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Operation Dudula: South Africa’s anti-migrant group

With growing regional instability in Africa and people on the move, African migrants face dissent from groups such as Operation Dudula, South Africa’s rising anti-migrant vigilante force

In the post-apartheid era, South Africa is still facing the adverse effects of state-sanctioned racism. One of the most damaging side effects of apartheid in South Africa is xenophobia.

Xenophobia in South Africa is caused by inequality and a broad lack of economic opportunity for black South Africans.

This is an imbalance that they see as being created by the influx of African foreigners who have taken those opportunities.

Apart from institutionalising segregation, apartheid severely limited the share of economic opportunities open to black South Africans.

Much of the new wave of xenophobic attacks is directed against nationals of other African countries living in South Africa, some of whom are illegal immigrants. The growth in numbers of African migrants in South Africa slowly increased feelings of xenophobia among South Africans. These sentiments found release in violent attacks.

The attacks first became rampant in the 1990s, ranging from street assaults to throwing foreigners out of moving trains to pouncing on other Africans and burning them to death.

Operation Dudula has emerged as a movement against African foreigners resident in South Africa. The group includes South Africans of all ages who are unhappy with the government and who focus their discontent on what they describe as the mishandling of the influx of African immigrants and foreign nationals into the Rainbow Nation.

There are over 3.6 million African foreigners living in South Africa. Most of these immigrants come from sub-Saharan Africa.

The majority of the new residents are from Zimbabwe – approximately 770,000 people, according to a 2020 study by the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA).

What is Operation Dudula?

Operation Dudula

Operation Dudula was launched in 2021 in Soweto after the riots which followed the sentencing of the former president Jacob Zuma.

Dudula, which means “to force out”, is a vigilante group. It has gained a reputation as the organisation in South Africa most frequently associated with activities against African foreigners living in South Africa. It is also marked for the intensity of its attacks on amakwerekwere: the pejorative catch-all name that black South Africans use to refer to nationals of other African countries.

One of the founders and the current president of Operation Dudula is Zandile Dabula. Under her leadership, members of the group have carried out forceful investigations against other Africans in South Africa and raids on premises associated with foreigners.

Dudula has a record of evicting foreigners from their homes and business premises. It actively follows up cases brought by South African locals who “report” foreigners.

Dudula has also officially become a political party and will stand in South Africa’s next general election in 2024, with Dabula as the party’s figurehead.

Motivation

The main reason for Operation Dudula’s launch was a general feeling that African foreigners were soaking up economic opportunities and social benefits reserved for South Africans, especially underprivileged black South Africans. The organisation’s campaigns and actions are aimed, ultimately, at finding ways to get nationals of other African countries out of South Africa altogether.

One member of Dudula told a reporter that the tuck shops that were originally run by native South Africans during apartheid are now dominated by Ethiopians and Somalis.

“We don’t promote violence at all,” Pumla Mpurwana, an Operation Dudula activist, told the BBC. However, at gatherings and public protests, they chant slogans such as, “Tell the foreigners not to disrespect us”, “We’ve got our eyes on them” and “Let’s buy our potions and kill these dogs”.

A Nigerian man selling second-hand clothes at an open-air market told the BBC reporter that his clothes were thrown in the gutter and destroyed by an Operation Dudula squad. He is now homeless. Although he is a naturalised citizen, his foreign roots make him a target, he said.

Another core reason for Operation Dudula’s actions is the popular belief that many African migrants are involved in selling drugs to native South Africans.

Dimakatso Mokoena, another loyal Operation Dudula foot soldier, told the reporter that her son is an addict who was hooked on to drugs by African foreigners.

“I hate foreigners, and the government is doing nothing … Our kids have turned into zombies. It’s all because of them,” Mokoena told the BBC correspondent who produced this month’s report on Dudula.

Like other members of the group, Mokoena believes that rampant activities by African foreigners are destroying the fabric of South African society.

Another member of Operation Dudula, Mandla Lenkosi, told the reporter: “We grew up in apartheid time, where things were much better than what it is now … the law was the law.”

Future of Dudula

As a newly registered political party, Operation Dudula will be standing against the governing African National Congress (ANC) in the 2024 election. The ANC has governed South Africa since the end of apartheid in 1994. Current polling suggests that support for the party has fallen below 50%.

The poll findings have encouraged Operation Dudula leaders and make them think that members’ concerns about African foreigners will be a pivotal issue in the election.

Whichever party wins obliged to confront complaints about other Africans leeching off the South African state. However, it seems that members of Operation Dudula have chosen to ignore other critical problems plaguing South African society.

Some of these are the spatial and town planning challenges which marginalise the poor. South Africa has over 500 African, Asian and “coloured” townships, which remain racially segregated and generally underdeveloped urban areas. These spaces are often hotbeds of crime and disease.

Although one of the largest economies in Africa, South Africa suffers from critical economic weaknesses such as frequent blackouts and the highest rate of income inequality in the world, according to the World Bank.

A study in 2021 also showed that black Africans had the highest levels in South Africa of no schooling or of primary schooling as their highest level of education.

Given all these core challenges facing South Africa, Operation Dudula and other political groupings will have to invent new ways to raise the standard of living for the most disadvantaged communities, for whom little has changed since the end of apartheid.

Article by Stacey Sam (intern at Asaase 99.5 Accra)

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