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Why anti-migrant populism is on the rise in South Africa

Operation Dudula leader Nhlanhla 'Lux' Dlamini. Image: Alaister Russell/Sunday Times

What nurtures and propels bigotry? More importantly, how does bigotry become a lethal threat to democracy? Unravelling the rhetoric and actions of new anti-migrant movements in South Africa can bring us closer to clarity on this question.

South Africa is in crisis. Understanding the nation’s rapid debilitation as a crisis is not an attempt to be hyperbolic for the sake of clicks – it is a sobering reality that seems like a nightmare.

Destitution and despair dominate life for the majority of citizens. 7.9 million people are unemployed and half the population lives in poverty as the cost of living rises exponentially.

Daily life is evolving into a fierce struggle for survival and increasingly those neglected by the state and alienated by a market economy will pursue crime as a profession. The terror of violent crime has become a definitive feature of the South African experience.

Respite from social suffering cannot be found in the governance of the ruling African National Congress. Once beloved by millions for leading the struggle against Apartheid, the ANC is now infamous for orchestrating a campaign of systemic corruption, severely weakening state capacity and ruling not on the behalf of citizens, but in service of elite power – be it transnational corporations or its own career politicians.

In these disorientating times, some frustrated citizens have organized, online and in the streets, to blame immigrants for the country’s decay. According to groups such as Operation Dudula and online movements such as #PutSouthAfricansFirst, African and Asian migrants (undocumented or not) are both the cause and conductors of our crisis.

Where there is suffering, where there is dysfunction in the state or decay in our communities, non-white immigrants are summoned in the public imagination for blame.

Anti-migrant hostility is not an anomaly in South African politics. It occurs in an almost cyclic fashion during times of economic stagnation or in the lead up to local government elections.

Usually, it is contained within townships and the inner cities of Durban or Johannesburg, while receiving widespread condemnation from representatives of the state and the general public.

Previous explosions of xenophobia occurred as brief but destructive storms, wrecking livelihoods and stealing lives. But rarely were these eruptions organized as movements or political parties equipped with guiding rhetoric, visible leadership and concrete objectives.

In the past 5 years, anti-migrant hostility has found nourishing refuge in well-resourced and politically active movements. This new wave of xenophobia enjoys support not only within townships and cities but also within suburbia, the domain of a precarious but growing black middle class.

For the sake of political expediency, xenophobia is now entertained and proliferated by some ruling party officials and prominent members of opposition parties such as ActionSA and the Democratic Alliance.  Elevated to a higher level of legitimacy by politicians, xenophobic sentiment has penetrated mainstream discourse.

The utility of populism

American Author James Balwin once wrote, “Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced”.

In the context of the emergent anti-migrant movements, Baldwin’s wisdom compels us to not just self-righteously condemn bigotry but to trace its roots, comprehend its nature and begin building strategies for its confrontation and defeat.

Observing the actions and rhetoric of prominent anti-migrant groupings, it would be accurate to categorize them as populist. South Africa has not evaded the global flourishing of populism. In India, the BJP fuses Hindu nationalism with populist strategies to justify brutal discrimination against Muslim citizens.

Europe and North America are still reckoning with the rise of right-wing populism, crusaded by conservative politicians such as Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen.

By populism one is not referring to a specific ideology or reactionary politics that is popular amongst some sections of the citizenry. Academics Benjamin Moffit and Simon Tormey define populism as a political style. In exact terms, populism is “a repertoire of performances that are used to create political relations”.

Through dissecting the fundamental features of populism, we can begin to see what kinds of political relations xenophobic groupings seek to create and why those relations undermine the emancipatory values of democracy.

One cannot forget, that these features cannot be de-linked and comprehended in isolation. They work in harmony to form populism as a political style.

An Appeal to the “People”

Firstly populism thrives by creating a tense antagonism between the people and a despicable “Other”. Here the“people” are characterized as the good-natured, hard-working citizens who have been let down and abandoned by a dysfunctional political order.

The despised Other can be accused of a myriad of crimes: corruption, masterminding exploitation and deception or being responsible for the general degeneration of society.

Depending on the context through which populism is birthed, the Other can be an ethnic or racial minority, an institution such as the mainstream media, lavishly rich elites or a class of political leadership that has betrayed those it promised to serve.

African and Asian migrants have become the resented Other within anti-migrant formations. Movements such as #PutSouthAfricansFirst accuse and harshly condemn migrants for stealing business and employment opportunities from South Africans. Undocumented migrants ignite a viscous rage within movements such as #PutSouthAfricansFirst.

Following the tragic script of history, these movements contaminate discourse with a mythology that places blame on undocumented migrants for drug trafficking, alongside the abuse, theft and damage of public infrastructure.

Perhaps the most prevalent and dangerous myth is that migrants – especially those undocumented – place an intense and unsustainable strain on the ability of the state to deliver basic services.

Because South Africa’s economy has failed to absorb millions into productive economic activity, a significant portion of the population is dependent on the state for the provision of healthcare, affordable basic education and forms of welfare such as pensions for the elderly and welfare grants for mothers or the disabled.

As schools in townships and rural areas become overpopulated, with hospitals understaffed or inadequately resourced and civil servants increasingly incompetent, some disgruntled citizens feel that the state is burdened by an over-presence of migrants, at the expense of South Africans.

Anti-migrant groups set up an artificial antagonism between South Africans and migrants to create the false perception that we cannot exist in peaceful, mutually beneficial relationships.

By claiming migrants undermine or sabotage the interests of “the people”, and by telling angry citizens that migrants are different from us merely because of where they were born, xenophobic groups dilute the humanity of immigrants in the popular imagination.

Not long ago white supremacists defined the scope of one’s humanity along the fabricated lines of race. Increasingly in the present political opportunists propagate mythology that defines humanity along lines of nationality.

For anyone who has had to spend hours in queues at a public clinic, witness their children’s minds be devoured by drugs or deal with lazy policemen, the fierce discontent of poor, working-class and unemployed South Africans is understandable. However it is the direction of this discontent, aimed at migrants, that is the issue.

Political leadership and an economy not designed for the collective prosperity of citizens have failed the people, not migrants. Corruption, present and prevalent within arms of the state, has weakened the capacity of the state to fulfil its basic mandates.

Funds that should be pragmatically targeted at renewing public infrastructure, re-skilling teachers or building health facilities in rural areas, have been wasted fattening the wallets of politicians for a decade.

As a network of corruption and patronage firmly placed itself within the state and government, skill, competency and commitment to the service of citizens have been deprioritized. The result is a state unable to effectively curtail crime or deliver water to those outside of suburbs and gated estates.

The avoidance of wealth redistribution alongside the rapid financialization and deindustrialization within the economy has not only compounded unemployment but it has intensified poverty and its accompanying ills such as food insecurity.

But anti-migrant groups are not interested in a thorough understanding of what plagues the country. And this leads us to the second fundamental feature of populism.

Crisis, Breakdown, Threat

Populists utilize the sense or reality of social calamity to justify urgent solutions and decisive actions in response to complex socio-economic issues.

Due to the government being viewed as lethargic and inefficient, disgruntled citizens can be swayed by populists who promise to act swiftly in response to people’s plights, unhindered by due process or bureaucratic entanglements.

Former US President Donald Trump’s dreams of expanding the barrier between the United States and Mexico using a wall are an example of appealing to crisis, breakdown and threats to legitimize potentially disastrous or unproductive political action.

Besides being an immense expense on the U.S government and despite Trump promising that the wall would be “virtually impenetrable”, it has not drastically curtailed immigrants from illegally entering the United States nor has it halted the drug smuggling and corruption at the border.

ActionSA, a small but growing political party launched by former Johannesburg mayor Herman Mashaba, has made the deportation of “illegal” immigrants an explicit policy goal.

In the past three months Operation Dudula, an anti-migrant vigilante group, has led a campaign to “clean local communities” by forcefully removing what they believe to be undocumented migrants from urban housing and local business.

Their actions have instilled a profound fear in migrant communities across the country as it emboldens citizens to join their ranks, believing the multiple crises South Africa faces can be resolved through violence and harassment.

Claiming that the threat of immigrants requires urgent intervention, regardless of the human cost, xenophobic populists over-simplify our problem-solution analysis when it comes to unemployment and crime.

Instead of advocating for a universal basic income grant that could provide a financial safety net, public works projects that could employ tens of thousands or a prison system focused on rehabilitation instead of retribution, parties such as ActionSA advocate for policies that would cause a humanitarian crisis and benefit no one but those who garner votes from their bigotry.

Bad Manners

At this juncture, one could be asking themselves how such blatant bigotry against immigrants is tolerated? The third and final feature of populism is “a coarsening of political discourse”, or in other words, bad manners.

Populists often diverge from the norms of formal or mainstream politics, choosing to embrace transgressive action and vulgar political vocabulary.

This drastic shift from the norm is an effective tool for political mobilization because it is seen as righteously rebellious in comparison to politicians who conceal bad governance with hollow rhetoric and bland decorum.

The Economic Freedom Fighters were the pioneers of bad manners in mainstream South African politics. Within months of holding positions as ministers in parliament, the party would disrupt meetings of the National Assembly with outbursts and raucous behaviour.

During the 2015 State of the Nation Address, led by former president Jacob Zuma, the EFF’s constant disruptions concluded with the party’s ministers being forcibly removed from parliament. Although the media talking heads and rival opposition parties were quick to condemn their actions, many young black citizens perceived the EFF’s conduct as irrefutable evidence of its willingness to stand up to corrupt power.

Borrowing from the EFF’s repertoire of performances, Operation Dudula indulges in bad manners to amplify its message and project an image of patriotic citizens doing their part to save us from the crisis, even if their rhetoric and action flirt with fascism.

On the 16th of June 2021, Operation Dudula conducted a march in Soweto, Diepkloof – one of South Africa’s numerous townships. Armed with sticks and sjamboks, escorted by the police, followers of Operation Dudula entered the homes and businesses of immigrants in Soweto, demanding documentation and openly threatening violence if migrants did not vacate.

Others justified their discrimination against migrants by claiming they were combatting criminality, specifically the trafficking of drugs in the community. One poster at the march read “We will be removing all illegal foreign nationals by force!!!”.

Immigration should be the responsibility of the Department of Home Affairs in cooperation with other government structures that deal with housing, education and healthcare. Criminal activity is primarily the responsibility of the police services. More often than not, violent extra-judicial action is denounced.

But anti-migrant populists are willing to discard these norms and rules. Rather than facing widespread announcement, the antics of Operation Dudula have been praised by some citizens as courageous, necessary and bold. Why? Because citizens believe such groups are willing to do and say what the government cannot.

A precarious democracy

The convergence of these three features of populism dehumanizes migrants and justifies dangerous policy and legislation, creating a political terrain in which violent bigotry is applauded as a patriotic virtue. Democracy begins from one indisputable truth: all human beings are equal, entitled to liberty and the right to participate in the management of their society.

Post-apartheid South Africa has not been able to overcome the deep chasm between the ideals of its democratic constitution and the reality of mass suffering that pervades daily life. Disempowered and angry, some citizens have chosen to reenact their oppression upon migrants simply attempting to lead better lives.

To avoid disaster, South Africans must organize to confront elite power, within government and the private sector, in order to make our social order and economic system work for all people, foreigners or not.