Covering immigration in South Africa: A Q&A with Koena Mashale

By Rory Schmidt 

Writing for an immigration beat is challenging. Often, migrants refuse to talk with reporters, out of fear of the consequences that could come from sharing their stories. To write the best story possible, an immigration reporter must be strategic. It takes a lot of skill to find immigrants willing to talk, and a lot of compassion to form a relationship where they feel comfortable to share.

South Africa is one of the primary destinations for immigrants within the African continent due to the country’s stable economy, and like many other countries facing wide scale immigration, there are plenty of powerful stories that can be reported from unique perspectives.

Report for the World corps member Koena Mashale is the immigration beat writer for Sowetan, one of the largest newspapers in South Africa. She uses tools like her network of connections and social media in order to connect sources adjacent to immigration, covering developments within the beat.

As she continues to grow Sowetan’s coverage of immigration stories, Mashale shared with us her experience on the beat, the misconceptions she’s trying to dispel through her writing and the lessons  she has learned  from reporting on the ground. Her responses have been edited for length and clarity.


Report for the World: What are the biggest challenges for a reporter covering the immigration beat in South Africa?

Koena Mashale: One of the biggest challenges, I would say, is actually finding immigrants who are willing to speak and open up, as well as the limitations on the types of stories you can really pursue. However, I will focus on one point. By “finding immigrants,” I mean that South Africa’s reputation for violence and aggressive behavior towards immigrants makes many of them scared and apprehensive to speak out or even share their experiences. That’s why half of my stories end up with anonymous sources, as they fear harassment just from being mentioned in the article.

The internet, while informative, can also be a cruel place because it facilitates easy identification of individuals. Consequently, it’s a challenge because I can’t rely on speaking to the same people over immigration issues; I need to engage with others as well. However, due to the prejudice they face and the fear they harbor, it’s quite difficult to write about their experiences. To them, it seems that the outside world, the society they live in, doesn’t care about the indignation they endure, regardless of their status in the country.

Half of the time, they also don’t want to speak because they don’t receive anything from the story but judgment, persecution, and misunderstanding. These are people either fleeing war-torn countries or countries with poor economic conditions, recognized as refugees by law. However, society doesn’t perceive them as such, and the government doesn’t offer much assistance. As a reporter, you have to explain that you’re their voice, but it’s crucial to remember that they also don’t trust easily. Gaining their trust is challenging.

RFW: What are the most common misconceptions about immigrants or Immigration in South Africa among your audience and your sources?

Mashale: I find that the two most common misconceptions I hear from both audiences and my sources are that “immigrants steal jobs” and “all immigrants are here illegally and thus criminals.” The former misconception is more related to education. I have noticed a rise among audiences regarding false information about immigrant children taking spaces from South African citizen children in schools. This, coupled with incidents where South African children couldn’t find placement in nearby schools, often leads to blaming immigrants instead of the Department of Education and the lack of school supply to accommodate the growing population.

Returning to the two points, these are misconceptions that have existed for quite some time and have even birthed anti-immigrant organizations like Operation Dudula and COMBAT. These misconceptions stem from various socio-economic factors in the country, such as poverty, unemployment, and high crime rates, among others. I often hear from immigrants how they have lost jobs or been chased out of communities simply because they are Zimbabwean, Mozambican, or Nigerian.

These misconceptions are misleading and not based on facts. I will give an example regarding social media. If you look at most of the trending conversations in South Africa, it is always either Zimbabweans or Mozambicans trending, or “#PutSouthAfricansFirst,” often accompanied by people venting their frustrations or spreading false information that can run wild. An individual can post a video from 2010, and it trends, causing an uproar because people think it’s from the present. Or there can be news about an immigrant who was detained, and then people run with, “this is what happens when you let everyone just enter the country.” One thing about social media is that misinformation spreads faster than the truth. This adversely affects the immigrant community because before they even introduce themselves, they are already judged and perceived as untrustworthy and criminals, making it hard for them to integrate into society.

RFW: Who/what are some of the most useful resources you use when writing immigration stories?

Mashale: The most useful resource I use when writing is various organizations in the country. There are a lot of community groups, profit organizations and even social media platforms, even your local churches that are always in support of immigrants and are vocal about immigrant stories. And most of these resources know each other and understand how the immigrant world works, so it’s quite easy when you have those resources because then they can connect you with immigrants who are willing to speak to you and they always are willing to explain the changing laws and regulations around the immigration acts or laws in the country.

I also often use social media, like I said before it can be a great also a cruel one. I often get my story ideas from there, it’s either I pick up on an incident or ongoing conversation that I think needs to be addressed, then I take it from there.

RFW: Are there any recent developments in South African immigration that should receive more attention from the readers and general public?

Mashale: I believe the ongoing discussion surrounding the White Paper, along with other immigration laws and regulations, warrants more attention from the readers and the general public. It’s essential to ensure that while the media aims to simplify complex topics like the White Paper, we don’t compromise its intended meaning and purpose in our coverage. Understanding these legal frameworks is crucial because they have far-reaching implications for immigration policies in South Africa.

The White Paper on citizenship, immigration, and refugee protection presents proposed changes by the South African government that could significantly affect the rights of asylum seekers and refugees. If these changes are implemented, they would reshape the country’s migration landscape. Minister Aaron Motsoaledi initiated this process four years ago, and the White Paper serves as a comprehensive blueprint for reform.

It’s important to recognize that the migration landscape is vast and multifaceted, with various underlying factors. Many readers and members of the general public may not fully grasp the complexity of immigration laws and policies. This lack of understanding can leave individuals susceptible to misinformation, particularly on social media platforms.

For instance, I’ve encountered discussions on Twitter where users inaccurately claimed that the health system is legally prohibited from treating migrants. Such claims often stem from unreliable sources and fail to consider the nuanced regulations and laws across different provinces in the country. What may be permissible in Gauteng province may not apply in Limpopo province.

Therefore, I urge readers and the general public to closely follow developments related to the White Paper and strive to comprehend its implications fully. Organizations I’ve spoken to emphasize how these proposed changes could tighten the system, potentially affecting various stakeholders. It’s crucial for everyone to engage with this issue and understand its ramifications thoroughly.

RFW: What is your most memorable experience while working for Sowetan?

Mashale: I think the one story that sticks with me is my very first immigration story. There were these refugees who were taken from the UN offices in Pretoria and transported to a farm school in the middle of nowhere, far from society, which is exactly what they wanted. I remember spending the whole day with them, hearing their stories and observing how they live and continue to practice their faith.

Recently, I revisited the farm, which is about a two-hour drive from our offices in Johannesburg. It’s located practically at the end of Pretoria, in a bush veld area with patches of land. It’s a further hour’s drive on a gravel road to reach the farm. I remember feeling nervous because I thought they had forgotten about me, and I would need to rebuild their trust. However, when I arrived, they all remembered me, which made me happy. Many things had changed, but some remained the same. Their vegetable garden had grown massively, but they still struggled with water, and the nearest water source was 3km away and also contaminated.

They still dedicated Sundays to God, never losing faith. Some of the children remembered me, and those who were apprehensive around me before were very open to me this time. I spent the day with them again, and it’s a story I want to continue following, returning to check on them. They still didn’t want to integrate into society, but you could tell they needed it. However, they are just too scared of the country’s views on migrants, especially refugees.