The committee of ministers appointed to head off the threat of renewed xenophobia is seeking an urgent meeting with newspaper editors to discuss what they see as a pattern of damaging reports, the minister of police, Nathi Mthethwa, said yesterday.
Mthethwa said the government was convinced that rumours of a xenophobic backlash against African immigrants and refugees from tomorrow were being driven by "sinister forces" determined to deny South Africa's World Cup success.
But he said the cabinet would not ignore rumours that could become self-fulfilling and had put measures in place to staunch the whispering campaign and to react if there was any violence. He said:
- The infrastructure of the special World Cup courts would be used to deal quickly with any xenophobic violence and to send a signal of zero tolerance to potential perpetrators;
- The Government Communication and Information System (GCIS) and other departments had mounted a lightning campaign to promote tolerance and understanding;
- Measures would be introduced to better manage immigration, to take advantage of the skills that migrants bring and to ensure that they did not undercut locals, either in the rate for which they would work or the profit margins they accepted;
- Community leaders and organisations were being drawn into a programme to discourage hostility to foreigners and to ensure that police were informed as soon as trouble starts; and
- The special inter-ministerial committee set up before the World Cup kick-off would meet those they believed were responsible for spreading false rumours.
Mthethwa said one of the first steps would be to convene a meeting with the South African National Editors Forum to discuss what the government believed had been irresponsible reporting on what it saw as unsubstantiated rumours.
He said he agreed with Malusi Gigaba, the deputy minister of home affairs, who said in a lengthy analysis on the ANC Today website that: "The purpose of these rumours is to snatch away from our hands the victory of successfully hosting the best ever World Cup tournament. It is meant to deny us the right to claim this glory that belongs to us."
Mthethwa said: "When the deputy minister says there are sinister forces, we have all the reason to believe that indeed this thing is not a coincidence. We are of the view that even if we quell this one, something else is going to be peddled. That's why, even rumours, we are not taking them for granted."
Alleging a pattern of negative reporting going back to President Jacob Zuma's state visit to the UK, when British papers focused almost entirely on his polygamy and his illegitimate children, Mthethwa said he believed the media were behind the campaign to denigrate South Africa. But he added that he was not ready to say whether South African newspapers were "in cahoots" with foreign ones.
"By and large, primarily some international bodies and institutions, especially in the media, have been driving this thing - especially in European countries," he said.
While Gigaba accused the press of reporting rumours to fill the news gap likely to be left after tonight's World Cup final, Mthethwa would not be drawn on the campaign's purpose.
He said: "The unfortunate thing was that there were South Africans who were not readily happy for us to be hosting this World Cup.... Some of these (rumours), when they are peddled, find fertile ground with some of those people."