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Joburg fire disaster being used to fan flames of xenophobia ahead of 2024 elections

Joburg fire disaster being used to fan flames of xenophobia ahead of 2024 elections
Pedestrians walk past the gutted 80 Albert Street building, where at least 73 people died in a fire, in downtown Johannesburg, South Africa, on 1 September, 2023. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Kim Ludbrook)

Scapegoating and disinformation about the fire spread rapidly. Various politicians blamed illegal immigrants and civil society organisations who had no involvement whatsoever with the building.

The tragic fire at a building in Marshalltown, central Johannesburg on 31 August 2023 has once again brought politically driven xenophobia into focus.

Instead of political leaders conducting themselves with empathy and respectful regard for persons affected by the fire, various politicians blamed illegal immigrants and civil society organisations who had no involvement whatsoever with the building and had never previously litigated in respect of it.

Read more in Daily Maverick: City of Johannesburg points finger at NGOs and foreign nationals after deadly fire

That a number of politicians believe that the laws of the country are part of the problem is an indictment on the state of South Africa’s political landscape.

Scapegoating and disinformation about the fire spread rapidly. Without the nationality of those who lost their lives being confirmed, political leaders made pronouncements about illegal foreign nationals in a manner that suggests that to them the lives of the men, women and children lost in the fire matter less because they assume that they were not South Africans.

Disturbingly, the politics of xenophobic hatred is increasingly being used as an appeal to secure parties votes in the 2024 elections and this appears to be going largely unchecked.

Organised attacks

In the lead-up to the 2024 elections, the presence of foreign nationals in South Africa has been thrust into focus as an election issue. It is no accident of circumstance. There are sustained and concerted disinformation campaigns to position foreigners as a central voting issue. Xenophobic nationalism is being driven by political parties and movements with political aspirations.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Health Professions Council of SA sanctions Limpopo MEC Phophi Ramathuba over xenophobic diatribe

The Centre for Analytics and Behavioural Change (CABC) has been tracking xenophobic views online since 2020 and has seen campaigns becoming more overt, with xenophobic nationalism being promoted through an appeal to patriotism and clear references to the 2024 elections.

Social media is one of the ways in which prejudiced views about non-nationals in South Africa are spreading. Go onto X (formerly Twitter) and you will find numerous accounts with South African flags proclaiming to be patriots fanning the fires of hatred against foreigners, including by tweeting pictures of matchboxes and tyres — a reference understood in the South African context to be to mob justice through necklacing.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Do the Twitterati really understand the horror of their casual use of words like ‘necklacing’?

Foreign nationals are scapegoated for a range of social ills including crime, overburdening public services and occupying jobs. Among the barrage of content are also countless threats to journalists and activists who are faced with increasing backlash.

Viral xenophobia

Based on observing the online conversation, the main groupings that are promoting xenophobic views online are Operation Dudula and Put South Africans First. Accounts associated with these two formations produce content that contains disinformation, hate speech, incitement to violence, targeted harassment and trolling. In various instances, CABC has found that content associated with these campaigns is being amplified through retweets and reposting.

It appears that a goal of the campaigns is to get authentic users to follow influencer accounts associated with the campaigns in order to influence their voting preferences. There is a populist appeal and messaging that is disparaging of key parties, such as the ANC and EFF, that those individuals would usually vote for.

Those who make xenophobic pronouncements have become significantly bolder. Many of the influencers in the conversation started out as anonymously operated Twitter accounts. For example, uLerato Pillay. The person behind the account was anonymous until they were unmasked as being Sifiso Gwala, a disgraced former lance corporal of the South African National Defence Force. Subsequently, there have been accounts that use the uLerato Pillay image and persona.

There has been a shift in which a number of the previously anonymous account holders are now known and that person also has their personal brand as opposed to being a well-known account operated by an unknown account holder.

Various accounts associated with #OperationDudula and #PutSouthAfricansFirst have been found to be exhibiting strange behaviours such as only retweeting and multiple accounts have been suspended for violation of community standards. There are signs that there is coordination that is occurring between accounts.

For example, the use of follow trains. A current uLerato Pillay account explicitly says “ONLY FOLLOW TRAIN”. A follow train is formed when users agree to follow each other’s accounts. In a disinformation campaign, malicious actors use follow trains to artificially boost the follower count of accounts spreading false or misleading information.

Political push

If it was covert before; the underlying motive for driving xenophobic narratives through these campaigns is now clear. It is most definitely political. Over time, political affiliations and aspirations have become clearer or emerged.

In May 2023, Operation Dudula announced that it would become a political party in order to stand for office in the 2024 elections. In July 2023, Operation Dudula registered a non-profit company called “Operation Dudula Party”, the directors of which are Zandile Dabula, Peter Dimba and Solomon Kekana.

Mario Khumalo’s South African First Party was initially associated with the PutSouthAfricansFirst hashtag. However, Mario Khumalo and Victoria Africa (whose name is Victoria Mamogobo) joined the Patriotic Alliance in May 2022. Not all Put South Africans First leaders agreed with this (see this tweet). Some members have voting preferences for other political parties.

The Patriotic Alliance’s Gayton McKenzie and Kenny Kunene are particularly vocal about their views towards foreign nationals. McKenzie, for example, doubled down on his position when there were attempts to hold him accountable for what he said about foreigners who are using South African hospitals. McKenzie has set his sights on being president of South Africa.

A range of the Put South Africa First communications refer to voting choices. Some members are explicit about which party they will be voting for and encourage followers to vote similarly or to choose wisely.

Among the members of Operation Dudula and Put South Africans First there is a generally favourable sentiment towards ActionSA, although this has cooled off somewhat recently and there have been taunts from some “patriots” (see examples here and here).

ActionSA chairperson Herman Mashaba is one of the earlier adopters of a stance that problematises the presence of illegal foreign nationals as a voter issue, particularly in Gauteng. ActionSA’s stance on foreign nationals is less extreme than that of the Patriotic Alliance, but the party appears to have lost its early monopoly on this turf.

The ANC appears to be driven into a corner on its policy positions by Put South Africans First and Operation Dudula, among others, including All Truck Drivers Forum (ATDF) which is less active online, but active on the ground. The ANC does not seem to be able to address the actual challenges and implementation failures and in such cases scapegoating foreigners can be an expedient deflection.

ANC leaders have in certain instances taken xenophobic stances. A noteworthy example of this is when Limpopo Health MEC, Dr Phophi Ramathuba chastised an undocumented patient at a hospital in Limpopo about the costs of treating foreign nationals in South Africa.

Speaking in relation to the Marshalltown fire, Minister in the Presidency Khumbudzo Ntshavheni said that it was not an indication of a housing problem “because the majority of those people who stay and reside in hijacked buildings are not South African and they are not in this country legally and the government cannot provide housing to illegal immigrants”.

In 2022, Xenowatch recorded the highest number of xenophobic incidents since 2008 — a total of 109 incidents, 2,182 displacements, 117 shops looted and 38 deaths. The Zimbabwean Exemption Permit extension period ends on 31 December 2023. This will put a policy decision that involves non-nationals in the spotlight at a juncture that is in South Africa’s pre-election period. This timing which is proximal to the elections does not bode well.

A politics of hatred is not what was envisioned for the country’s democratic future. In a landscape of unrealised expectations, casting votes on the basis of hate will not solve the actual challenges that must be confronted. DM

The Centre for Analytics and Behavioural Change (CABC) is a non-profit organisation established to track and counter misinformation and disinformation, fake news and divisive and polarising rhetoric that is promulgated online to undermine social cohesion, democratic integrity, and the stability of nation-states. The CABC has been tracking online conversations on xenophobia since 2020. 


Daily Maverick has closed comments on all elections articles for the next two weeks. While we do everything in our power to ensure deliberately false, misleading and hateful commentary does not get published on our site, it’s simply not possible for our small team to have sight of every comment. Given the political dynamics of the moment, we cannot risk malignant actors abusing our platform to manipulate and mislead others. We remain committed to providing you with a platform for dynamic conversation and exchange and trust that you understand our need for circumspection at this sensitive time for our country.

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