Xenophobia is nothing new to South Africa but experts warn attacks on foreigners could rise as nationalist campaign rhetoric heats up.
The self-appointed civilian army patrolling the streets in South Africa’s Soweto Township had one aim only: To drive out foreigners. A mob made up of people supporting the anti-immigrant group Operation Dudula stormed into so-called Spaza shops run by foreigners in the village of Diepkloof, where they harassed owners — inspecting the sell-by dates on their products and threatening to close the shops.
Victress Mathuthu, who is from Zimbabwe, was one of those targeted by xenophobic Black South Africans. “If the members of Operation Dudula are dissatisfied with foreign nationals being granted licenses to run small businesses, they should address the government or the relevant ministry.
Attacks on foreign-owned shops
Operation Dudula supporters have claimed that relevant ministries are not doing enough to stop foreigners from owning businesses, using this as justification for taking the law into their own hands.
“They are not allowed to own a Spaza shop,” claims Thabo Ngayo during one such vigilante operation. Dudula’s national coordinator, Ngayo said the businesses are reserved solely for South Africans, before telling the shop owner, “That means this Spaza shop must belong to a South African. You have a few days to vacate the premises.” The same goes for foreign owners who have registered their businesses the Dudula leader said.
Mzwanele Manyi, a representative of the Economic Freedom Fighters party, agrees. He, too, is calling for the closure of all foreign-owned Spaza shops in South Africa. “We simply cannot tolerate such a situation,” Manyi told DW.
Xenophobia has deep roots in South Africa
Xenophobia is nothing new in South Africa. In April 2022, a Zimbabwean in Diepsloot, north of Johannesburg, was stoned and set on fire. In 2008, Black South Africans torched huts belonging to foreigners in their townships, killing 62 people. The outrage sparked by the wave of hate killings was widespread, yet investigations started by initiatives at the time went nowhere.
The platform Xenowatch, which was developed by the African Center for Migration and Society (ACMS) at the University of Witwatersrand, collects data on crimes against foreigners. They recorded 1,038 attacks on migrants, 661 deaths and 5,131 shops looted since 1994. Xenowatch says this is almost certainly an underestimation, as not every case is reported.
South Africa’s right-wing scene is growing
The group Operation Dudula first appeared on social media in 2020. Dudula is a Zulu word meaning “push back.” The group is now registered as a political party and will take part in the country’s 2024 general election.
But Dudula candidates won’t be the only ones chanting xenophobic slogans on the campaign trail. The Economic Freedom Fighters, currently South Africa’s third-strongest party, also uses them. Though the party takes a radical leftist approach to the economy, it is also openly xenophobic.
Other smaller parties, such as the Patriotic Alliance and ActionSA, have also inciting against foreigners. The latter was able to score points with xenophobic sloganeering during last year’s municipal elections.
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That is a threatening development from Fredson Guilengue’s perspective. A staff member at the German Left Party-aligned Rosa Luxemburg Foundation in Johannesburg, Guilengue fears an uptick in attacks on migrants in South Africa — as well as the continuing growth of the country’s right-wing scene — as the vote approaches.
Guilengue, from neighboring Mozambique, says even if current data shows a drop in the number of actual xenophobic attacks compared to 2022, the narrative scapegoating of migrants is growing. “Unlike past waves, what we are seeing now is the institutionalization of xenophobia,” he told DW, noting that Operation Dudula was contributing to the phenomenon.
Right-wing parties fishing for supporters
Guilengue says the problems Black South Africans have with people from elsewhere in Africa come down to a combination of factors. “First, colonialism and Apartheid not only led to a split between whites and Blacks but also to a split within the Black majority — putting immigrants on the bottom rung of Black South African society.”
Now, in a desolate economy lacking in job opportunities and at a time when political parties are pushing xenophobic policies, this Apartheid- era inheritance has grown more explosive.
Staff at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation fear that the perennially ruling African National Congress (ANC) party could also jump on the xenophobia bandwagon. There are xenophobic forces in the ANC and Nelson Mandela’s former freedom-fighting movement is looking at the most difficult vote in its history. Experts predict the ANC may even fall below the 50% mark for the first time since it was established.
South Africa’s problems were not created by migrants
A study from the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) in Pretoria says every second person in South Africa is unemployed, and blame for increasing poverty, extreme social injustice, corruption and crime is often pinned on foreigners.
In truth, says the ISS, it is poor governance and corruption in politics, combined with administrative deficiencies, that are to blame. Furthermore, South Africa’s migrant population, estimated at 6.5%, is no larger than anywhere else in the world.
The fact that many foreigners living in South Africa do not have proper residency permits is also the result of poor immigration policy. Many foreigners migrate to South Africa legally only to have their status later revoked through no fault of their own, say ISS researchers. They point out that the country’s Interior Ministry has been plagued by corruption for years and is also way behind when it comes to processing residency applications and permits.
Trust in South Africa’s government declines