What you need to know:
- Last month a newly emerged organisation, Operation Dudula, was involved in confrontations with foreign business owners in Johannesburg.
- Operational Dudula leaders insist they are not xenophobic, but are merely trying to "rid the country of undocumented foreigners" who, the grassroots movement supporters believe, are "taking jobs from South Africans".
- During the confrontations in Alexandra on Monday, foreign business owners attempting to resume trading near Alexandra's famous Pan Africa Mall faced down aggressive Operation Dudula activists.
South African police have stepped in to halt escalating violence between foreign African nationals and locals in Alexandra, a high-density suburb in Johannesburg. Officers arrested several people and maintained a high-profile presence to prevent further violence.
Last month a newly emerged organisation, Operation Dudula, was involved in confrontations with foreign business owners in Soweto, also in Johannesburg, as well as in Alexandra and other areas around the city.
Operational Dudula leaders insist they are not xenophobic, but are merely trying to "rid the country of undocumented foreigners" who, the grassroots movement supporters believe, are "taking jobs from South Africans".
Dudula is an isiZulu word meaning "push back" or "drive back".
The Dudula Movement, as it is now being called, claims it wants South Africans to have a share in the local economy.
On Monday, those loosely aligned under its banner took to the streets of Alexandra, burning tyres and blocking streets with concrete blocks and piles of trash. Police subsequently described the protesters as "vigilantes" and said their activities would be stopped. With protests and violence escalating, Tuesday saw several arrests as tensions boiled over.
The Dudula Movement protest in Alexandra, Soweto and other high-density areas is largely driven by extremely high unemployment resulting from a poor pre-Covid economy and lockdowns that followed the outbreak of the disease.
The latest economic data, released this week, shows that the South African economy grew by 4.9 percent last year, but that is from historically low levels of economic activity in the informal sector, particularly caused by lengthy lockdowns in 2020.
Much of the worst effects of lockdowns and slowed economic activity have been in the informal sector, where many foreigners have started niche businesses, offering services and products mainly to the poorest urban dwellers.
In many areas, these foreign-owned micro-businesses have suffered attacks in prior rounds of xenophobia, and foreigners, documented or not, fear that another round of outright violence targeting them and their property is underway.
During the confrontations in Alexandra on Monday, foreign business owners attempting to resume trading near Alexandra's famous Pan Africa Mall – where goods and products from across Africa are to be found – faced down aggressive Operation Dudula activists, with threats of violence and death exchanged.
The foreign-born business operators had been forcibly removed last month when Operation Dudula first surfaced as a fresh expression of similar prior outbursts of anti-foreigner sentiment during which mob attacks claimed scores of lives and left hundreds of businesses destroyed.
The resulting conflict with Operation Dudula activists, who are determined to drive foreigners out of their areas, saw bricks and other dangerous objects flung back and forth, with police eventually separating the two sides.
Among those arrested in the process was one person reportedly "in possession of a toy gun".
Having restored some calm by midday Tuesday, after being deployed to several "hotspot areas" from Monday night to intervene in the rising tensions, police said they would remain in the Alexandra area "until residents felt safe".
It is not clear if those arrested were foreign or local, but Operation Dudula members and leaders say they were "peacefully protesting and (were) unarmed".
Agnes Malatjie, speaking to a local TV news channel, said the protesters "want undocumented foreigners to go home and to stop trading".
Malatjie’s claims to be a spokesperson for the "Alex Dudula Movement", which is not formally aligned to the original Operation Dudula that emerged in Soweto and Alexandra last month, but has sprung up, apparently, spontaneously.
Some protesters said they were operating under the broad "Dudula Movement" umbrella, but that the latest protests in Alexandra had been on their own initiative and were part of what they called "Operation Fiyela", a term meaning "sweep clean".
Malatjie said that the protests "will not stop and will be held daily until the Pan (African Mall) is swept clean of foreign vendors".
Despite the visible police presence, the protesters vowed to keep up their activities for at least the rest of this week.
For their part, police made a point of being highly visible, this technique having been shown previously to be effective, at least in the short term, in calming prior eruptions of similar violence.
"Our (police) members are everywhere. The community is supporting law and order, and not lawlessness," said a police spokesperson.
Operation Dudula’s increasing adoption by hard-pressed South Africans, resentful of the presence in the country of an estimated 3.5 to 5 million foreigners, many undocumented, has raised concerns that yet another round of overt xenophobia is building up.
As calm returned to the cosmopolitan suburb of Alexandra, situated close to some of the most valuable residential and commercial areas in the country, foreign micro-business owners, mostly street vendors, pleaded with South Africans to treat them as "fellow humans and fellow Africans".
One man, who declined to be named, said he hailed from the DRC and had worked "very hard" to build up his mini-business servicing Alexandra customers, but was now afraid that he would lose everything and was "in fear for my life".
Other vendors affected by the rising resistance to their presence, which had forced them to stop operating for a month, said they had decided that if they were to die in trying to restart what for most is their only source of income, "then we will die".
Another Dudula supporter among the protesters in Alexandra said the foreign vendors involved in Monday's confrontations were making a collective turnover of about $130,000 a week, insisting that this same revenue must "remain in Alexandra", without explaining how that might be enforced.
The foreign vendors, many at their wit’s end and having given up attempting to placate locals, retaliated during Monday's exchanges, with some saying that "if there now has to be bloodshed, then so be it", with those opposing them making similar threats.