Vigilante group Operation Dudula had begun openly claiming to be “against illegal foreigners in our country”, insisting it was fighting for “job reservation” for South Africans. Job reservation was one of the worst aspects of apartheid

Source: Financial Mail

Xenophobia: Reclaiming the idea of SA

South Africans have for too long described themselves by what they are not — and have done so within the narrow confine of nationality. Today, the chorus of ‘we are not foreign’ is growing. It’s a chauvinistic sentiment, made worse by the economic precariousness that pervades life in SA. It’s time to do better


A few weeks ago, a rowdy crowd of tens of thousands gathered in Paris to cheer on Eric Zemmour, a right-wing politician who has run a virulently anti-immigrant presidential campaign. Just months before, while on the campaign trail, he claimed that child migrants — many of them from Africa and the Middle East — are “thieves, killers and rapists”.

Zemmour is unlikely to fulfil his political ambitions. But he has been successful in mobilising support for “the great replacement”, a strange conspiracy theory that is regularly trotted out by American talk-show host Tucker Carlson and other nationalist figures globally. The essence of the theory is that elites are colluding against white people, with the intention of replacing them with Africans and people from the Middle East — a “genocide by substitution”.

While Zemmour’s statements are often patently false and deliberately divisive, his supporters believe he’s “fighting to stop France from disappearing”. 

This idea of replacement is pervasive in anti-immigrant movements around the world. In the US, Donald Trump made much of the migrant caravan making its way from Central America to the US border, insisting that the asylum seekers were in fact “gang members and some very bad people”.

In the past few months, anti-immigrant sentiment has dominated SA’s headlines too, buoyed by the polarising statements of key figures in government and politics. 

The upswing in bigotry started in November, when the government announced it was considering whether to extend exemption permits for Zimbabweans. In short order, a campaign to pressure the government not to renew the permits began, led by #PutSouthAfricaFirst and #NoToZimWorkPermits. They wanted the government to “prioritise South Africans”.

“We are not attacking anyone but, like Botswana, we would really like our country to prioritise us,” said Tshidiso Rantsa, one of the campaign conveners. “SA has a high unemployment rate, but we are forced to give all these struggling countries a piggyback ride. It doesn’t make sense.”

The government seemed to concur. A few weeks later, the president’s office announced the permits would not be renewed. Instead, the department of home affairs offered permit holders a grace period of one year to regularise their documents.

The move affects almost 200,000 permit-holders and has been roundly criticised by human rights groups, who argue that it will have disastrous consequences for up to 500,000 children, who will have to uproot their lives to move to a country they have never known. According to Lawyers for Human Rights, the decision will also increase the number of undocumented people living in the country, and undermine work home affairs has undertaken in the past 10 years to regularise the status of undocumented Zimbabwean nationals in SA.

After the announcement of the Zimbabwe permit issue, the EFF entered the fray. In January this year, party leader Julius Malema created a media spectacle at Midrand’s Mall of Africa when he entered a number of restaurants in an attempt to ascertain the ratio of immigrant to local employees in each establishment. Though Malema was initially combative in his approach, after interacting with restaurant staff, he conceded that the assumptions motivating his unauthorised inspections were incorrect. There were plenty of SA employees working on that day.

Accused of flip-flopping, Malema insisted: “We have always been clear on our stance, and people are distorting our position. What we have always maintained is that there is no-one who will drive Africans out of SA.” 

By last month, the tenor of the conversation had hardened. Vigilante group Operation Dudula had begun openly claiming to be “against illegal foreigners in our country”, insisting it was fighting for “job reservation” for South Africans. Job reservation was one of the worst aspects of apartheid, introduced at the insistence of white workers who feared nonwhite workers would undercut them with cheaper labour. The National Party exploited this fear, turning it into a political issue that eventually won the party votes under the banner “vote white SA” in 1948.

Operation Dudula’s campaign has also sought to depict so-called foreigners as criminals. As former FeesMustFall activist and EFF member Bonginkosi Khanyile has put it: “Operation Dudula is not against foreigners, but illegal foreign nationals. By virtue of being an illegal immigrant, you are already a criminal.” 

Criminalising immigrants is a hallmark of nationalist chauvinism. Khanyile ought to know that SA’s shambolic immigration system prevents many asylum-seekers from lodging their claims. It is official corruption and incompetence, rather than migrant criminality, that lie at the root of the problem. Khanyile may pretend to espouse Africanist views, but his views echo those of Zemmour, Trump and right-wingers the world over.

Given SA’s history of violence against people seen as African migrants, the rhetoric is cause for concern. It has been especially alarming to watch the meteoric rise of Operation Dudula, and its charismatic leader Nhlanhla “Lux” Dlamini. 

Lux is the perfect antihero for the moment, capturing the legitimate frustrations of communities while indulging in the kind of reckless scapegoating of undocumented migrants that could well lead to people being killed. Xenophobic rhetoric has been part of public life for some time now, so Lux and his supporters aren’t saying anything new. What is new — and deeply disturbing — is the increased visibility and organising capacity of Operation Dudula and its allies.

Given what happened in 2008 and 2015, the government should be deeply concerned about the potential for organised violence.

The new threat posed by Dudula must not obscure the fact that it is a vigilante grouping whose tactics mirror those of Pagad (People Against Gangsterism & Drugs). That organisation’s trajectory is instructive: created in 1996 in response to legitimate community concerns about poor policing in the Cape Flats and high levels of unemployment, Pagad began by inviting police to carry out joint raids against known criminals in the community.

Police were initially supportive of the organisation, and were reluctant to rein in the group, as it enjoyed plenty of support from community members. Eventually, however, Pagad became a law unto itself, targeting not just drug dealers and criminals, but a range of other targets that didn’t align with the beliefs of its members.  Between 1996 and 2002, the group bombed a nightclub, targeted gay clubs, bombed the home of an academic who had been critical of its actions, and was suspected of having murdered a magistrate in a drive-by shooting.

Eventually, the government designated Pagad a terrorist grouping. 

Across Gauteng, the confluence of anti-immigrant sentiment, high levels of unemployment and poor policing is a powder keg

Pagad’s history is a reminder of the close association between vigilantism and poor policing. In the case of Pagad, police tolerance led to an increasingly emboldened movement, with dramatic consequences.  Both the EFF and Operation Dudula have shown a propensity to take matters into their own hands, and both have attempted to enlist the police in their stunts.

Across Gauteng, the confluence of anti-immigrant sentiment, high levels of unemployment and poor policing is a powder keg. Add to this the growing influence of organised hate groups that are developing a sustained presence in communities across the metro areas and the threat of real sustained violence becomes not just possible, but highly likely. 

While these new movements speak to a profound sense of economic insecurity, they also speak to a deeper malaise. The politicians and civic leaders who front these groups are able to eloquently articulate the precariousness of black life in this country, but they don’t seem to have a broader agenda for what they want SA to look like. 

Beyond creating jobs for South Africans — which is important — the critics of migration aren’t able to outline a new  basis of belonging to which those who aren’t illegal might aspire. In other words, what ought to be the basis for the inclusion of non-South Africans in the post-apartheid society we are building?

This is a question that South Africans, under an ANC government, have failed to answer. It is long past time to define what it means to be South African — beyond the exclusionary and largely hackneyed rhetoric that now dominates the conversation. It is a task that must be met with care, clarity and generosity. 

Government’s denial may turn deadly

In 1994, as South Africans began to build their new society, we focused on institutions of democracy — on building a system of laws that would guard against a return to the past. In the process, we neglected to develop an ethos of South African-ness that would allow others in.

This is understandable: we were preoccupied by race and racism. Yet in trying to imagine a society imbued with racial harmony, we failed to consider how SA might accommodate those who didn’t fall within the racial categories established by apartheid. It was an oversight that would have significant implications. And so, 30 years after the end of apartheid, we are certain about what we are not: we are not “foreigners”.

It’s a curiously empty way to define oneself, but it speaks volumes about our failure to imagine what a genuinely plural SA identity might look like beyond the bounds of racial thinking. We may know who we are not, but the road to defining who we are remains uncertain. 

There’s little hope that our government will provide any leadership on this matter. So far, senior government leaders and ANC officials have been torn between denying the scale of bigotry in the population and among public servants and law enforcement agencies on the one hand, and pandering to populist sentiment on the other. It is also unlikely that the president will address the matter head-on. Preoccupied with staying alive in the viper’s den that is the ANC party room, Cyril Ramaphosa leads at arm’s length, uncertain of whether and how to embrace a nation that is desperately in need of leadership and assurance.


In the transition to democracy, SA failed to develop an ethos of South African-ness that would allow others in

The government’s ambivalence and the president’s impotence may have deadly consequences. SA is already faced with twin crises of migrant scapegoating and economic decline. As the most recent unemployment figures indicate, those crises are deepening. There are 7.92-million unemployed people across the country — a figure that is both staggering and completely unsurprising. It is a grim metric, and one that will no doubt be used as fodder for those wishing to expel migrants from African countries.

A need for a new language

What is needed is clear. The government must take the lead in calming the waters and averting violence, and it must do so with urgency. At the same time, a longer-term conversation about belonging and citizenship is also important. South Africans themselves must find ways to move away from the violent rhetoric of the leaders who dominate public life, and develop a new language — one that is spoken with care and caution rather than aggression. 

This language must acknowledge that, as the logics of global capital combine with the failures of ANC cronyism, poor people — who are overwhelmingly black — have vanishingly little social protection, and experience high levels of violence in their communities. These conditions apply to all black people who live in SA, regardless of where they trace their heritage.

Research shows that competition for meagre economic opportunities and social services tends to sharpen the perception of differences among people who live in poor communities. In settings where proximity and regular contact would ordinarily foster solidarity and friendship, citizenship becomes a marker of difference, a way of determining who is worthy of access to which goods and services. We see this in SA, where citizenship has turned into a commodity; a status to be lorded over others.

While this analysis is correct, there is more at play in determining anti-immigrant sentiment than mere economic competition. In many ways it is easy for South Africans to turn against people they perceive to be migrants because we define ourselves in opposition to “foreigners”. This will continue to be the case until we are clearer about who we want to be. 

Two weeks ago, the Joburg metro police called off an anti-xenophobia march because Operation Dudula members had threatened to be disruptive if the event proceeded.

The march was scheduled for March 21, the day the Sharpeville massacre took place in 1960. Operation Dudula members were outraged that “foreigners” had the audacity to protest for their rights on a day when black South Africans had been killed fighting for their own people.

In migrants protesting for recognition and respect, those who blocked the march diminished the legacy of those who died for the same principles in 1960.

The preamble of the constitution insists that “SA belongs to all who live in it, united in our diversity”. There are many who have lost faith in the constitution, but its soaring words speak to a guiding set of principles we dare not forget: peace, justice and equality.

For the undocumented who live among us, for the 7.9-million people whose hearts continue to beat in spite of the odds against them, for the 30-million people who live below the poverty line and yet yearn for prosperity, and for the 13.8-million people who lack sufficient food each day and yet hunger for more than they have been given, those words have never been more important.