Report warns of xenophobic rhetoric for political gain

Parties seen harnessing anti-immigration sentiment

A silent protest was held by NMMU students in protest against a spate of xenophobic attacks in SA.
A silent protest was held by NMMU students in protest against a spate of xenophobic attacks in SA.
Image: Fredlin Adriaan

Narratives that conflate xenophobic sentiments with patriotism on social media could be used by political parties ahead of next year’s elections as a tool to win support.

This is the warning issued by the Centre for Analytics and Behavioural Change (CABC), which released a report on xenophobia based on conversations on social media in SA covering March 1 to March 31.

The report said in light of the upcoming elections next year, “there is a great potential for and concern that the targeting of immigrants as a political tactic will be mobilised to garner support from dissatisfied South Africans”.

According to the non-governmental organisation (NGO), Patriotic Alliance and its leader Gayton McKenzie’s Twitter handles occupied first and second spot in the reporting period in terms of most mentions within conversations. It said McKenzie and his party espoused strong anti-immigrant rhetoric in their political campaigns.

CABC said it had found evidence showing that the xenophobia conversation was being artificially generated online.

Euston Witbooi, a senior research analyst at the CABC, said the NGO had been tracking anti-immigration sentiment online for the past three years and had followed the trend in the conversation, particularly calls for action against foreigners.

“It is a divisive issue that generates significant online interest, and the conversation is often peppered with misinformation and disinformation to stoke up anti-foreign sentiment. Reporting on these developments is of public interest,” he said.

“We have found that foreign nationals are often used as scapegoats for the social ills and lack of service delivery in the country. There is also a trend where xenophobic views are being masqueraded as patriotism.”

The report found that the EFF’s recent national shutdown protest was dominating the conversation about immigrants in SA, with those advocating against immigrants showing an anti-EFF sentiment due to the party’s stance on pan-Africanism. It found that hashtag #voestekEFF was popular at the time, used to criticise the EFF and their views.

The data from CABC also revealed that other parties such as ActionSA and Put South Africans First  had remained vocal on the issue of illegal immigration in the country.

It highlighted that the content around the alleged crimes committed by foreign nationals was among the most retweeted in the conversations. The report said emphasis was placed on the suspects’ nationality as well as their alleged illegal residence in SA, especially in retweets made by ActionSA leader Herman Mashaba. 

“Scapegoating immigrant nationals as the cause of high unemployment, crime rates and decreasing state resources is risky, especially when such accusations are made without supporting facts, as is frequently the case,” Witbooi said.

“The grave concern is that the current growth of rhetoric within SA, which has experienced significant outbreaks of violence against immigrants since the advent of democracy, could lead to more outbreaks in the future.”

Witbooi said while making use of xenophobic rhetoric for political gain may be strategically astute in the short term for opportunistic actors with political ambitions, the medium- and longer-term effects may well prove reputationally devastating for the country.

She said in preparation for the 2024 general election, parties should tread carefully to ensure that the violent events of the past are not repeated.

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