This man was burnt alive in January, not in recent anti-foreigner protests in Johannesburg

Disturbing videos have been shared thousands of times on social media claiming to show a foreign national set alight by South Africans during looting and anti-migrant protests this week. The videos show a real event that is unrelated to the recent violence. They show an attack last January, when people beat and burned a man in the street for allegedly trying to steal a handbag.

A number of videos were shared in social media posts claiming the incident was recent and that the victim was a foreigner. Some have since been taken down, and others still online show the same disturbing incident being described as being a recent attack, for example here, here and here.

A screenshot taken on September 5, 2019, showing one of the recent Facebook posts carrying the old video

A reverse image search of the video, using screenshots retrieved from verification tool InVid, found the images were widely shared earlier in the year and that the incident did not happen recently as the posts suggest.

Local media reported on January 15 that two men were attacked by an angry mob in a Johannesburg suburb after they allegedly tried to steal a handbag. One of them was set alight.

Police spokesman Kay Makhubele was quoted saying: “Two men robbed a woman of her handbag at Hillbrow and people chased and caught them and unfortunately applied mob justice.”

National police spokesman Vish Naidoo confirmed to AFP that the incident took place in January, not during this week's wave of violence as the posts suggest.

"Yes it was in January,” he said in a brief WhatsApp message.

The man in the video died in hospital after he was beaten and burnt alive, News24 reported. 

Despite claims this week that the man was a foreign national caught up in the recent violence, news reports at the time made no reference to the man’s nationality -- he remained unidentified. We are still trying to confirm further details about the incident with South African police. 

As reported by AFP, seven people have been killed in a wave of violence in South Africa since September 1, fuelled by tensions over an influx of immigration from other African countries.

South Africa said on Thursday that it had temporarily closed its diplomatic missions in Nigeria following violence against South African businesses carried out in reprisal for attacks on foreign-owned stores in Johannesburg.

South Africa has suffered repeated bouts of xenophobic violence in recent years, fed by accusations that immigrants take up scarce jobs. 

Such unrest is regularly accompanied by the spread of misleading content online, often images or videos that are taken out of context. You can read some of our other fact-checks about the recent violence in South Africa here, here and here.

Tendai Dube