or some locals, it seems unfair that they have to compete for limited resources with foreign nationals. In some instances, locals have expressed their frustration over this “competition” — perceived or real — and societal ills such as illegal drug trade, through violence.
Since at least July 2008, South Africa has witnessed multiple waves of what has been termed Afrophobia, as immigrants, almost exclusively from the African continent, have borne the brunt of some South Africans’ anger.
For its part, government has seemingly been at a loss about how to respond to this challenge, as articulated by communities.
At first, government denied that there was xenophobia, preferring to characterise attacks on foreign nationals, such as the murder of Elvis Nyathi, a Zimbabwean national in the troubled township of Diepsloot in Gauteng a few days ago, as criminal acts. Some political leaders have carved their approach to the problem by either blaming the country’s porous borders, criticising businesses that employ foreign nationals over South Africans, or simply attributing societal ills, such as drug dealing and prostitution, squarely to the presence of foreign nationals mostly from the African continent and Pakistan
Undocumented immigrants have become the main scapegoat for South Africa’s poverty and unemployment problem. From this maelstrom has emerged Operation Dudula, which has positioned itself as a legitimate voice for South Africans with a sense of grievance against foreigners.
Operation Dudula, according to founder Nhlanhla Lux, has its roots in citizens’ frustrations at a lack of decisive government action to eradicate criminal elements within communities. Consisting mainly of residents from Soweto, Operation Dudula blames undocumented immigrants for rising levels of crime, drug dealing and prostitution syndicates in townships and the inner city of Johannesburg.
While President Cyril Ramaphosa has labelled Operation Dudula a ‘vigilante force’, Lux insists this is not the case due to the movement working closely with the police force in dealing with identified problems.
Xenophobia/Afrobia is not new in South Africa. In 2008, incidences of violence against African immigrants occurred across Gauteng, with Alexandra being the epicentre. In the intervening period, South Africa’s social ills have become worse, with unemployment, particularly youth unemployment, rising to the highest levels since 1998.
At the same time, the South African state has become progressively weak, with service delivery problems rising exponentially across the country.
The state’s inability to address societal ills is seen by many as the main driving force behind the emergence of Operation Dudula and other similar entities. Though their focus seems limited to the role of immigrants in denying locals opportunities and perpetuating criminality, the underlying grievance seems to be targeted at the states’ impotence when it comes to acting as an enabler for the economic advancement of black youth.
Herman Mashaba, the leader of ActionSA, argues that movements such as Operation Dudula are misdirecting their efforts by targeting illegal immigrants, as the real source of South Africa’s problems is the ANC government’s inability to institute proper governance and address corruption and public service incompetence.
Beyond merely the proximate causes of Operation Dudula, there is a very real danger that, if left unchecked, it could snowball into something bigger than government is able to control. Leaders of the movement will already know that the South African Police Service, intelligence and other security cluster organisations do not have the capacity to police large insurrections, as seen during the July 2021 riots in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal.
As such, government faces the very real possibility that what started out with a limited focus on criminality in townships will morph into something larger with more political aims. Already, ActionSA and the Patriotic Alliance are working to co-opt the movement to drive their oppositional message against government.
Other less benevolent forces will be looking at the movement for their own ends, which may not necessarily tally with South Africa’s constitutional imperatives.
Lack of firm leadership
Government has attempted to curb instances of xenophobic violence through the National Action Plan to Combat Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance (NAP), launched in 2019, which calls for a dignified approach to managing migrants, refugees and asylum seekers. The NAP, however, has not been successful in effecting a collaborative effort between all affected parties, including government, key institutions, businesses, labour, political leaders and civil society. Human Rights Watch also rightly notes that the NAP does not provide enough mechanisms to improve accountability for perpetrators whose actions are motivated by xenophobia.
Also worrying is the complete absence of the African National Congress (ANC), which considers itself the leader of society, in the communities where anti-immigrant demonstrations take place. The ANC seems content with issuing statements from its meetings, condemning the attack on foreign nationals, and calling on everyone to abide by the law. Of the big three political parties in South Africa, only the Economic Freedom Fighters has come out strongly against Operation Dudula.
In a fundamental sense, the response of the ANC to Operation Dudula has revealed its impotency. Coming hot on the heels of the July 2021 uprising, Operation Dudula has exposed, in stark terms, that the ANC is no longer the leader of society that it once styled itself to be. It has shown, for all to see, that the Tripartite Alliance which includes the South African Communist Party and the Congress of South African Trade Unions is no longer embedded in the society for which it claims to speak. No longer are black South Africans beholden to the revolutionary words of this ‘glorious’ movement, with many having lost faith in its ability to deliver a decent life for all.
The Democratic Alliance (DA) seems to have opted to sit the issue out, perhaps in the false belief that this does not affect its constituency or there are no votes to be had from either fighting against Operation Dudula or standing for the rights of migrants. Perhaps this is to be expected when one considers that the Joburg Metro Police have been working hand in glove with Operation Dudula in Soweto.
While the DA may believe the ANC will bear the consequences of its incompetence if Dudula snowballs, the party may wish to consider that the Arab Spring started with one player protesting over the police’s heavy-handedness towards vendors in Tunisia. While it may benefit the DA in the short term to marvel at grievances against the ANC from its core constituency, the party would do well to use its status as the official opposition to channel the legitimate grievances raised by Operation Dudula to hold government accountable for its failures, rather than hoping that this only delegitimises the ANC in the eyes of voters. After all, the fact that citizens are resorting to this kind of action is an indictment of all political parties and their failure to articulate their concerns.
South Africa urgently requires clear leadership on several fronts.
Firstly, government and social partners must respond directly and more urgently to the country’s dire socio-economic situation.
Secondly, government must get its house in order by fast-tracking service delivery and applying the law to dealing with crime, in all its manifestations.
Thirdly, while the efforts being made under the Cross Border Management Act are commended, more is needed to properly define South Africa’s immigration stance. Knee-jerk reactions, such as the recent announcement on quotas for foreign workers, do very little to solve a complex, multilayered issue.
In this regard, a multi-party and community-based dialogue is needed to redefine South Africa’s immigration position. – Daily Maverick
Pearl Mncube is Senior Stakeholder Relations Consultant at Frontline Africa Advisory. She writes in her personal capacity.