Maverick Citizen

Maverick Citizen: Tuesday Guest Editorial

Ringing the alarm: We need to act against xenophobia before lives are lost to violence

Ringing the alarm: We need to act against xenophobia before lives are lost to violence
Protesters at the #PutSouthAfricansFirst March on Pretoria's Church Square, from where they marched to the Union Buildings on 24 November 2021, in protest against the renewal of Zimbabweans' work permits. (Photo: Gallo Images/Alet Pretorius)

Intimidation and violence as perpetrated by groups such as Operation Dudula violate human rights and are also a threat to the Covid-19 vaccine roll-out programme.

At its meeting this week, members of the Gauteng Community Organising Working Group (COWG) discussed the threat posed by rapidly rising levels of xenophobia, specifically those associated with Operation Dudula. Mostly our discussions are about mobilising people for vaccination in the Johannesburg municipality, so the change of topic reflected profound anxiety about increasing levels of violence directed mainly at non-South Africans. This is a summary of what was said. We wish to draw attention to the threat, ringing the alarm so that others are also aware.

In the third quarter of 2021, South Africa recorded its highest unemployment rate since 2008, officially sitting at 34.9%. Youth unemployment alone is now 66.5%. The high unemployment rate can be said to be the result of job losses resulting from the economic disruption caused by the Covid-19 lockdown and the social unrest in certain provinces in July 2021. However, these can only be seen as factors that exacerbated an existing problem caused by the history of the country and the government’s neglect in addressing the matter effectively.

Regardless of the various factors that have contributed to the problem of unemployment, there is a group of people who see foreigners as the cause of this problem. and they are adamant that they will push them out and replace them with South Africans, not only in the workplace (particularly in the restaurant and truck-driving industries) but also from trading as street vendors and shop owners. This has been referred to as Operation Dudula (meaning to “push out”) and has gained momentum in recent weeks in the Gauteng township of Soweto and surrounding areas. 

Supporters at Operation Dudula’s Pimville launch in Soweto on 23 January 2022. (Photo: Gallo Images/Papi Morake)

Operation Dudula launched in Pimville, Soweto on 23 January 2022. (Photo: Gallo Images/Papi Morake)

Politics of xenophobia

Political parties such as ActionSA, the EFF and the IFP have expressed their support of prioritising South Africans over foreigners in the workplace, with the EFF going as far as to engage with restaurants, pleading with them to dismiss “foreigners”. The EFF has expressed that they do not necessarily have a problem with foreigners being employed in South Africa, but that the party would like for South Africans to be prioritised for jobs, given the high levels of unemployment in the country. The government has given credibility to arguments that foreigners are the problem by calling for tighter restrictions.

The approach being taken by the promoters of Operation Dudula includes intimidation and violence against foreigners. For example, a video circulating on social media shows promoters of Operation Dudula telling vendors at the Baragwanath taxi rank in Soweto to leave their trading spaces, so that South Africans can take them up. They are heard saying that the spaces are for “original South Africans”, meaning people born in South Africa. 

Stalls and hawker trading spaces at the Baragwanath taxi rank in Johannesburg stand abandoned on 28 January 2022 amid Operation Dudula’s push to remove illegal foreigners or those without permits from townships and surrounding suburbs. (Photo: Gallo Images/Fani Mahuntsi)


Community activists of the COWG, who have been involved in mobilising for the vaccine roll-out in Johannesburg, now fear the repercussions Operation Dudula is likely to have on that. With South Africa desperately trying to reach the revised target of 67% of the population fully vaccinated by March 2022, and we as community activists working tirelessly to encourage vaccine uptake in our communities, Operation Dudula is a potential setback.

This would not be the first time the vaccine roll-out in South Africa has been derailed. In July 2021, when only 7% of the population had been vaccinated, the civil unrest led to a brief halt in vaccination in certain areas, and it is still moving at a snail’s pace in KwaZulu-Natal. Now, with only 27.8% of the population fully vaccinated at present, Operation Dudula is a looming threat to the roll-out, due to the momentum we see the movement gaining in our communities. Migrants are now especially fearful. 

Vaccine equality has been something the COWG has always strived for and has been working on getting undocumented persons vaccinated in our communities. Although the thought of undocumented persons may initially be understood to indicate foreigners only, this is simply not the case. There are very many South African citizens, maybe 15% of the population, who are undocumented for some reason or another. 

Job seekers in Johannesburg on 4 June 2021. In the third quarter of 2021, South Africa recorded its highest unemployment rate since 2008, officially sitting at 34.9%. (Photo: Gallo Images/Luba Lesolle)

We were starting to see progress in this area, organising pop-up sites that cater to vaccination of the undocumented in places such as Protea South, Nana’s Farm in the south of Johannesburg and Klipspruit in Soweto, with other organisations mobilising elsewhere. Now we fear that the undocumented, whether they are from South Africa or other countries, will be reluctant to come forward to be vaccinated for fear of Operation Dudula.

We are however worried about the vaccination units and our own teams of campaigners. Already some vaccinators have been attacked, and while the reasons for this are not clear, it highlights their vulnerability. Dudula activists have demanded IDs, and if people do not have one, they can be attacked, even if they are South Africans. 

Unless we increase the total number of people vaccinated, the chance of infection is increased for everybody, whatever their nationality.

In South Africa, unemployment among the young alone is now 66.5%. (Photo: Gallo Images/Luba Lesolle)

Wider fears

Xenophobia can be a deadly phenomenon in South Africa. In 2008, it led to the killing of 62 people. It is estimated that about a third of these were South Africans, some of whom were murdered because they had darker skins. Operation Dudula and other xenophobic activists say they are not against all foreigners, only those who are criminals and residing in the country illegally. These are problems for the South African Police Service (SAPS) and Home Affairs to deal with. In practice, xenophobic thugs cannot distinguish between different legal statuses, so they turn against anybody they assume is foreign. If law-abiding and peaceful people stand in their way, they too are exposed to violence.

We are especially worried this time, for three reasons; 

  1. Unemployment is higher than ever and people are more disillusioned with the government than in the past;  
  2. The ANC may decide to zero in on xenophobia to divert attention from its internal problems; and  
  3. Most immediately, Dudula is now recruiting people for branch membership. 

More than 200 refugees protest in front of the police station in central Cape Town against violence and xenophobia on 8 February 2008. (Photo: Francois Nel/Gallo Images)

Now is the time to act, before it’s too late

With the momentum the movement is seen to be gaining in Soweto and surrounding communities, we as COWG community activists believe that time cannot be wasted in acting against Operation Dudula. We are witnessing a massive attack on human rights. Violence and intimidation are already occurring, and this will surely increase, leading, at some point, to killings. 

SAPS should be stopping xenophobic intimidation and violence, but we do not see this happening. We believe the best way to stop xenophobia is by joining forces with trade unions, NGOs and other organisations. It is important that there is strong and urgent action against xenophobia

The National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) and the South African Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu) have spoken out, disputing the very claims that motivate this movement. They say South Africans cannot look to foreigners to blame for their state of unemployment, but should rather focus their attention on the government becauses its officials are the ones who have failed them. 

This is a statement we fully support.

The foreign migrants under attack are our African brothers and sisters. They are our workmates and neighbours, we buy our food from them and sell them our goods. As nurses and teachers they keep us safe and educate our children and sometimes they are our loved ones. Now is the time to act against xenophobia, before it’s too late and before the killings start. DM/MC

The Community Organising Working Group is part of the C-19 People’s Coalition, an activist-driven alliance operating through a set of working groups coordinated by a steering task team. Most of the COWG members lead teams of volunteers, and some are experienced activists and community leaders. For safety reasons they have chosen not to be named individually as many of them live in communities where they deal with the very real threat of xenophobia.


"Information pertaining to Covid-19, vaccines, how to control the spread of the virus and potential treatments is ever-changing. Under the South African Disaster Management Act Regulation 11(5)(c) it is prohibited to publish information through any medium with the intention to deceive people on government measures to address COVID-19. We are therefore disabling the comment section on this article in order to protect both the commenting member and ourselves from potential liability. Should you have additional information that you think we should know, please email [email protected]"

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