Cape Town City Law Enforcement

Cape Town City Law Enforcement officials arrive to evict hundreds of people from various African countries from the makeshift camp they are occupying around the Central Methodist Mission in Cape Town on March 1, 2020. 

| File | AFP

Is this the face of fresh ‘xenophobia’ in South Africa?

What you need to know:

  • The amorphous group is led by a young activist, Nhlanhla Lux Dlamini.
  • Despite the apparently overt prejudice against foreigners, Dlamini says his movement is not xenophobic.

There are rising concerns over a new populist movement that is gaining ground in South Africa, aiming to go door-to-door in high-density and upper-income suburbs, and from business to business in urban centres, seeking out and sometimes throwing out, those deemed as 'undocumented foreigners'.

The illegal movement, Operation Dudula, an isiZulu word meaning "push back" or "drive back", aims to identify and drive away "foreigners" lacking documents to be present or to work in South Africa.

While the new movement is born of Covid lockdowns and intensifying unemployment in South Africa — now closing in on 45 percent, with youths aged 18 to 25 suffering over 66 percent joblessness — and despite claiming to not be xenophobic, the impulse to blame Africans who have sought economic or political safe haven from troubles in their home countries is not itself new.

The amorphous group is led by a young activist, Nhlanhla Lux Dlamini, who shot to the limelight after participating in a vigilante 'self-defence' exercise during last year's failed 'insurrection', which followed the jailing of former president Jacob Zuma.

Dlamini and others prevented a major mall in Soweto, south west of Johannesburg, from being burnt and looted, like many others were, during the unrest which swept parts of South Africa last July.

Wearing pseudo-military attire, Dlamini has recently been leading growing bands of like-thinkers who have been moving from house to house in selected areas, forcing residents to show their documentation allowing them residence or work permits in S Africa.

Entirely without formal approval and operating outside the law, Dlamini and his followers, estimated to be a few thousand, say "nothing will stop" them from "driving illegal foreigners out of South African townships and rural areas".

Despite the apparently overt prejudice against foreigners, Dlamini says his movement is not xenophobic.

The movement says it is ‘not against' Africans from elsewhere on the continent, only those who are in South Africa illegally, especially those 'taking up jobs'.

The thinking is almost identical to that which has given rise to several rounds of xenophobia, most notably in 2008 when at least 62 people died, and many others were injured and traumatised, in violence that swept across S Africa, affecting Zimbabweans and Malawians in the main, but also Africans from dozens of other countries too.

Xenophobic outbreaks

Since then, South Africa has been wracked by repeated rounds of xenophobic outbreaks.

In latest scenes, including this past weekend, hundreds of people have gathered in high-density townships to seek out and "evict" or "remove" those who cannot show they have a legal right to be in the country.

Also recently, about 2,000 people demonstrated against illegal migrant workers in Hillbrow, Johannesburg, where a large number of foreigners are concentrated in inner-city flats and high-rise apartment blocks.

Some people, unable to show documents to the satisfaction of the vigilante group, have been forcibly evicted, left standing on sidewalks with their family members and belongings, and a clear message to "leave", not merely the suburb they had been living in, but the country.

While the issue has yet to be formally commented on at ministerial level, the South African authorities have repeatedly said they will not tolerate any sort of violence or discrimination against foreign nationals, whether those people are in the country legally or not.

Police have intensified their responses to Dudula "actions" as incidents have become more common, including deploying in force during the recent weekend 'protest' in Hillbrow, near the heart of Johannesburg, using rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse the 'protesters' there.

So far there have been relatively few incidents of violence, but in Alexandra township in Johannesburg, some foreign 'spaza' shop (mini-supermarket) owners fought back against the mob, injuring several, including a local Operation Dudula leader there.

In another incident, a mob of several hundred gathered at a migrant centre in Soweto – apparently all unemployed, wielding a variety of weapons and chanting their anger at foreigners for 'taking' their jobs.

"Foreigners, go home," was the chant of the mob, with some carrying hand-written placards saying the same.

In previous and similar xenophobic upsurges, seven foreigners died in a wave of attacks in 2015, while, in 2019, armed mobs descended on foreign-owned businesses around the country's financial hub Johannesburg, resulting in attacks that left at least 12 people dead, of whom 10 were South African.

At the Methodist migrant community centre in Soweto, where about 100 migrant families live, there had been rumours of an attack prior to the appearance of what was described by witnesses as a "horde", some wielding traditional Zulu leather whips with a few carrying more lethal weapons.

The protesters claimed that "…foreign nationals are stealing jobs that belong to South Africans".

The movement, whose 'motto' is "Put South Africans first", is aimed mainly at foreigners who are active in some 20 percent of the informal economy, which in turn contributes significantly towards S Africa's total economic activity.

Contradicting the claim that the new movement is not 'xenophobic', as its young leader insists, Father Paul Verryn, who founded the Soweto migrant centre, says it is clear what the protesters' motives are: "They are xenophobic activists. They clearly target foreign nationals because they want them out," said the clergyman, who is noted for opening a church in Johannesburg to give sanctuary to thousands of undocumented Zimbabweans after prior rounds of anti-immigration attacks.

While economists specialising in the role of foreign African nationals in the South African economy say there is very little evidence that jobs in significant numbers are occupied by undocumented foreigners, this belief is firmly held among the poorest.

It is a view driven by some populists who find foreigners operating, for instance, mini-supermarkets in high-density, low-income suburbs, an easy target.

Looting such enterprises, prior to torching them, as happened on a much larger scale during last July's 'pro-Zuma' unrest, is the norm.

The very high levels of unemployment in these communities – frequently above 80 percent – run in stark contrast to some foreigners, with Somalians being picked in particular during earlier rounds of xenophobic upsurges.

Somalis are among foreign nationals who have set up relatively successful, street-level businesses.
Academic arguments and facts have little impact at street level, however, where desperation, anger and even hunger are rampant – despite government grants covering some 18 million citizens, keeping them from utter destitution.

Extreme views

Dlamini, aged in the early thirties and hailing from Soweto, dressed in a military-style uniform and bullet-proof tactical vest during "actions" by his movement, insists he is merely seeking to "restore law and order".

At one recent incident Dlamini declared: "Law enforcement is failing us."

Dlamini’s extreme views have drawn much criticism, not only from affected foreign communities now living again in fear, but leading South African political figures.

Julius Malema and his radical Economic Freedom Fighters have condemned the Dudula movement and its attacks on foreigners in the strongest possible terms.

Malema is an avowed pan-Africanist and his party, while supporting the poorest sectors of South African society in their aspirations, in some cases, to expropriate 'white-owned' properties, is entirely opposed to any sort of action against African foreign nationals. 

The exact number of foreigners living and working in South Africa is not formally known.

As many cross borders illegally, either fence-jumping or, more commonly, using bribes, there is no reliable information from official sources, with the S African national statistics agency saying it estimates some three million foreigners are to be found in the country, which has about 61 million citizens.

Another assessment, undertaken independently in 2019, puts the figure of foreign nationals higher, at about 4.2 million, but this is unconfirmed and considered likely to be exaggerated.

Most foreign migrants are attracted by the prospect of finding work in the continent's most-industrialised economy, which some do, while many are forced instead through lack of employment opportunities to start their own small businesses.

While foreign nationals are afraid of coming forward due to fears of retribution, migrant groups faced with repeated rounds of violence against any and all foreigners, including those from countries like Pakistan and China, have condemned such attacks and called for the South African authorities to act more decisively against such outbursts of xenophobia.