The Picture that Became a Symbol for Xenophobic Violence

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A picture says more than a thousand words. And some of them have the power to encapsulate events and become the visual symbol for political or humanitarian situations. An example of this is the picture of Hector Pietersen being carried by an older boy which became a symbol for the Sharpeville massacre. The image of a man who was set on fire that shocked South Africa and the world in the second week of the xenophobic violence has done the same for the recent xenophobic attacks. The Media Monitoring Project looks at the issues that this image raised for ethical journalism.

Ernesto Nhamuave was set alight by an angry mob in Ramaphosa informal settlement on 18 May 2008, in front of news photographers. On the next day, the image of his burning body was published on the front page cover of many South African newspapers.  At the time, his identity was unknown and he was dubbed the “flaming man” (e.g. The Star 02/06/2008 p. 6).

Although the shocking pictures of this event may have helped raise awareness of the extreme violence taking place in Johannesburg’s townships, the number of reasons not to publish this picture may very well outweigh the benefit. The man in the picture died shortly after the pictures were taken, leaving a morbid aftertaste to the picture because it captured the struggle of a dying man.

The readers of the different newspapers that published the story could be negatively affected. Because The Times, Sowetan, Beeld, and The Star all placed the pictures on the front page, the choice whether one wanted to see the pictures was absent. It also increased the risk that children could be exposed to the image.

The pictures could also affect the people known to the man in the picture. What if his family had found out about his death through these front pages? Should the newspapers not have made an effort to protect the victim’s relatives from such a confrontation? The code of conduct of the South African Union of Journalists states that “Subject to justification by overriding considerations of public interest, a journalist shall do nothing which entails intrusion into private grief and distress.” The Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics states that a journalist should “Show compassion for those who may be affected adversely by news coverage.” And “Be sensitive when seeking using interviews or photographs of those affected by tragedy or grief.” Considering these guidelines, it is questionable if the use of the picture of the burning man was justifiable. This is made worse by the mistakes that were made in identifying the man.

The first days after his death, the man in the picture was not identified at all. He was known as the “flaming man” (e.g. The Star 02/06/2008, p. 6), or “Mugza” (The Star, 23/05/2008, p. 1). Coming up with a catchy nickname rather than using the victim’s real name or a more neutral term seems very inappropriate in such a situation.

Sunday Times identified the Burning man as Ernesto Alphabeto Nhamwavane (22) from Mozambique, one week after he died in the attack. (Sunday Times, 25/05/2008, p. 5) However, The Star identified him as Ernesto Nhamuave from Mozambique two days later (The Star, 27/05/2008, p. 1). Although there is not much difference between the two names, it could be cause for confusion amongst his relatives or even a wrong identification of the body.

In the weeks after that however, some of the newspapers followed up the sad story of Ernesto and gave him a name, a family and a dignified end at his funeral in his hometown in Mozambique. The Star and Beeld dedicated several articles to the consequences for Ernesto’s family and to his funeral.

An article in Beeld was cause for concern. A large picture of Ernesto’s wife and three children was printed and next to it an article that explained their new situation without a breadwinner. At that stage, according to the story, they did not know yet how exactly their husband and father had passed away. (Beeld, 02/06/2008, p. 5) Of course, it would be only a matter of time until they would find out after they were shown in the Beeld. An article in The Star however, mentioned that Ernesto’s brother-in-law, who was attacked with him but escaped the same fate, had shown the front page of The Star to Ernesto’s family to explain what had happened (The Star, 02/06/2008, p. 6). This seems to be an unnecessarily traumatic way for them to discover his fate.

The follow up on the story behind the shocking pictures contained some inconsistencies. The Star and Beeld, used different names for both the victim’s wife and one son. The son is also given different ages by the two newspapers (The Star, 02/06/2008, p. 6; Beeld, 02/06/2008, p. 5).

However, the general message which is given by this follow up story is an important one. It takes away the anonymity of the “flaming man” and humanises him by telling readers his name and his story. The article in The Star (02/06/2008, p. 6) reconstructs the last night Ernesto had with his family. It tells the reader how reluctant he was to go back to Johannesburg because of the increasingly grim attitude towards foreigners, but that he had to go to in order to make an income. It tells us how he promised his son a new school bag for which he is still waiting, and how his wife is overcome with grief over his loss.

To give the victims of the xenophobic violence a name and a face is to bring them closer to the reader of the newspaper. The realisation of the reasons why they came to South Africa and that they too have a family waiting for them can be a first step in decreasing the distance between South Africans and ‘foreigners’.

It could be argued that the picture that was used was overly intrusive and violent. There is no doubt that the title “Flaming man” was disrespectful. But the extensive follow up and contextualisation of the story gave this picture’s thousand words a very constructive finale.

– Babeth Knol

NB. We have decided to leave the choice to view the image of the burning man to the reader of this article. A series of photos on the website of The Times includes the picture described above. They can be found here

The picture of Hector Pietersen that is mentioned in the article can be found here

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