Xenophobia: South Africa minister sparks fresh controversy

President Cyril Ramaphosa

South Africa's President Cyril Ramaphosa. Defence minister's comments on African foreigners in South Africa are seen as part of a hardening of the administration of President Ramaphosa to the plight of an estimated 3.5 to 5 million foreigners in South Africa

Photo credit: Courtesy | AFP

South Africa's Defence minister has stoked controversy over the role of foreign Africans in the country and its economy, with sentiments that appear to approve of the illegal activities of emerging xenophobia-like movements.

Thandi Modise, minister of Defence and Military Veterans, on Sunday linked the foreigners to rising crime in South Africa, saying that "most criminal syndicates in the country are run by foreign nationals".

The minister's comments are seen as part of a hardening of the administration of President Cyril Ramaphosa to the plight of an estimated 3.5 to 5 million foreigners in South Africa, many undocumented due to the ease of illegal entry.

"I think that sometimes we are too shy to say to people who cross the borders legally and illegally, who reside amongst us, who do not respect our laws, traditions and cultures, that we are fed up," she said during a question-and-answer session at a media briefing of the Justice, Crime Prevention and Security Cluster.

"That does not turn us into people who are xenophobic. The truth of the matter is that most of the syndicates are not run by South Africans. And we feel ashamed to say that," added the minister.

Some civil society groups are deeply unhappy about the recent return of anti-foreigner sentiment, after prior bouts in which scores of people have died and many small businesses destroyed as locals reacted to extremely high unemployment— up to 90 percent in some very poor communities— by attacking those who appear to be "outsiders taking our jobs".

In a response to what has all the appearance of resurgent xenophobia, a new movement called Kopanang (Sotho for "gathering together") Africa Against Xenophobia has recently been formed as a direct civil society response to ongoing and increasing attacks on immigrants, specifically Africans.

The new movement is the counter-point to the emergence of organised anti-foreigner protests and 'clean out' campaigns, operating under the banner of Operation Dudula (an isiZulu term meaning "push back" or "drive back")— a civil grouping with no formal authority.

Recent "actions" undertaken by Operation Dudula include a protest through Hillbrow in the heart of Johannesburg, demanding that only South Africans be offered jobs.

That protest was eventually broken up by police using rubber bullets and teargas.

Operation Dudula is led by a young firebrand, Nhlanhla Lux Dlamini, who has adopted paramilitary-style dress and who insists, despite his vehement rhetoric against mainly other-nationality Africans ostensibly "taking South Africans' jobs", that he and his movement are not xenophobic.

Dlamini and his growing band of supporters, estimated at a few thousand strong, also claim that immigrants are responsible for much of the crime with which South Africans are daily plagued.

The Defence minister's effectively echoing remarks about the role of foreigners in criminal syndicates has been seen by some as giving the 'green light' to the Dudula movement.

Consequent to the rise of this group, many immigrant traders and shopkeepers report that they live in constant fear of being attacked, and of their enterprises being looted and burnt.

In response to the growing concerns of thousands of Africans born beyond South Africa's borders, but now living here as contributing members of society, especially in the informal sector, the new grouping Kopanang Africa Against Xenophobia (KAAX) has emerged in the last week.

The complex set of issues affecting foreign-born Africans here has been made murkier yet by mixed messaging from both the South African authorities and opposition groups.

Last month, Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema and supporters forced their way into several restaurants in the Mall of Africa, in Midrand near Johannesburg, to conduct an 'unofficial audit' of the number of foreigners and local workers in these establishments.

The EFF action drew fierce criticism, including that the party was contradicting its oft-stated pan-Africanism and showing signs of becoming xenophobic.

The EFF said its concern was more about “worker exploitation”, and that it had not deviated from its denunciation of Afrophobia.

Malema's party eventually condemned Operation Dudula's overt anti-foreigner actions.

Trevor Ngwane – reported to be one of the new KAAX organisers – said the organisation had been formed as a counter to Operation Dudula as it was important for the working class to take a stand against xenophobia.

"We must come together to fight for jobs, education and better services. We must not attack one another," he said.

A grouping of S African truck drivers, the All-Truck Drivers’ Foundation (ATDF), which has called for a ban on foreign drivers but has also publicly condemned violence against foreign truck drivers, on Monday engaged in a protest at what they see as the high number of foreign truck drivers working in the country.

In stark counter-point, the Zimbabwean Truckers Association says their organisation is attempting to serve legal papers on the leaders of the Operation Dudula to stop them from "intimidating and harassing foreigners", but so far without success.

Operation Dudula's leaders, including Dlamini, who shot to the limelight in last July's civil unrest in South Africa when he and a few others deterred mobs from looting and burning a large mall in Soweto, near Johannesburg, appear to be operating "underground".

The Zimbabwe truck drivers, whose members have been heavily hit by previous rounds of xenophobia with some 200 having been killed, cannot locate Dudula's leaders, they say.

A legal spokesman for the Zimbabwean group said there had been "ugly acts of harassment, vigilantism, and xenophobic violence during this (Dudula) operation, which targets members of the Zimbabwean Truckers Association, their families, and foreigners from many African countries".

The frustrated and angered truckers' association wants the courts to interdict the organisers of Operation Dudula from continuing its "harassing and intimidating" tactics.

The embattled Zimbabwean truckers said it was hard to understand how Operation Dudula had received permission from the police for any of its "actions", without addresses being taken for organisers, and without which addresses obtaining an interdict against further "actions" by Operation Dudula and its leaders was impossible.

The road transport industry has been accused of favouring foreigners over South Africans, but the Road Freight Association says only about 10 percent of the roughly 63,000 heavy-duty vehicle drivers in SA are foreign.

The Dudula movement has, meanwhile, caused sufficient alarm that a number of African embassies are understood to have urged the Ramaphosa administration to rein in the xenophobic resurgence underway.

There is also a growing belief among these and other foreigners whose work brings them into South Africa that the African National Congress (ANC) government has done little to calm the situation.

Exacerbating uncertainty and anxiety for foreign drivers and other workers, the SA authorities recently halted the Zimbabwe Exemption Permits (ZEPs) system, an attempt at regularising the residence status of Zimbabweans residing illegally or quasi-legally in South Africa.

Zimbabweans, numbering by estimations at around 2.5 million, now have until year's end to apply for alternative permits, though the case is being challenged in the courts by ZEP permit holders, saying they have a legitimate right to permanent residence in SA.

Last year, the Ramaphosa government, under extreme pressure from citizens over foreigners holding jobs while official unemployment is at record levels, also announced plans to clamp down on foreign drivers in South Africa.