Inside South Africa’s Operation Dudula Vigilantes: “Why We Hate Foreigners” | Albiseyler

Inside South Africa's Operation Dudula Vigilantes: "Why We Hate Foreigners"
  • Ayanda Charlie in Johannesburg and Tamasin Ford in London
  • BBC Africa Eye

South African vigilante group Operation Dudula has become notorious for raiding businesses of foreign nationals and forcing businesses to close. BBC Africa Eye has gained rare access to members of the country’s most prominent anti-migrant street movement.

In the school kitchen in Kwa Thema, a town east of Johannesburg, Dimakatso Makoena is busy making sandwiches. The 57-year-old single parent of three has been cooking there for more than 10 years.

“To tell you the truth, I hate foreigners. How I wish they could just pack up and leave and leave our country,” he says, fighting back tears.

It is hard to understand the power of this hatred until Mrs Makoena pulls out her phone to show a photo of her son. Emaciated with a glassy look in his eyes, angry burn scars spread across his body, arms and face.

“He started smoking drugs when he was 14,” she says, explaining how her son often steals things to feed his habit. One day he was trying to sell some power cables when he was electrocuted and burned.

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Dimakatso Makoena accuses foreigners of selling drugs to her son and ruining his life

“Dudula, that’s the only thing that keeps me going,” she told the BBC.

Launched in Soweto two years ago, Operation Dudula was the first group to formalize what had been sporadic waves of xenophobia-fueled vigilante attacks in South Africa dating back to shortly after the end of white-minority rule in 1994. It is called a civil movement , running on an anti-migrant platform, with the word “dudula” meaning “to push out” in the Zulu language.

Soweto was at the forefront of the resistance against apartheid and was the home of Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s first democratically elected president. Now the town has become home to the most prominent anti-immigration group in the country.

With one in three South Africans out of work in one of the world’s most unequal societies, foreigners in general have become an easy target.

But the number of migrants living in South Africa was grossly exaggerated. According to a 2022 report by the Institute for Security Studies (ISS)., an independent research organization based in the capital Pretoria, South Africa is home to about 3.95 million migrants, making up 6.5% of the population, a number in line with international standards. This number includes all immigrants regardless of legal status or where they come from.

Xenophobic rhetoric used by some public officials, politicians and anti-immigrant groups has helped fuel the myth that the country is overrun with migrants. The 2021 South African Social Attitudes Survey found that almost half of the 60 million people believed there were between 17 and 40 million immigrants living in the country.

Current polls suggest support for the ruling African National Congress (ANC), the party once led by Mandela, could fall below 50% for the first time.

Operation Dudula has ambitions to fill this vacuum and has now transformed itself from a local anti-migrant group into a national political party aiming to stand in next year’s general election.

Elected president of Operation Dudula in June 2023, Zandile Dabula is calm, charismatic and emphatic about the group’s message: “foreigners” are the root cause of South Africa’s economic woes.

When told the campaign was based entirely on hate, she told the BBC: “We have to be realistic that most of the problems we have are caused by the influx of foreign nationals.

“Our country is a mess. Foreign nationals are working on a 20-year plan to take over South Africa.”

When questioned about the veracity of this 20-year plan, she admitted it was a rumor, but says she believes it to be true.

“You see drugs everywhere and most of the addicts are South Africans rather than foreign nationals. So what’s going on? Are they feeding our own brothers and sisters to make it easy for them to take over?” she says.

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BBC Africa Eye joins the Dudula Task Force on a mission in Soweto

Yet the anger directed at migrants may extend to those who are in the country legally and work in legal occupations. A Nigerian market trader who was raided by members of Operation Dudula in Johannesburg earlier this year told the BBC that the two women who Tasered him and destroyed his clothes by throwing them into a gutter did not stop to ask.

As they were shooting, he said they shouted at him: “You have to go to Nigeria… We are Dudula, we are South African.”

With no shares, he now sleeps on the streets: “I vote in this country. I’m a citizen here. I’ve never seen a country that treats people like this. If I’m doing something illegal, fine. Deport me.” But I’m not doing anything illegal. Now you’re making my life miserable, I can’t pay the rent. I want to go, it’s too much.”

Operation Dudula says their most pressing complaint is the fear of a huge influx of drugs into South Africa’s poorest communities, but there is no data to support the claim that people selling drugs are not South African citizens.

Comparative statistics for drug offenses are not available, although the ISS report quotes the Minister of Justice as saying that immigrants made up 8.5% of all convictions in 2019 and 7.1% in 2020. ISS adds that 2.3% of prisoners incarcerated every year they are undocumented. foreigners.

In Diepkloof, East Soweto, the BBC joins the so-called Dudula Task Force. Men in trucks are about to confront a Mozambican businessman whose South African landlady says he hasn’t paid his rent.

It’s supposed to be a negotiation, but he quickly gets into a confrontation where one of the men, Mandla Lenkosi, threatens to beat him up. When asked by the BBC about their violent behaviour, they claim to be enforcing the law.

Mr Lenkosi, also from Soweto and out of work, takes part in raids on the homes and workplaces of migrants, people suspected of anything from drug dealing to overstaying their visas.

“We grew up in the apartheid era where it was much better than now,” he says, pointing to the drug problems. “The law was (then) the law.”

His fellow Dudula, Cedric Stone, agrees: “South Africa needs to go back to the old South Africa we know.

“Our fathers started tuck shops, but today all the shops are foreigners, especially Bangladeshis, Somalis and Ethiopians. Why?”

President Cyril Ramaphosa spoke out against the anti-migrant protests and condemned vigilante groups for harassing and attacking migrants. He compared their behavior to the strategies adopted by the apartheid regime to oppress black communities.

Annie Michaels, an activist with the Johannesburg Migrant Advisory Panel, says South Africans are blaming their illnesses on the wrong people and should actually admire migrants for their survival skills.

“Stop sitting and complaining and dying in the corner waiting for the government to fail you every day,” she told the BBC.

“Migrants… are the poorest of the poor. They’d rather go and rattle them than rattle the cages of guys living in glass houses.”

Ms Dabula says critics of Operation Dudula who claim it is a violent vigilante collective are wrong.

“We don’t promote violence and we don’t want people to feel harassed,” but he adds, “Foreign nationals can’t get ahead of us and not do anything about it.”

Hundreds of supporters traveled to attend its first national conference in Johannesburg in May, where members voted to register the group as a political party.

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Operation Dudula gives Dimakatso Makoena a sense of purpose and hope for the future

Waving South African flags, dancing and singing your way through the streets to the town hall, it’s like a celebration.

However, the songs they sing carry an ominous message: “Burn the foreigners. We’ll go to the garage, buy gas and burn the foreigners.”

Military clothing is reminiscent of the South African liberation struggle. All this communicates readiness to fight.

Mrs. Makoena is also there, smiling and dressed in her party shirt. “Operation Dudula will go down in history today,” he says.

On stage, Isaac Lesole, technical advisor to Operation Dudula, has a question for cheering supporters: “Will we make peace with illegal aliens?”

“No,” shouts the audience in unison.

Operation Dudula has no manifesto or policy other than its stance on foreigners, although Ms Dabula claims it has a presence in all provinces except the Northern Cape.

Supporters of the new party who spoke to the BBC seem genuinely keen to see things fixed in their communities. They reflect a changing mood in South Africa’s political landscape with people fed up with the status quo.

But the toxic mix of poverty, drugs and fear has resulted in a blame game where migrants have become the scapegoats.

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