South Africa: New campaign reignites xenophobic rhetoric

South African activists and politicians blame foreigners for crime — but is that true?

Published : Apr 16, 2022 13:11 IST

There is growing anti-foreigner resentment in South Africa.

There is growing anti-foreigner resentment in South Africa.

When members of Operation Dudula marched through South Africa's port city of Durban chanting anti-immigrant songs, they demanded that authorities crack down on undocumented immigrants. "People are coming into the country and they are not documented and the government is doing nothing about it, and it's difficult to find them when they commit crime," said Zandile Dabula, National Secretary for Operation Dudula. Anti-foreigner sentiment in South Africa is nothing new, but Operation Dudula's rhetoric equates foreign African nationals living in South Africa with crime.

This is troubling for Professor Loren Landau of the African Center for Migration and Society at University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.. "It's turned your average citizen into your immigration or police department. That's dangerous because it's not only that they're looking for foreigners, but also anyone they feel shouldn't be in that community," Landau told DW . Dudula — which stems from a Zulu word meaning "to push back" — first surfaced on social media in 2020. It has recently morphed from anti-foreigner sentiment online to a physical movement, with people accosting individuals they suspect of being illegally in the country.

'They steal our jobs'

Foreign nationals living in South Africa's poorer areas are nervous after massive demonstrations near Johannesburg fueled by anti-immigrant sentiments. Operation Dudula, based in Soweto, and the Dudula Movement that started in Alexandra last year, are separate. But they share strong anti-foreigner views, blaming undocumented foreigners for crime and for 'stealing' jobs from South Africans.

According to the Operation Dudula campaigners, South African authorities have not responded to their concerns, so they must carry out citizens' arrests. "The emergence of these groups demonstrates the weakness of authority in South Africa," political analyst Ralph Mathekga told DW . Charismatic, leader Nhlanhla 'Lux' Dlamini spreads a potent "South Africans First" rhetoric. Yet, he only began using the hashtag frequently this year. The stoning and burning alive of a Zimbabwean man in Diepsloot, northwest of Johannesburg, just hours after Police Minister Bheki Cele promised a bigger security presence in the area shocked many in early April.

But if movements like Dudula are allowed to grow or are tolerated, such events may increase, says Landau. "Political parties have been beset by infighting and have turned to scapegoating to blame the foreigners to distract the population from what is real here," Landau said. "They [South African political parties] have been accessories to the violence that we're seeing and to some of the anti-immigrant mobilizations," he told DW .

Root causes remain unaddressed

Despite high unemployment rates, South Africa's economy dwarfs those of neighboring countries, and many are drawn to the economic engine room of Gauteng province. "Operation Dudula capitalized on deep dissatisfaction with the state of being in South Africa, with unemployment, with inequality, with lack of services. And in that sense, they are capturing something that is real and justified," says Landau. "They are directing the energies to fighting immigration rather than addressing the source of those problems which are within the political system itself." An estimated 4 million foreigners live in South Africa, but accurate figures are hard to come by.

The trauma of 2008 persists

Lwazi* (not his real name) has lived in South Africa for over a decade, mostly around Cape Town. He remembers being in mortal danger in May 2008 when xenophobic violence spread from Gauteng. At least 62 people, including South Africans, were killed. Around 40,000 foreign nationals fled the country and another 50,000 were internally displaced. Operation Dudula worries him.

"It's different from before. Before it was a nationwide thing. It wasn't being organized like this. When they see undocumented foreigners, they should be putting the blame on Home Affairs. They are incompetent when giving asylum," he adds. He says so far Operation Dudula has not reached Cape Town. "Cape Town people are not that violent towards foreigners because some have come to understand foreigners and make money through renting out their land or houses," he told DW .

For years, Lwazi would join other Zimbabweans, Mozambicans, and other African foreign nationals, in trying to get his asylum request processed, to no avail. That he has stayed so long in South Africa does not change anything. "They think we don't try, but we do!" Lwazi believes this time around, xenophobia is becoming a political tool.

Politicians cashing in

His fears appear well founded. Earlier this year, the Economic Freedom Fighters political party (EFF) made headlines when it visited restaurants demanding to inspect the 'ratio' of foreigners compared to locals to pressure businesses into hiring more South Africans. Others, such as former prisoner-turned-politician Gayton Mackenzie's smaller Patriotic Alliance party have taken a harder line, saying all illegal foreigners should 'leave the country.' In 2015, the Minister of Small Business Development, Lindiwe Zulu, claimed without evidence that foreign owners of small 'spaza' shops [a South African slang meaning a small shop in a township] had an unfair advantage over South Africans. She demanded that they "should share trade secrets."

Political scientist Mathekga has noticed another worrying trend. "Recently, South Africa's politicians have become fond of mentioning the nationality of those accused in crime, as if South Africans are not committing crimes," he said, adding that it fuels anti-immigrant sentiment. For him, the vast majority of crimes in South Africa are committed by locals, and in most cases, those crimes involving foreigners are enabled by South Africans. According to Mathekga, political parties face a crisis of legitimacy and lack rapport with voters. "They are enticed to invoke easy messages that look like they connect with the people, especially if those issues are emotional to the people."

No end in sight

While addressing the nation about the protests, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa responded angrily by comparing Operation Dudula to the apartheid system. But for Landau, condemning Operation Dudula and xenophobia is not enough. Instead, Ramaphosa's government must change the dire poverty and poor economic conditions for millions of South Africans. "Until he accepts that responsibility and offers a plan for addressing the root causes, I think people are going to continue to hear him as a sort of distant noise rather than as something that they can believe in," he told DW . Meanwhile, Lwazi keeps his head down, works his part-time job, and cares for his young daughter. "I'm just happy, God has been good to me," he said. "But it doesn't change my situation."

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