The day the leader of a South African anti-immigrant vigilante group addressed a crowd of protesters in a township north of Johannesburg, a mob went from house to house demanding passports before catching a Zimbabwean man and stoning and burning him to death.
The 6 April murder of 44-year-old Elvis Nyathi is the latest episode of xenophobia in South Africa, with anti-foreigner groups capitalizing on the desperation spawned by rampant unemployment and the world’s deepest inequality. The authorities now fear more widespread violence that’s killed dozens of people in the past could repeat itself.
The campaign against foreigners is being led by Operation Dudula, an isiZulu word meaning “to push out.” The group, led by Nhlanhla Mohlauli, has been carrying out raids on what it alleges are brothels, drug dens and trading stores run by foreigners in central Johannesburg and surrounding townships.
The security forces warned this month the movement is gaining momentum in Gauteng province, the commercial hub that’s home to Johannesburg and Pretoria, and spreading to three other provinces, with its activities likely to stoke regional tension and instability.
At least 11 other organizations share Dudula’s views, and are especially opposed to the employment of foreign nationals, the police said in a presentation to lawmakers.
Alarmed lawmakers summoned Police Commissioner Sehlahle Masemola to discuss the violence on April 1 — his first day on the job.
“Operation Dudula is of such concern to us as a committee that we had our very first meeting with the newly appointed police commissioner just hours after his appointment,” Tina Joemat-Pettersson, chairwoman of the parliamentary portfolio committee on police, said in an interview. “If we cannot stabilise the situation, it will have a huge impact on investment.”
The issue is a fraught one for the governing African National Congress party, which enlisted the support of other African nations in its fight to topple White-minority rule, but faces mounting outrage from its supporters who see an estimated thee million migrants as competitors for jobs, housing and services.
Intermittent xenophobic attacks, including in 2008 when about 60 people died and 50,000 were displaced, have drawn condemnation from governments whose nationals were targeted.
The tensions are on stark display in Alexandra township near Sandton, Johannesburg’s main business district, where a group affiliated to Dudula chased migrants away from makeshift stores where they sell food, toiletries and cleaning products.
“Dudula is doing the right thing, they are fighting for this country and giving South Africans a chance to survive,” said Rachel Kgole, 64, who sells cooked sheep heads, tripe and corn porridge from a stall erected on a patch of roadside that foreign traders used until they were chased away.
“We have had no space to conduct our business, our children go hungry. I have four children and three grandchildren. I can now afford to send the grandkids to nursery school.”
A group of Dudula members were seen trying to intimidate a Mozambican man into handing over his trolley of wares after accusing him of taking up space that could be utilized by South Africans. He refused and a tense standoff ensued, with groups of locals and Mozambicans hurling insults at each other.
South Africa is grappling with a 35% unemployment rate – the highest on a global list of 82 nations monitored by Bloomberg – and its economy is stuck in its longest downward cycle since World War II. Still, there are jobs to compete for compared with poorer countries like Zimbabwe and Malawi, where there is substantially less economic activity.
Some migrants described how gun-wielding men arrived at their homes at night, stole their furniture and evicted them before illegally selling their homes to others. Some of the victims said they were married to South Africans.
Dudula denies it’s behind the property seizures.
While the group’s activities were initially concentrated in Alexandra, it has recently shot to prominence in Soweto, the sprawling township southwest of Johannesburg that was once home to Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s first Black president. Mohlauli’s trip to Diepsloot this week coincided with violent protests that led to a visit by the minister of police and the commissioner after five people were murdered last week.
The community has accused foreign nationals of being responsible for crime in the township.
Mohlauli, 35, was arrested last month after allegedly assaulting and raiding the home of a man he alleges had been identified as a drug dealer. He’s since been freed on bail pending trial.
Seventeen other cases involving Dudula members are also being investigated or prosecuted.
President Cyril Ramaphosa denies that South Africans are xenophobic and described the attacks as unacceptable.
Even so, his administration has been less than welcoming of immigrants, and is currently finalizing legislation that will cap the number of foreigners businesses owned by locals can hire, and tightening up other laws that will make it more difficult for them to work. Home Affairs Minister Aaron Motsoaledi says those measures are needed to tackle joblessness among locals.
The government in November announced the end of a more than decade-old program to enable about 200,000 Zimbabweans to live and work in the country.
Opposition parties have capitalized on the antipathy toward foreigners.
ActionSA won 16% of the vote in Johannesburg in last year’s municipal elections. Its leader, former Mayor Herman Mashaba, has demanded that undocumented migrants be deported. Julius Malema, the leader of the populist Economic Freedom Fighters party, has tried to pressure restaurant owners to hire more South Africans and fewer foreigners.
Kgole, the street vendor, said she had joined Dudula because more proactive steps must be taken to reduce the number of foreigners in the country.
“These people from Maputo, Malawi, Zimbabwe, they must go,” she said. “We don’t want them here.”