South African anti-migrant ‘vigilantes’ register as party for next year’s polls

Operation Dudula changes tactics from evictions and violence, with plans to fight elections on platform of expelling foreigners

An anti-migrant vigilante organisation in South Africa has registered as a political party and plans to contest seats in next year’s general elections.

Operation Dudula, whose name means “to force out” in Zulu, wants all foreign nationals who are in the country unofficially to be deported.

The party, which first emerged in Johannesburg’s Soweto township after riots in 2021, claims to have widespread support, with a formal presence in seven of South Africa’s nine provinces. It claims to be planning to stand candidates in 1,500 of the country’s 4,468 voting districts.

Many Operation Dudula followers have faced allegations of hate speech and physical violence. They have staged protests outside embassies, turned people away outside hospitals to prevent foreign nationals from accessing state medical services, and conducted door-to-door searches of businesses in poorer areas demanding to see identity documents.

In August, Philani Gumede, a 36-year-old from Durban, was convicted of hate speech after sending a voice-note to members calling on them to evict foreigners from businesses in the city. Nomalungelo Ntshangase, a regional court prosecutor, told the court that this had led directly to xenophobic attacks and looting.

In 2022, Operation Dudula followers camped outside Kalafong hospital in Atteridgeville, a suburb of South Africa’s administrative capital, Pretoria, preventing people, including pregnant women, from entering the hospital.

Policemen watch demonstrators
Police at a Operation Dudula demonstration outside Kalafong hospital in Pretoria, where protesters stopped foreigners, including pregnant women, from entering. Photograph: Gallo/Getty

“People were turned away by the protesters based on their appearance and accent,” said Sibusiso Ndlovu, a health promotion supervisor for Médecins Sans Frontières. “They have even demanded that critically ill patients who are migrants must be ‘unplugged’ and taken out.”

Civil society groups have taken the party to court over unlawful evictions and conducting unauthorised citizenship checks in public. A court date has not yet been set.

The Operation Dudula party’s spokesperson, Isaac Lesole, said the transition from civil movement to political party would mean a tempering of tactics.

“We want to demilitarise Operation Dudula. We know the military angle did not appeal to a lot of people,” he said. “Now we’ve taken a new posture, we need to guarantee that we can still achieve a lot without people being militants and killing or kicking things. As a political party, we are governed by a different set of rules.”

But its core ideology would not change, he said. “We view illegal immigrants as criminals, and they must go back to their countries.”

About 3.95 million immigrants live in South Africa, according to 2022 estimates by the Institute for Security Studies (ISS). However, there is no such thing as an “illegal foreigner” in South Africa, as its constitution – widely hailed as one of the most progressive in the world – confers limited rights upon all people within the country’s borders, regardless of nationality or birthplace.

Operation Dudula has its roots in the riots that swept across KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng provinces in June 2021. In the absence of police, some citizens banded together to protect shops and businesses from thieves.

An Asian man closes the shutter of a small shop as two black Africans pass by
A man shuts his shop in Johannesburg’s Alexandra township as an Operation Dudula march passes. The group targets foreign-owned shops. Photograph: Michele Spatari/AFP/Getty

“You saw a lot of communities starting to self-protect. They started cordoning off malls, and protecting them from being looted. Some of these organisations also felt emboldened to have more operations, under the auspices of ‘anti-crime’,” said Lizette Lancaster, an ISS researcher.

Lancaster said the chronic failures of the state in South Africa, which has high rates of corruption, unemployment and violence, created the space for the party to thrive.

“South Africans have been trying [to hold the state accountable] through protests, but are not getting anywhere,” she said.

“It is almost natural for people to look for another scapegoat. The most obvious scapegoat would be our brothers and sisters that have come here to look for better opportunities.”

Although not expected to win any outright majorities, the fractured nature of South African politics means that small parties can influence the formation of coalition governments – anddemand major concessions in return. The current mayor of Johannesburg is from the Al Jama’ah, a fringe Islamist party that won just one of the city’s 135 wards.

Established parties are struggling to respond to Operation Dudula, with seemingly contradictory messages.

In April, President Cyril Ramaphosa called it a “vigilante-like force” taking “illegal actions” against foreigners. “These things often get out of hand,” he said. “They always mutate into wanton violence against other people.”

However, with the ruling African National Congress seeing its support eroded in recent years by a series of corruption scandals, rising inequality, high unemployment and violent crime, it has also begun to echo the rhetoric of Operation Dudula in a bid to shore up its electoral chances.

A woman holds a sign saying “Human Rights violation is a crime” and “SAHRC – don’t be toothless in the face of xenophobia”
An activist pickets the Human Rights Commission in Johannesburg in protest at the surge of xenophobia and vigilantism in South Africa. Photograph: Michele Spatari/AFP/Getty

Last year an ANC spokesperson, Pule Mabe, told the Mail & Guardian newspaper that Operation Dudula was affirming the views of the ANC. “These [foreign] people come here to sell drugs, seat [live] here illegally, undermine our sovereignty, create illegal business.”

Julius Malema, leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), a militant leftwing party, said in a speech in July: “South Africans are not xenophobic. [Operation Dudula] is a group of criminals who are in cahoots with some ministers. They are small boys who must be put in their place.”

However, in a sign of how politically expedient xenophobia has become in South Africa, even the ostensibly pan-Africanist EFF has campaigned for restaurants to employ more South Africans. Malema visited restaurants last year demanding to see the identity documents of workers as he demanded businesses hire locals.

Amir Sheikh, spokesperson for the African Diaspora Forum, said: “At the end of the day, Dudula will not be the only party that is right wing or anti-immigrant, even including the ruling party, which is leaning towards the right wing.”

Many foreigners are returning home with their families, or moving to more friendly countries, although that is in part due to high crime rates and economic decay, said Sheikh. “Even the locals with the means to travel out of the country are doing so.”


Simon Allison in Johannesburg

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
‘How did he die and I didn’t?’: Hungary’s spate of car crashes involving police and migrants
People injured in crashes involving Hungarian police are being pushed back to Serbia from hospital, say human rights groups

Marlene Auer in Subotica

26, Sep, 2023 @5:00 AM

Article image
People of colour fleeing Ukraine attacked by Polish nationalists
Non-white refugees face violence and racist abuse in Przemyśl, as police warn of fake reports of ‘migrants committing crimes’

Lorenzo Tondo in Przemyśl and Emmanuel Akinwotu

02, Mar, 2022 @4:59 PM

Article image
Greek police arrest Dutch journalist for helping Afghan asylum seeker
Ingeborg Beugel was detained for ‘facilitating the illegal stay of a foreigner’ and faces up to a year in jail

Katy Fallon

24, Jun, 2021 @2:31 PM

Article image
‘Police searched my baby's nappy': migrant families on the perilous Balkan route
‘The game’ of crossing the Croatian-Bosnian border with children often results in degrading treatment and violent pushbacks, refugees say

Lorenzo Tondo in Bosanska Bojna

01, Feb, 2021 @7:15 AM

Article image
EU ‘has blood on its hands’, say activists calling for border agency’s abolition
Coalition of rights groups demanding Frontex be defunded claim EU policies have ‘killed over 40,555 people since 1993’

Lorenzo Tondo

18, Jun, 2021 @6:00 AM

Article image
Frontex turning ‘blind eye’ to human rights violations, says former deputy
Gil Arias Fernández says EU border agency, which is under investigation for illegal migrant pushbacks, cannot stop far-right infiltrating its ranks

José Bautista and Ana Rojas from Fundación porCausa

11, Jun, 2021 @11:26 AM

Article image
The climate crisis is destroying the human rights of those least responsible for it | Patrick Verkooijen and AK Abdul Momen
The UN must urgently appoint a special rapporteur on climate change and human rights to galvanise action on the biggest threat to fundamental freedoms

Patrick Verkooijen and AK Abdul Momen

30, Sep, 2021 @11:20 AM

Article image
Allegations of worker exploitation at ‘world’s greatest show’ in Dubai
Migrant workers employed at Expo 2020 allege confiscated passports, racial discrimination and withheld wages

Pete Pattisson

02, Feb, 2022 @2:00 PM

Article image
‘A bad dream’: Nepalis who made UK’s PPE speak out on claims of abusive working conditions
Glove manufacturer Supermax has repeatedly won NHS contracts during the pandemic, despite claims of forced labour. Now, a group of former workers are seeking justice

Alice McCool

09, Feb, 2022 @7:01 AM

Article image
Texas anti-abortion law shows ‘terrifying’ fragility of women’s rights, say activists
Campaigners fear ban emboldens anti-choice governments as more aggressive opposition, better organised and funded, spreads from US

Lizzy Davies

18, Sep, 2021 @7:00 AM