South Africa’s Dudula Movement Sparks a Surge in Xenophobia

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Vigilante group turned political party Operation Dudula increases its xenophobic rhetoric amid rising unemployment in South Africa (Image credit: Reuters).

For years, Freeman Bhengu tried to earn a living in Soweto, the township on the outskirts of the country’s commercial capital, Johannesburg, where he grew up. He wired houses, he helped renovate them, and he even managed the local football talent. But nothing stuck.

On June 16, 2021, Bhengu, then 45, took a nine-hour bus trip from Hanover, a town in the Northern Cape province, to Soweto. He was eager to attend the launch of Operation Dudula, a grassroots movement lobbying against undocumented African migrants.

Operation Dudula

Operation Dudula is an organization that turned into a political party in South Africa. The group is widely recognized as being xenophobic and has been linked with violently threatening and targeting both legal and illegal migrants. The group blames South Africa’s porous borders, lenient immigration practices, and the presence of migrants for many of South Africa’s social issues.

Operation Dudula was established in Soweto, a township of Johannesburg, and has since spread to other parts of the country. “Dudula” means to “force out” or “knock down” in isiZulu, and refers to the movement’s goal to expel migrants. Although they have been accused of violently targeting immigrants, Operation Dudula denies having any connection to xenophobic motives.

For years, people from neighboring countries have come to Africa’s most industrialized economy seeking economic prosperity. Many are Black, like most of South Africa, where the 7.7 percent white minority still controls the levers of wealth. During the last two decades, however, tensions have arisen between Black South Africans and these migrants. Locals say they have taken jobs that should belong to them and have accused many migrants of running thriving drug trades within townships.

Dale McKinley, a spokesperson for the advocacy group Kopanang Africa Against Xenophobia (KAAX), attributes the rise of anti-immigration sentiment to the “socioeconomic realities of the majority”. Since 2021, about a third of South Africans have been unemployed. “People are desperate, people are suffering and as a result, they turn to the most vulnerable, and the easiest targets, which are migrants, and particular, illegal migrants and those who don’t have documentation,” McKinley told Al Jazeera.

Against this backdrop, Bhengu joined hundreds of other disgruntled people at a community hall in Diepkloof, Soweto, for Operation Dudula’s launch. June 16, celebrated in South Africa as Youth Day, is of particular significance in Soweto, a Black-majority community. On that day in 1976, police opened fire during a protest, killing 176 students according to official estimates.

But Nomzamo Zondo, executive director of the Johannesburg-based rights group, Socio-Economic Rights Insitute (SERI), says Operation Dudula members are “violence entrepreneurs” using history as a pretext to mobilize locals against vulnerable sections of society.

Origin, Aims, and Objective

Operation Dulula was founded by Nhlanhla “Lux” Dlamini (also Mohlauhi). Dlamini rose to prominence for his role in defending Maponya Mall from looters in the July 2021 unrest. The group emerged from the discourse that blamed migrants for the fallout and economic hardship of COVID-19 deaths and lockdowns. Operation Dudula led their first march on 16 June 2021 through Soweto targeting people that they believed were foreign drug traffickers and businesses that they thought employed immigrants. The march increased their popularity and in the following months, several other anti-immigrant groups also going by Dudula or some variation of the name, such as the separate Alexandra Dudula Movement, were established. In April 2022, Operation Dudula expanded to Durban, KwaZulu Natal, and in May 2022, to Western Cape Province.

Operation Dudula states that its campaign is aimed at addressing crime, a lack of jobs, and poor health services caused by an “influx of illegal immigrants”. They have campaigned for small businesses to only employ South Africans, and for migrant shopkeepers to close down and leave South Africa. Operation Dudula has been accused of a number of instances of violence against African immigrants in South African townships, including forcibly closing shops and raiding properties.

In March 2022, Dlamini was arrested on charges of orchestrating a raid of EFF member Victor Ramerafe’s Dobsonville home where Operation Dudula claimed drugs were being sold; he duly received two suspended sentences. In July 2022, Dlamini left Operation Dudula to concentrate on his work with the Soweto Parliament; this was due to disagreements between the two groups over immigration.

In July and August 2022, Operation Dudula targeted and confronted illegal migrants who occupied buildings in Johannesburg’s inner city. The group has no membership structure, is highly visible on social media, and is composed of mainly affected community members.

In May 2023, it declared itself a political party intending to contest the elections in 2024. Other organizations associated with Operation Dudula include the South Africa First campaign, Alexandra Dudula Movement, All Truck Drivers Foundation, MKMVA, and the UMkhonto we Sizwe Military Veterans’ Association (which has since been disbanded).

Xenophobia’s Deep Roots in South Africa

In April 2022, a Zimbabwean in Diepsloot, north of Johannesburg, was stoned and set on fire. In 2008, Black South Africans torched huts belonging to foreigners in their townships, killing 62 people. The outrage sparked by the wave of hate killings was widespread, yet investigations started by initiatives at the time went nowhere.

The platform Xenowatch, which was developed by the African Center for Migration and Society (ACMS) at the University of Witwatersrand, collects data on crimes against foreigners. They recorded 1,038 attacks on migrants, 661 deaths, and 5,131 shops looted since 1994. Xenowatch says this is almost certainly an underestimation, as not every case is reported.

South Africa’s Growing Right-Wing

The group Operation Dudula first appeared on social media in 2020. Dudula is a Zulu word meaning “push back.” The group is now registered as a political party and will take part in the country’s 2024 general election.

But Dudula candidates won’t be the only ones chanting xenophobic slogans on the campaign trail. The Economic Freedom Fighters, currently South Africa’s third-strongest party, also uses them. Though the party takes a radical leftist approach to the economy, it is also openly xenophobic.

Other smaller parties, such as the Patriotic Alliance and ActionSA, have also incited against foreigners. The latter was able to score points with xenophobic sloganeering during last year’s municipal elections. That is a threatening development from Fredson Guilengue’s perspective. A staff member at the German Left Party-aligned Rosa Luxemburg Foundation in Johannesburg, Guilengue fears an uptick in attacks on migrants in South Africa — as well as the continuing growth of the country’s right-wing scene — as the vote approaches.

Guilengue, from neighboring Mozambique, says even if current data shows a drop in the number of actual xenophobic attacks compared to 2022, the narrative scapegoating of migrants is growing. “Unlike past waves, what we are seeing now is the institutionalization of xenophobia,” he told DW, noting that Operation Dudula was contributing to the phenomenon.

Right-Wing Support

Guilengue says the problems Black South Africans have with people from elsewhere in Africa come down to a combination of factors. “First, colonialism and Apartheid not only led to a split between whites and Blacks but also to a split within the Black majority — putting immigrants on the bottom rung of Black South African society.”

Now, in a desolate economy lacking in job opportunities and at a time when political parties are pushing xenophobic policies, this Apartheid-era inheritance has grown more explosive.

Staff at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation fear that the perennially ruling African National Congress (ANC) party could also jump on the xenophobia bandwagon. There are xenophobic forces in the ANC and Nelson Mandela’s former freedom-fighting movement is looking at the most difficult vote in its history. Experts predict the ANC may even fall below the 50% mark for the first time since it was established.

Migrants Are Not to Blame

A study from the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) in Pretoria says every second person in South Africa is unemployed, and blame for increasing poverty, extreme social injustice, corruption, and crime is often pinned on foreigners.  

In truth, says the ISS, it is poor governance and corruption in politics, combined with administrative deficiencies, that are to blame. Furthermore, South Africa’s migrant population, estimated at 6.5%, is no larger than anywhere else in the world.

The fact that many foreigners living in South Africa do not have proper residency permits is also the result of poor immigration policy. Many foreigners migrate to South Africa legally only to have their status later revoked through no fault of their own, say ISS researchers. They point out that the country’s Interior Ministry has been plagued by corruption for years and is also way behind when it comes to processing residency applications and permits.

Written by Paula Onuoha

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