South Africans have for too long described themselves by what they are not â€” and have done so within the narrow confine of nationality. Today, the chorus of â€˜we are not foreignâ€™ is growing. Itâ€™s a chauvinistic sentiment, made worse by the economic precariousness that pervades life in SA. Itâ€™s time to do better.
n the past few months, anti-immigrant sentiment has dominated SAâ€™s headlines too, buoyed by the polarising statements of key figures in government and politics.
The upswing in bigotry started in November, when the government announced it was considering whether to extend exemption permits for Zimbabweans. In short order, a campaign to pressure the government not to renew the permits began, led by #PutSouthAfricaFirst and #NoToZimWorkPermits. They wanted the government to â€œprioritise South Africansâ€.
â€œWe are not attacking anyone but, like Botswana, we would really like our country to prioritise us,â€ said Tshidiso Rantsa, one of the campaign conveners. â€œSA has a high unemployment rate, but we are forced to give all these struggling countries a piggyback ride. It doesnâ€™t make sense.â€
The government seemed to concur. A few weeks later, the presidentâ€™s office announced the permits would not be renewed. Instead, the department of home affairs offered permit holders a grace period of one year to regularise their documents.
The move affects almost 200,000 permit-holders and has been roundly criticised by human rights groups, who argue that it will have disastrous consequences for up to 500,000 children, who will have to uproot their lives to move to a country they have never known. According to Lawyers for Human Rights, the decision will also increase the number of undocumented people living in the country, and undermine work home affairs has undertaken in the past 10 years to regularise the status of undocumented Zimbabwean nationals who live and work South Africa.
After the announcement of the Zimbabwe permit issue, the EFF entered the fray. In January this year, party leader Julius Malema created a media spectacle at Midrandâ€™s Mall of Africa when he entered a number of restaurants in an attempt to ascertain the ratio of immigrant to local employees in each establishment. Though Malema was initially combative in his approach, after interacting with restaurant staff, he conceded that the assumptions motivating his unauthorised inspections were incorrect. There were plenty of SA employees working on that day.
Accused of flip-flopping, Malema insisted: â€œWe have always been clear on our stance, and people are distorting our position. What we have always maintained is that there is no-one who will drive Africans out of SA.â€
By last month, the tenor of the conversation had hardened. After Ramaphosa’s government revealed that special permits for Zimbabweaans will not be renewed, vigilante group Operation Dudula, which is the biggest benefactor of the announcement, began openly claiming to be â€œagainst illegal foreigners in our countryâ€, insisting it was fighting for â€œjob reservationâ€ for South Africans.
Even the ANC spokesperson, Pule Mabe, endorsed Operation Dudula’s actions during her interview with the Mail & Guardian.
Job reservation was one of the worst aspects of apartheid, introduced at the insistence of white workers who feared nonwhite workers would undercut them with cheaper labour. The National Party exploited this fear, turning it into a political issue that eventually won the party votes under the banner â€œvote white SAâ€ in 1948.
Operation Dudulaâ€™s campaign has also sought to depict so-called foreigners as criminals. As former FeesMustFall activist and EFF member Bonginkosi Khanyile has put it: â€œOperation Dudula is not against foreigners, but illegal foreign nationals. By virtue of being an illegal immigrant, you are already a criminal.â€
Criminalising immigrants is a hallmark of nationalist chauvinism. Khanyile ought to know that SAâ€™s shambolic immigration system prevents many asylum-seekers from lodging their claims. It is official corruption and incompetence, rather than migrant criminality, that lie at the root of the problem. Khanyile may pretend to espouse Africanist views, but his views echo those of Zemmour, Trump and right-wingers the world over.
Given SAâ€™s history of violence against people seen as African migrants, the rhetoric is cause for concern. It has been especially alarming to watch the meteoric rise of Operation Dudula, and its charismatic leader Nhlanhla â€œLuxâ€ Dlamini.
Nhlanhla Lux is the perfect antihero for the moment, capturing the legitimate frustrations of communities while indulging in the kind of reckless scapegoating of undocumented migrants that could well lead to people being killed. Xenophobic rhetoric has been part of public life for some time now, so Lux and his supporters arenâ€™t saying anything new. What is new â€” and deeply disturbing â€” is the increased visibility and organising capacity of Operation Dudula and its allies.
Given what happened in 2008 and 2015, the government should be deeply concerned about the potential for organised violence.
The new threat posed by Dudula must not obscure the fact that it is a vigilante grouping whose tactics mirror those of Pagad (People Against Gangsterism & Drugs). That organisationâ€™s trajectory is instructive: created in 1996 in response to legitimate community concerns about poor policing in the Cape Flats and high levels of unemployment, Pagad began by inviting police to carry out joint raids against known criminals in the community.
Police were initially supportive of the organisation, and were reluctant to rein in the group, as it enjoyed plenty of support from community members. Eventually, however, Pagad became a law unto itself, targeting not just drug dealers and criminals, but a range of other targets that didnâ€™t align with the beliefs of its members. Between 1996 and 2002, the group bombed a nightclub, targeted gay clubs, bombed the home of an academic who had been critical of its actions, and was suspected of having murdered a magistrate in a drive-by shooting.
Eventually, the government designated Pagad a terrorist grouping. The politicians and civic leaders who front these groups are able to eloquently articulate the precariousness of black life in this country, but they donâ€™t seem to have a broader agenda for what they want SA to look like.
Beyond creating jobs for South Africans â€” which is important â€” the critics of migration arenâ€™t able to outline a new basis of belonging to which those who arenâ€™t illegal might aspire. In other words, what ought to be the basis for the inclusion of non-South Africans in the post-apartheid society we are building?