The vigilante group Operation Dudula has garnered strong support from various political parties including the ANC, which contends that as the governing party, it has been far too â€œflexibleâ€ in dealing with undocumented immigrants who came to get jobs in South Africa without first following due processes.
Those who embraced movements such as Operation Dudula were affirming ANC views, according to the partyâ€™s spokesperson, Pule Mabe, who this week told the Mail & Guardian that â€œâ€¦ these people (undocumented foreigners) come here to sell drugs, seat [sic] here illegally, undermine our sovereignty, create illegal businessâ€.
Dudula, said Mabe, was a â€œprogressive and constructiveâ€ community forum.
â€œAlso, we must hasten to warn those that want to use the word xenophobia to affirm wrongful conduct: you canâ€™t have foreign nationals going and capturing [a suburb like] Yeoville, some without legitimate documents, and when they are approached they want to cry xenophobia. Pan African [sic], xenophobia must never be used to affirm an entrenched illegality,â€ said Mabe.
But, according to Lizette Lancaster, of the Institute for Security Studies, organisations such as Operation Dudula follow in the footsteps of many similar â€œanti-crimeâ€, vigilante or â€œself-helpâ€ groups. She said that although they are not illegal, the actions of members become unlawful as soon as they take the law into their own hands.
â€œThe danger of vigilantism, especially if left to continue with impunity, is that sections of the community transition from largely law-abiding people into criminals. Once on this path, private groups â€” be they gangs, militia or protection groups â€” become the alternative to government. They rule localities often through the arbitrary use of violence and fear.
â€œThese organisations take root because communities feel vulnerable and marginalised. Feelings of vulnerability and marginalisation are compounded by perceptions that police and government are unable and unwilling to deal with local crime challenges effectively. Public confidence in the criminal justice system is often very low in high crime areas and people donâ€™t trust the police to protect them,â€ she said.
Since it emerged, Operation Dudula has evoked strong emotions, and many observers and experts have warned of possible ramifications that could include xenophobic attacks. Lethal and violent attacks against non-nationals is not uncommon in South Africa.
But the â€œmovementâ€ also has a plethora of supporters that believe their grievances have to do with illegal foreigners who are, among other things, â€œtaking jobs from localsâ€ or simply foreigners who are â€œselling drugsâ€. Operation Dudula is addressing social ills that the government is incapable of or unwilling to tackle, they say.
Mabe said that South Africaâ€™s increasing unemployment rate was such that unless the ANC acted to protect its borders, including protecting the distribution of opportunities, it would lose â€œthe confidence of the people we leadâ€.
He said the government must ensure that policies and legislation prioritise South African citizens.
â€œWe have never been opposed to community formations. As [the] ANC we had a notion of organs of peopleâ€™s power. This expressed itself through civil society organisations, faith based formations and others. We always say we need as many progressive and constructive community formations as possible. We need them to become the eyes and ears of the community.
â€œBut to also do what we discussed at Nedlac â€“ social compacting is not only done with business, it can also be enforced with community based organisations, like Dudula. So long as they act within the confines of the law,â€ he added.
It was expected, he said, that South Africans would â€œrise from time to timeâ€ to protest for jobs, â€œespecially if they are being taken by people who are not legitimately in the countryâ€. This was a call for regulation of employment quotas to ensure locals were prioritised in economic sectors.
â€œWe canâ€™t avoid it. We canâ€™t be opposed to what we have advocated. Actually, the more the merrier.â€
While he emphasised that organisations such as Dudula must operate within the confines of the law, Mabe also warned that those quick to label Dudula as xenophobic were also affirming wrongful conduct.
Briefing the media after a recent national executive committee meeting, ANC treasurer general Paul Mashatile said that the party urged citizens who had legitimate concerns regarding the presence of illegal and undocumented immigrants to work with the relevant authorities to ensure that the countryâ€™s laws were enforced.
Reiterating this call, Mabe said that the ANC had been far too flexible in dealing with illegal immigrants. Mabe said that unlike other African countries, South Africa used a repatriation system that allowed illegal immigrants the dignity of not having to be arrested and thrown in a police cell.
â€œWe have been way too flexible, itâ€™s time we now act to protect South Africans and we act against those who are here illegally. While we accept foreign nationals in our country, for as long as they are here legitimately, no problem. If itâ€™s work [you are here for] , have a permit. Show that you are bringing a scarce skill.
â€œWe understand what other African countries did to help South Africa dismantle the apartheid machinery, but [this canâ€™t lead to a] permanent [thinking] that some who come from those countries can even come and abuse the laws of the republic. [They] canâ€™t come here, sell drugs, seat [sic] here illegally, undermine our sovereignty, create illegal businessesâ€¦. There is empathy for organisations such as Dudula for as long as they operate under conditions of law. Actually we need more voices like that.â€
But Mabe also conceded that locals needed to be responsive to employment opportunities, particularly those usually thought of as being only fit for foreigners. â€œAn element that we need to deal with, South Africans must make themselves available to perform what they deem are mundane jobs,â€ he said.
Dudula is fast gaining traction, with launches expected to take place across parts of KwaZulu-Natal, Eastern Cape and the Free State. Attempts to launch the movement in Durban last weekend were called off after the authorities refused permission for its organisers to hold a march through the city because of concerns over the potential for violence.
It is most recognisably represented by the charismatic populist Nhlanhla â€˜Luxâ€™ Mohlauli whose commentary and looks have seen him gain favour since he was widely reported on during the July 2021 riots as a â€œprotectorâ€ of Sowetoâ€™s Maponya Mall.
Mohlauliâ€™s collaboration with Dudula, which resulted in his much publicised arrest, has allowed the organisation to reach new heights and attract the countryâ€™s youth â€“ many of them professional and unemployed â€“ and other organisations that believe in the vigilante groupsâ€™ cause.
Its popularity has even astounded its leaders. Dudulaâ€™s deputy chairperson, Dan Radebe, told the M&G that they never expected to grow as quickly as they had in the past weeks.
He defended the organisationâ€™s views, arguing that they were fighting illegal immigrants with law enforcement, and emphasised that without Dudula, there would be xenophobic attacks.
â€œItâ€™s not like we are saying we want these people gone.We are saying, let our laws be respected and enforced,â€ Radebe said.
When asked whether Dudula was enforcing xenophobia, he chuckled and claimed it was more possible there was a phobia about â€œthe truthâ€ within South Africaâ€™s media.
â€œWe have been in Hillbrow, Orange Grove, Berea and not even a single non-South African was touched. There is no operation we host [where police are absent]. Where we have a situation, they move in and talk with the employers and we give them our grievances. If fighting for your rights in your own country is being xenophobic and people are saying letâ€™s take a silver tray and handover our country, if our resistance to do that is regarded as xenophobia, let it be,â€ he said.
Despite the movementâ€™s alleged apprehension of working with political parties, Action SA and the Patriotic Aliiance have long bought into the message of ridding South Africaâ€™s streets of undocumented foreigners.
When he was Johannesburg mayor, Action SA leader Herman Mashaba advanced the need to remove undocumented migrants from the city centre by mostly focusing on hijacked buildings, where he said criminality was rife.
This week Mashaba told the M&G, he was â€œproudâ€ of Dudula, whose work was ensuring the future of South Africa. Mashaba said he was â€œpleasedâ€ that Dudula was bringing the issue of illegal immigrants to the attention of the nation.
â€œThey are not distracted by people who want to see South Africa collapse, who are calling [protests against] anti illegal immigrants xenophobic. I think this term is used to silence us from talking about this illegal activity.â€
The Patriotic Alliance managed to grow its support base in last yearâ€™s local government elections partly due to its focus on illegal foreigners. The PA is also known to have conducted its own â€œinvestigationsâ€ into whether or not spaza shop owners are documented.
PA secretary general Kenny Kunene said: â€œItâ€™s very important that this campaign gets strengthened and continues, because if it does not we are going to have xenophobic attacks. South Africans can see that the people are doing something about it and the [home affairs minister Aaron Motsoaledi] must be included. From the governmentâ€™s side, he is the person best placed to see that illegal foreigners must go,â€ Kunene said.
This has ruffled the feathers of EFF leader Julius Malema, whose position on foreign nationals has been consistent.
His tune changed somewhat this year when Malema conducted his own â€œoperationâ€ by visiting restaurants to audit employment quotas.
EFF spokesperson Sinawo Tambo said the party believes illegal immigration is falsely based on â€œcolonial bordersâ€. He said the EFF believes there is no illegality in Africa.
Tambo added that when Malema visited the restaurants, this was not based on the residential status of the employed foreigners. â€œThere must be locals employed in a locality in order to manage tendencies which may arise. We donâ€™t want to promote tensions with non-South African people to fight over employment. We wanted unity among people at the level of the shop floor so that when people interact intercontinentally they have a historic relationship as workers.â€
Malema may have a tough battle when the country goes to its general elections in 2024, particularly in areas like Soweto, where the EFF has seemingly plateaued. Dudula could prove to be a headache because its supporters are diametrically opposed to the EFF stance. Whichever party the organisation mobilisies behind, could find itself in the pound seats.