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Anti-foreigner group Operation Dudula gets party registration green light

Anti-foreigner group Operation Dudula gets party registration green light
Operation Dudula supporters march to the Home Affairs offices on Harrison Street in Johannesburg on 7 July 2023. (Photo: Gallo Images / Fani Mahuntsi)

Operation Dudula – known as a xenophobic vigilante group that has led unlawful raids targeting foreigners – has registered as a political party to contest the 2024 elections and claims to represent citizens who have lost hope.

In a recent BBC Africa Eye documentary, Fear and Loathing in South Africa, Operation Dudula member Dimakatso Mokoena is recorded saying that she “hates foreigners” and “wishes they could just pack and go and leave our country”.

Operation Dudula has registered with the Electoral Commission (IEC) to contest the 2024 elections and plans to field candidates in all nine provinces. 

Despite the group’s history of xenophobia and vigilantism, acting secretary-general Isaack Lesole claimed that Operation Dudala is about patriotism and making sure that South Africans are prioritised. 

Speaking to Daily Maverick, he dismissed claims that the organisation is involved in vigilantism and instead said it has become a voice for South Africans who have lost hope in the government.

The organisation, which is now being led by Zandile Dabula, has since its inception led raids on private properties and in public spaces like taxi ranks to intimidate and harass foreigners who they believe are in the country illegally, calling for their forced removal.

Operation Dudula

Operation Dudula’s acting secretary-general, Isaack Lesole. (Photo: Facebook)

Targeting foreigners ‘by force’

Operation Dudula was launched in June 2021 in Soweto and in one of its earliest protests members evicted residents from an allegedly illegally occupied building in Diepkloof. Ahead of a demonstration on 16 June 2021, it said: “We will be removing all illegal foreign nationals by force.”

One of the group’s founders, Nhlanhla “Lux” Dlamini, gained a following when he and other armed Soweto residents protected Maponya Mall from looters during the July 2021 unrest, giving it a national platform.

Operation Dudula has threatened to remove foreigners from schools in Diepsloot; unlawfully evicted residents from an allegedly illegally occupied building in Jeppe, Johannesburg; harassed workers and patients believed to be foreigners at a hospital in Tshwane; and clashed with police while targeting foreign traders in Johannesburg’s Hillbrow and Orange Grove.

Dlamini received two suspended sentences after Operation Dudula members raided a house in Soweto looking for drugs. Philani Gumede, a senior figure from Operation Dudula, was arrested in Durban and fined for incitement of violence during the 2021 July unrest.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Nhlanhla Lux exposed – The disturbing picture behind the masks of the man heading Operation Dudula

The group has blamed foreigners for strangling the township economy with their small businesses and has attributed a host of challenges, such as drug addiction and crime, to foreigners. 

Operation Dudula’s modus operandi is to demand that people produce documents to prove their identity and legal status in the country. Those who cannot comply are detained by the mob, supposedly to hand over to police for deportation.

There are gatvol community members who will make sure they select leaders who will deal with their problems.

Dlamini left the group, supposedly over discord between the stance of Operation Dudula and that of its partner organisation, Put South Africa First, which includes the Alexandra Dudula Movement, regarding illegal immigrants.

Dlamini was reported to have believed that only undocumented foreigners should be forced to leave the country while the other groups wanted all foreigners gone.

Operation Dudula

Operation Dudula’s Nhlanhla ‘Lux’ Dlamini at the Soweto revival launch in Diepkloof on 27 February 2022. (Photo:Felix Dlangamandla / Daily Maverick)

Operation Dudula’s Lesole told Daily Maverick the party has more to offer than its stance on foreigners: “We prioritise black South Africans because the government takes care of our people. It cannot be that when we talk about South Africa it should be preceded by [a] march. Our hallmark position about foreigners remains clear but that is not all we have to offer. There are gatvol community members who will make sure they select leaders who will deal with their problems.”

Speaking about the BBC’s recent documentary, Lesole said it wasn’t a deterrent for the group’s supporters, many of whom he said had donated money to the party.

“We have many people who support Operation Dudula, some wish to stay away from the public eye,” he said.

Call to rescind registration

Earlier this year, the Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa went to court seeking an interdict on behalf of various organisations, including Kopanang Africa Against Xenophobia (KAAX), the South African Informal Traders Forum, the Inner-City Federation and Abahlali baseMjondolo, against Operation Dudula’s “xenophobic and racist speech and conduct”.

Speaking to Daily Maverick, KAAX’s Sharon Ekambaram said the organisation is actively promoting intolerance and called the IEC to rescind its registration. 

“Worse than scapegoating migrants, Operation Dudula has publicly associated itself with acts of vigilantism, flagrantly acting unlawfully. This is its track record. We call on the IEC to withdraw the registration of Operation Dudula as a political party because it contravenes the IEC’s Code of Conduct; in particular, in relation to ‘Engaging in prohibited conduct which involves using language which provokes violence’.”

“The IEC has powers to enforce the Electoral Code of Conduct which is aimed at promoting conditions that are conducive to free and fair elections and that create a climate of tolerance, free political campaigning and open public debate,” she said.

Operation Dudula

An Operation Dudula protest in Cape Town on 23 July 2022. (Photo: Gallo Images / Brenton Geach)

The IEC’s role

While there has been open backlash against the party’s formation, there seems to have been no immediate challenge to its registration.

Former IEC deputy commissioner Terry Tselane explained that there are no rules that require the IEC to look at an organisation’s track record and that as long as Dudula’s constitution is in line with that of the country, it is eligible to contest elections.

It says refugee camps should be established and that the Department of Basic Education should not subsidise schools operated by foreigners.

“They must be able to provide a constitution which does not contradict that of the country, and a certain number of signatures. There are checks and balances to ensure that the process is done accordingly to be registered as a political party. This includes it being gazetted and this gives the public the opportunity to object to the application.”

Lesole expressed surprise that there were no objections to Dudula’s application. 

“Ironically we were expecting the likes of the Helen Suzman Foundation to object, but they did not. Nobody really raised any issues, so we are good to go,” he said. 

Former IEC deputy commissioner Terry Tselane. (Photo: Gallo Images / City Press / Leon Sadiki)

Operation Dudula’s constitution

The party constitution has a sharp focus on immigration but also seeks to cover matters facing South Africans daily.

It does not appear to ban foreigners as members but its aims and goals include commitments that might go against the spirit of the country’s Constitution and laws.

It says the party aims to “unify South Africans, promote democracy, non-sexism, non-racism and patriotism. To instil patriotism amongst South Africans to fight illegal and undocumented immigrants, as a progressive patriotic political party, is constituted by the paying members who are citizens of the Republic of South Africa and is founded on the basic needs, aspirations and expectations of the people, our guiding principles are South Africans first in South Africa and South Africa is our only home.”

They could be taking support from the EFF because while the EFF is radical in theory, Dudula seems to be more practical in their response to community members.

It says: “Tenders to be the SOLE benefit of South Africans.” It adds that no foreigner should be accredited by the Private Security Industry Regulatory Authority or be allowed to sell alcohol. It says refugee camps should be established and that the Department of Basic Education should not subsidise schools operated by foreigners.

Operation Dudula’s chances

Political analyst Sipho Seepe explained that the space for organisations like Operation Dudula to exist has been created through despondency by communities who no longer trust political parties. He added that Operation Dudula is a viable option for votes because it has already managed to garner support from citizens.

He highlighted that its emergence is indicative of the state of the country, mentioning that seeing people supporting them despite their xenophobic roots shows the extent of desperation. 

Seepe predicted that they are likely to attract mostly black voters from the townships. 

“There seems to be some level of viability as they do have a constituency. They could be taking support from the EFF because while the EFF is radical in theory, Dudula seems to be more practical in their response to community members. The other thing is that some who support the EFF are not in favour of their open-border policy,” he said. 

Seepe was shocked that Operation Dudula was even allowed to register as a party and questioned the requirements set out by the IEC. 

“The bar is really low. This raises a bigger question about the weaknesses which may exist in the IEC’s process,” he said. DM

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