'Why we hate foreigners,' say South African Operation Dudula vigilantes

South African vigilante group Operation Dudula has gained fame for raiding businesses belonging to foreign nationals and forcing shops to close. BBC Africa Eye has gained rare access to members of the country's most-prominent anti-migrant street movement, which was set up in Soweto two years ago. The group is known for its xenophobia-fueled vigilante attacks, which date back to shortly after white-minority rule ended in 1994.

Soweto was at the forefront of anti-apartheid resistance and home to Nelson Mandela, South Africa's first democratically elected president. Now, the township has become the home of the country's most-prominent anti-migrant group. With one in three South Africans out of work in one of the most unequal societies in the world, foreigners in general have become an easy target. However, the number of migrants living in South Africa has been grossly exaggerated. According to a 2022 report by the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), there are about 3.95 million migrants in South Africa, making up 6.5% of the population, a figure in line with international norms. This number includes all immigrants, irrespective of legal status or where they come from.

The xenophobic rhetoric used by some public officials, politicians, and anti-migrant groups has helped fuel the myth that the country is overrun with migrants. The South African Social Attitudes Survey for 2021 found that almost half of the population of 60 million people believed there were between 17 and 40 million immigrants in the country. Current polling suggests support for the governing African National Congress (ANC), the party once led by Nelson Mandela, could fall below 50% for the first time.

Operation Dudula has ambitions to fill that vacuum and has now transformed itself from a local anti-migrant group into a national political party, stating its aims to contest next year's general election. Zandile Dabula, who was voted in as president of Operation Dudula in June 2023, is calm, charismatic, and emphatic about the group's message: "foreigners" are the root cause of South Africa's economic hardship.

However, the anger meted out to migrants can be on those who are in the country legally and working in legal occupations. A Nigerian market trader, who was the target of a raid by Operation Dudula members in Johannesburg earlier in the year, tells the BBC that the two women who tasered him and destroyed his clothes by throwing them in the gutter did not stop to ask questions.

Operation Dudula maintains that their most pressing complaint is concern over the huge influx of drugs into South Africa's most deprived communities. However, there is no data to back up the claim that people who sell drugs are not South African citizens. Comparative statistics are not available for drug crimes, but the ISS report quotes the justice minister as saying that immigrants made up 8.5% of all convicted cases in 2019 and 7.1% in 2020. 2.3% of inmates incarcerated each year are undocumented foreigners.

In Diepkloof, in eastern Soweto, the BBC joins a so-called Dudula taskforce in Diepkloof, where men in trucks confront a Mozambican shopkeeper who a South African landlady alleges has not paid his rent. When the BBC asks them about their thuggish behavior, they maintain they are enforcing the law.


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