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Operation Dudula - government hesitant to take firm sta...

Defend Truth


Changing face of xenophobia in SA as government hesitant to take firm stand


Dr Stephen Phiri is a southern African representative of the Kwame Nkrumah Ideological Institute (a Pan-African organisation). He is also an alumnus of the National Institute for Humanities and Social Sciences.

As the government seems to be taking a back seat while Operation Dudula opens branches all over the country, South African civil society organisations are stepping into the breach.

The trend of responses against xenophobia and xenophobic attacks in South Africa has shifted from the state to civil society. For the first time in South Africa, the state seems to have relaxed in the fight against xenophobic-related incidents.

Despite President Cyril Ramaphosa condemning the attacks and intimidation of foreign national by reminding South Africans that they owe their African neighbours a debt of gratitude for their support during the Struggle against apartheid, just days earlier, Ramaphosa himself scapegoated undocumented foreigners while on the campaign trail. He said that “everybody just arrives in our townships and rural areas and sets up businesses without licences and permits. We are going to bring this to an end.”

Generally, the South African government seems to reluctantly condemn the sprouting nationalist formations that hold the sanctity of South African citizenship as the criterion for exclusion.

Xenophobic attacks and intimidation in South Africa only become widespread in 2008. They were witnessed in Alexandra, Johannesburg, and spread to seven of South Africa’s nine provinces, resulting in 62 deaths, including 21 South Africans, 11 Mozambicans, five Zimbabweans and three Somalis; thousands were injured. Some 40,000 foreign nationals left the country and a further 50,000 were displaced.

This intolerance of foreigners was attributed to competition for resources due to the increasing numbers of migrants, particularly from Zimbabwe. The South African government strongly condemned them, but failed to address longer-term issues of reintegration or effective strategies to curb xenophobic intolerance. Moreover, the South African Department of Home Affairs’ documentation process is not efficient, rendering those who seek asylum in South Africa undocumented.

The second wave of xenophobic attacks was in 2015, and KwaZulu-Natal was the hot spot with more than 62 people killed, 500 people displaced, and more than 300 properties destroyed. This wave of violence specifically targeted Somali and Pakistani shop owners.

The violence was triggered by two specific incidents. In the first incident, a young South African was shot by a Somali shop owner during an alleged robbery, and the second incident was based on comments made by the late Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini. The king, on 8 April 2015, said that foreigners should go back to their countries because they are changing the nature of South African society with their goods, and furthermore they were enjoying wealth that rightly belonged to local people.

As an intervention against this violence the South African government had to deploy the army to deter further unrest, launched an initiative to raise public awareness and extended its hands in helping victims of discrimination. Despite these efforts, human rights groups said the government should publicly state that these attacks were xenophobic.

The present wave of xenophobia has not yet witnessed the high number of deaths as the previous two major xenophobic attacks and intimidation. It is fundamentally different because the group involved, Operation Dudula, claims to be legitimate. The formation’s claim of legitimacy can be traced back to the launch of the #PutSouthAfricansFirst campaign on 27 April 2020.

Unlike other grassroots formations, by the time it was launched this particular campaign was already a fully formed entity. It was after the launch that South Africa witnessed its first pronounced major step towards xenophobic nationalism.

The idea of this campaign can further be traced back to ActionSA’s election campaigning mantra, which was unapologetically based on a South African-bound quasi-fascist mentality directed especially at the “mopping up” or “cleaning up” of illegal migrants.

Other organisations and political parties seem to share relatively the same sentiments, especially the Patriotic Front (PF), African Transformation Movement (ATM), the All Truck Drivers Forum (ATDF) and even some sections of the Umkhonto we Sizwe Military Veterans Association (MKMVA).

The #PutSouthAfricansFirst campaign seems to be very effective on social media but poorly organised on the ground. Their demands are centred on perceptions that foreign nationals are worsening the country’s high crime rate and unemployment. The movement only gained momentum when it appealed to Operation Dudula led by a young charismatic leader, Nhlanhla “Lux” Paballo Mohlali.

The Dudula movement is a splinter group from a segment in the Put South Africans First movement. It was founded in Alexandra, Johannesburg in 2021 with the objective of prioritising South Africans in terms of jobs and business opportunities, and also sought to drive away undocumented immigrants. It claims to help strengthen the South African government’s efforts to act on undocumented immigrants and those who are alleged to be involved in criminality.

Some analysts have argued that its operations are concentrated against poor black people who ordinarily live in shacks and townships and there is a clear similarity between Operation Dudula’s actions and previous xenophobic attacks. Poverty is the main driver of these sentiments, and their anger is misdirected at the people who are just as vulnerable and victimised as poor South Africans.

Since the government seems to be taking a back seat while Operation Dudula is opening further branches all over the country, South African civil society organisations have taken a stand.

The civil society groups that challenge the legitimacy of Dudula consist of a coalition of anti-xenophobia activists and other organisations for human rights, and workers’ organisations. Since Operation Dudula works under the nationalist agenda, this coalition invokes a pan-African perspective based on human rights.

On Saturday 19 February 2022, these organisation and civil society groups decided to form a pan-African movement under the banner of Kopanang Africa Against Xenophobia (Kaax). “This is in response to recent actions by groups operating under the banner of Operation Dudula who have been intimidating immigrants, particularly those working in the informal sector.”

One of the organisations affiliated to Kaax, the Socio-economic Rights Institute of South Africa (Seri) believes that Operation Dudula was created by some political parties for political expediency under the false pretext of protecting employment for vulnerable South Africans. Khululiwe Bhengu, an attorney at Seri, stated that “we strongly condemn the political point-scoring on migration which resulted in the recent breaches of the rights guaranteed by the Constitution to everyone within its borders. The attack on informal traders and migrants’ right to make a living will result in all vulnerable people being affected.”

The fact that two political parties, ActionSA and the Patriotic Front, used the issue of immigrants as their electioneering propaganda and gained a reasonable number of votes, especially in Johannesburg, is in itself a sign that some people are buying into the “cleaning up” of undocumented migrants.

Perhaps the ruling party has been threatened by losing votes to these small parties, so it does not want to further harm its chances of winning an election in 2024. As I write, Operation Dudula is extending its operations unabated. This is indeed xenophobia of a different kind. DM


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