Media Portrayal of Immigration in the South African Media

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Tags: immigration; representation; migrants; refugees Media South Africa

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Cape Town, 05 June 2017

Cape Town – In a new report (download here) released today, the Scalabrini Institute for Human Mobility in Africa (SIHMA) finds that media discourses in South Africa link immigrants with a variety of irregular and criminal behaviour. A critical finding is the strong negative associations of immigrants with “illegality”, “undesirability”, and even “crime”.

Prof Nixon Kariithi co-author of the study, said:

“The idea of the immigrant as ‘illegal’ has been constructed over the course of the years due to legal, social and political practices, and a media discourse that weaves a simplistic narrative of ‘no-good’ immigrants among ‘susceptible’ local residents.”

“Clearly, the South African news media discursively associates both the ‘immigrant’ and ‘foreigner’ with illegality and offer a call to action on these individuals as a way to ostensibly reduce South Africa’s exposure to illegal/criminal activity”.

He adds: “Interestingly, the ‘foreigner’ commands a higher discursive premium in media content, most probably a relic from the apartheid-era past. But this notwithstanding, the ‘foreigner’ label is no less isolative and insidious than other labels found in research into media representations of immigrants elsewhere.”

Sergio Carciotto, Director of SIHMA, added:

“In South Africa, as well as in Europe, United States and Australia, the policy discourse around ‘migration management’ reinforces global hierarchies which distinguish amongst the migrant population between those who are acceptable/employable and bring a financial gain for the receiving countries and those undesirable who can be deported and returned to their countries of origin.”

The study focused on articles published from January 2011 to December 2015 on the issue of migration. The content represents coverage from 25 daily and weekly newspapers, including all major South Africa print titles. A total of over 5,000 articles was analysed using the RASIM rubric – REFUGEE, ASYLUM-SEEKER, IMMIGRANT, MIGRANT – as the key search words.

One of the most contested issues in the immigration and asylum debates that appeared through the data analysis is small business ownership by foreign nationals. The study confirms what was observed anecdotally that news media persistently link small scale trading with the national immigration debate and demonstrates strong negative associations of the foreign-owned shops to ‘drug-dealing’ and ‘illicit’ goods.

The study found that media routinely ignore or generally gloss over questions such as business legitimacy and property rights when it came to foreigners. The media also appeared passive and in some instances supportive of significant issues raised against foreigners, such as sharing business secrets and jointly sourcing stock with local competitors. To the extent that such conditions are not equally raised with formal foreign-owned businesses in the SA economy, any discursive tendency to entertain them is tantamount to a prejudicial double standard.

As established in related studies elsewhere, this research supports the thesis of a relationship between media and public attitudes on immigrants. Regardless of the veracity of their information and sources, news media appear to actively construct notions of immigration and immigrants and in the process shape and define public understanding. As this study amply demonstrates, the SA media is no exception. Ongoing research on media effects point to significant media culpability in eventually shaping public opinion.

This study confirms the existence in South African media of perception patterns that are consistent with those found in the UK and US, supporting arguments of universal media perspectives on news gathering and reporting.


The research was conducted by Prof Nixon Kariithi from Tangaza Africa Media, Dr Aquilina Mawadza, a researcher affiliated with SIHMA, and Sergio Carciotto, Director of SIHMA.

The Scalabrini Institute for Human Mobility in Africa (SIHMA) is a newly research institute joining a network of six established research centres on migration, located in Manila, Buenos Aires, Sao Paulo, Paris, Rome and New York. These centres are supported by the Missionaries of St. Charles – Scalabrinians, a Congregation of the Catholic Church devoted to the care of migrants, refugees and seafarers.


Tags: immigration; representation; migrants; refugees    Media    South Africa   

Categorised in: Press Review