Johannesburg, South Africa – For years, Freeman Bhengu tried to earn a living in Soweto, the township on the outskirts of the country’s commercial capital, Johannesburg, where he grew up. He wired houses, he helped renovate them and he even managed the local football talent. But nothing stuck.
On June 16, 2021, Bhengu, then 45, took a nine-hour bus trip from Hanover, a town in the Northern Cape province, to Soweto. He was eager to attend the launch of Operation Dudula, a grassroots movement lobbying against undocumented African migrants.
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Dudula means “push out” in the Zulu language.
For years, people from neighbouring countries have come to Africa’s most industrialised economy seeking economic prosperity. Many are Black, like most of South Africa, where the 7.7 percent white minority still control the levers of wealth.
During the last two decades, tensions have arisen between Black South Africans and these migrants. Locals say they have taken jobs that should belong to them and have accused many migrants of running thriving drug trades within townships.
Dale McKinley, a spokesperson for the advocacy group Kopanang Africa Against Xenophobia (KAAX), attributes the rise of anti-immigration sentiment to the “socioeconomic realities of the majority”.
Since 2021, about a third of South Africans have been unemployed.
“People are desperate, people are suffering and as a result, they turn to the most vulnerable, and the easiest targets, which are migrants, and particular, illegal migrants and those who don’t have documentation,” McKinley told Al Jazeera.
Against this backdrop, Bhengu joined hundreds of other disgruntled people at a community hall in Diepkloof, Soweto, for Operation Dudula’s launch.
June 16, celebrated in South Africa as Youth Day, is of particular significance in Soweto, a Black-majority community. On that day in 1976, police opened fire during a protest, killing 176 students according to official estimates.
But Nomzamo Zondo, executive director of the Johannesburg-based rights group, Socio-Economic Rights Insitute (SERI), says Operation Dudula members are “violence entrepreneurs” using history as a pretext to mobilise locals against vulnerable sections of society.
A new wave of xenophobia
The first significant wave of xenophobic attacks happened in May 2008 in Alexandra Township, which borders Sandton – the Johannesburg neighbourhood considered Africa’s richest square mile – and spread nationwide, killing 60 people.
Zimbabwean, Mozambican and Malawian migrants were accused of “stealing” jobs and social housing reserved for South Africans, and selling drugs in a country where statistics say drug use starts at age 12, on average.
Bhengu told Al Jazeera that he initially joined an online solidarity movement, Put South Africa First on X, formerly Twitter, during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. Members were frustrated that migrant-run businesses were operating, even as locals were affected by the economic slowdown.
It morphed into Operation Dudula in June 2021, recruiting from disgruntled youth in the big cities. Many of its members are unemployed and some like Bhengu gave up looking for work to become full-time activists.
On its launch day, Operation Dudula targeted street hawkers of foreign origin in a search and seizure operation led by anti-immigrant activist Nhlanhla ‘Lux’ Dlamini. About 1,000 members also raided rumoured drug dens and evicted migrants suspected to be occupying social welfare houses illegally.
“We went to the Diepkloof post office and evicted illegal squatters there. We then went to the Diepkloof hostel to meet the truckers’ union. Our intelligence told us there were two houses illegally occupied by foreigners,” Bhengu told Al Jazeera.
Continued mistrust between locals and foreign migrants is “exacerbated by inflammatory narratives peddled by some influential public figures … and community members”, according to a 2023 study by the Institute for Security Studies (ISS).
“Young people credited [Operation Dudula] for being more effective than the government in ousting undocumented migrants. They added that community protests and marches involving the looting of migrant-owned businesses are also justified to the extent that they are provoked by illegal business ownership by migrants,” the report read.
Ringisai Chikohomero, the ISS researcher who authored the study, told Al Jazeera that locals and migrants within the townships have cultivated an interdependency as neighbours and co-workers, where every working migrant hires at least two locals. He argues that the government should create more opportunities for migrants and locals to interact.
According to an ISS study, only 6.7 percent of the population are migrants but they contribute as much as 9 per cent to GDP. Foreign nationals living in South Africa make a significant contribution to the economy, rather than being a burden, adds SERI director, Zondo.
Danmore Chuma, executive director of Chronicles of Refugees and Immigrants (ChRI), said that working migrants who commute back to neighbouring countries pay value-added tax on goods and poll tax on the roads.
He told Al Jazeera the media focus has been on “competition between poor migrants and poor locals” instead of the inefficiency of Home Affairs in issuing documents to migrants and refugees.
A new sphere of influence
In April 2022, President Cyril Ramaphosa condemned Operation Dudula as a “vigilante-like force” dividing Africans. However, the authorities have been seen as slow in tackling increasing mob justice.
Advocacy groups also allege that the police and Home Affairs Department collude with Operation Dudula in conducting raids.
The group recently joined Home Affairs in a lawsuit to prevent the extension of the Zimbabwean Exemption Permit (ZEP), which provides 178,000 Zimbabweans with residence visas in South Africa. The ZEP extension is set to expire on December 31, 2023.
Christopher Fisher, legal researcher at Johannesburg-based think tank, the Helen Suzman Foundation, said the group was “muddying the waters” by changing the focus of the ZEP case from due process owed to permit holders who have been in the country since 2009, to “illegal immigration”.
Police spokesperson Brigadier Athlenda Mathe told Al Jazeera the allegations of collusion by police were “baseless” and insisted that the police act within the law.
“We refute any allegations …that police officers are perpetuating and colluding with groups to exercise xenophobic attacks against foreigners or illegal immigrants in the country,” Mathe said.
In recent months, Operation Dudula has changed its strategy to gain more influence nationally ahead of the 2024 elections.
This May, Zandile Dabula, its former secretary-general, was elected leader of Operation Dudula after former leader Dlamini, who has received a two-year suspended sentence for housebreaking, cut ties with the group.
In August, it registered itself as a political party with the electoral commission and is currently conducting a membership audit.
Dabula says the party will push for the mass deportation of migrants and return to its original mandate of fighting for “COVID-19 front liners, essential workers and patrollers that [were] neglected and promised lies” by the government. These are the supporters it wants to attract to the party, the new leader says.
Analysts say the strategy is a populist one. But the new party’s leaders say they simply want to effect political change.