Document Type

Migration Policy Series

Publication Date



Balsillie School of International Affairs


The mass media have become one of the most important institutions in modern society, playing a role not only in our learning and education, but also in how we see opportunities for change and improvements in our lives. For these reasons, the media are seen as a powerful vehicle for social transformation and development, and have drawn increasing attention towards themselves in contemporary society. The print media (ie newspapers) are particularly important in this respect, given that the press has traditionally been a provider of information on daily events and, for many people, are the only source of information about events that are not experienced directly.

This report discusses the South African print media’s coverage of cross-border migration in the post-apartheid period and how it may affect public opinion on the topic as well as immigration legislation. It is based on a survey that was the first, and most comprehensive, of its kind ever undertaken in the country, drawing on more than 1 200 newspaper clippings about migration from all English-language newspapers between 1994 and 1998. The report presents both a quantitative and qualitative analysis of this media coverage and offers a set of recommendations on how the press could improve its reportage in the future.

In sum, the report argues that coverage of international migration by the South African press has been largely anti-immigrant and unanalytical. Not all reportage is negative, and newspaper coverage would appear to be improving over time, but the overwhelming majority of the newspaper articles, editorials and letters to the editor surveyed for this research are negative about immigrants and immigration. They are extremely unanalytical, uncritically reproducing problematic statistics and assumptions about cross-border migration.

A large proportion of the articles also reproduce racial and national stereotypes about migrants from other African countries, depicting — for example — Mozambicans as car thieves and Nigerians as drug smugglers. This “criminalisation” of migrants from other parts of Africa is made worse by the more subtle use of terms like “illegal” and “alien”, despite their being roundly criticised by institutions like the United Nations for contributing to misconceptions of an otherwise law-abiding group of people.

The aim of this report is not to convince the reader one way or the other about the merits or demerits of migration into South Africa. There is a vast and rapidly growing literature on the subject and the Southern African Migration Project (SAMP) continues to make contributions to this debate. Rather, our intention here is to remind the reader just how complex the migration debate is and how poor a job, in light of this complexity, the media have been doing in providing a more balanced, critical and reflective coverage of the issues.

At best, the press have been presenting a very limited perspective on cross-border migration dynamics and, in the process, are leaving the South African public in the dark about the real complexities at play. At worst, the press has been contributing to public xenophobia generally through weaving myths and fabrications around foreigners and immigration.

In terms of recommendations, the report makes four general points:

  • Newspapers and wire services should assign one or two journalists to cover migration issues on a regular basis, with the time and resources necessary for covering the issues in an in-depth and critical manner. But resource constraints affecting newspapers militate against this idea; not every newspaper has the luxury of assigning a single person to a particular “beat”. However, given the importance of the migration issue at national and regional level (a point borne out by the sensational coverage already given it by the press), and the fact that it is destined to grow in importance over the coming years, there is justification in giving it the resources required for meaningful coverage. The fact that most of the daily newspapers are owned by only a handful of syndicates makes the resource issue less of a constraint if some of the research and writing were done in a more centralised manner.
  • Journalists and editors should pay particular attention to how they report the immigration statistics they receive from “official sources”. An almost universal acceptance by the press of the misleading “fact” that there are somewhere between 2.5 to 4.1 million undocumented migrants in South Africa is a good example of the need for a more critical assessment of where these numbers come from, how they are obtained, how realistic they are, and what their implications are for thinking around cross-border migration. There is a growing body of literature on both the quantitative and qualitative impacts of migration in Southern Africa and journalists/editors should know what the debates are and who their sources are.
  • Editors should attempt to strike a better balance in the coverage of migration issues. We recognise the need for free expression of ideas and it would be a serious mistake to ignore, or to try and cover-up, the widespread opposition to migrants and immigration that exists in South Africa. But newspapers also have a responsibility to recognise the need for more balanced coverage and should be willing to address the racist and nationalist immigration biases of the past actively.
  • Journalists and editors should address the sensational and “criminalising” language used in articles on migration. The terms “illegal” and “alien” should either be dropped completely and replaced with more neutral terms like “undocumented” or “irregular” migrants and a clear distinction made between the different types of non-citizens in the country. Permanent residents, contract miners, tourists, refugees and undocumented migrants are very different categories of migrants and should be recognised as such.