site for all the blog related to xenophobia, providing links to humanitarian organisations arranging support for the displaced.
A similar project was done during the recent Kenyan elections, where observers noted that blogging played a role in getting news out swiftly.
“Everybody felt very opinionated and wanted to have a say,” said Hartman. “Previously you would have to write a letter to the papers or wait for a five minute slot on the radio. It gives people a new way to express themselves.”
Writing on blogging in Europe and US, journalism specialists say that blogging during crises provide first hand information that journalists may miss.
Riaan Wolmaraans, online editor for the Mail&Guardian, which hosts blogging site www.thoughtleader.co.za said: “We definitely had a spike in blogging submissions on Thought Leader, especially during and just after the attacks in May.
“These submissions all expressed outrage about the events, which was a common thread, but explored various reasons for the xenophobia and for the extreme violence.”
The Eastern Cape’s DispatchOnline editor Andrew Trench said: “I think in this case the majority of reasonable people in our society were deeply shocked and offended by what had occurred. I think that by blogging they were able to disassociate themselves from these xenophobic attacks and were able to send a message that not all people in South Africa are like those people.”
They left it to the community of users to respond to negative comments and the overwhelming responses negated these.
“I think this is a more powerful way of handling this kind of response rather than deleting them from the blogs,” said Trench.
They also used many of the responses in the newspaper itself to give these comments a greater audience.
Trench notes though that he would have liked to have seen more blogs from foreigners living in South Africa and sharing their experiences.
Psychologist Dorianne “Dr D” Weill descibes blogging as cathartic, creating a sense of community and giving people a public voice, “which isn’t easy to get”.
“The sense of identity with other people is very powerful. You feel there is a connection because nothing joins people more than a shared emotional event,” she observes.
The “comments” sections provides a chance to communicate with other people who feel the same and differing opinions “stretch your intellectual yardstick”.
But what of the displaced How did they tell their stories?
It’s chilly winter night and I’m sitting in Johannesburg’s Central Methodist Church. I’m sitting in the packed church feeling rather foolish for imagining that these people, with their pared down possessions in bags at their feet, might be firing up a laptop or two to express themselves.
There’s a flurry of activity at a banister in front of the altar with people kneeling down and fiddling with something close to the floor. Later, I discover people are taking turns to recharge their cellphones on the church cleaners’ vacuum cleaner plug.
If ever there was an argument for cellphones providing the most effective means of communication for the almost 90 percent of people in South Africa who, according to research don’t have internet access, this was it.
“A block? Blocks? What are those?” asks Zimbabwean refugee co-ordinator Evans Kuntonda. I explain that it’s a kind of online journal, called a “blog”, where people write about what is happening around them.
“Oh yes, we keep journals,” he says. “Refugees keep diaries on abuse of refugees.”
But not on computers. Many have email addresses, but they use the R5 an hour it costs at the internet cafe around the corner to get news from home, he explains.
As for “news news” they rely on television and newspapers bought by residents which are then circulated.
They say all they heard in the media was the voices of the people “at the top”, echoing media theorist Dan Gillmor who believes the people at the top should do more listening, and suggests blogs as one way of doing this.
Orange Farm Water Crisis Committee co-ordinator Bricks Mokolo recently sent a terse email to the media after a recent protest march which read: “For information not from the police force’s mouth, please contact…” and provided his number.
The Star journalist Beauregard Tromp and photographer Shayne Robinson created a sensitive blog Burning Man in which they recall the events leading up to Namhuave’s death and the wait with his family in Mozambique for his body to be returned. It is a moving piece of writing that spans a number of days, peppered with nuances and details that set the writing apart from a hurried news piece and shows how a story can be kept alive.
But blogging also has its downside. A Zimbabwean journalist telephoned me in a panic a day before the June 27 one-man election run-off held there. He was about to cross the border to Zimbabwe and asked me to urgently delete his blog “just in case” he got into trouble over it.
Johannesburg-based speaker repairman Wellington Moyo from Bulawayo echoes this fear of expression with: “If you are victimised, you are scared, you can’t talk freely.”
Journalist Kwangu Liwewe, originally from Malawi says she was unimpressed by the blogs that she read during this period.
“Most hadn’t the faintest idea about real human rights issues or implications of the attacks. The issues of the newly arrived in the country were not addressed. I didn’t see any evidence of well researched articles that quoted the newly arrived or organisations that represented them.
“Issues like access to making applications to the department of home affairs for legal status; access to medicalcare; or issues like the rights of foreigners with SA residency were not explored.I didn’t read anything highlighting that SA residents have the same rights as the citizens in areas such as recourse to public funds, medical care, housing etc. ”
“As long as the general public including those who read and write blogs are not aware of the issues that affect foreigners, the rights of foreigners with status, then we are doomed.”