CAPTAUN, South Africa. Street vendors walked nervously back and forth, huddled together, wondering if it was safe to unpack the carved figurines, baskets and wire sculptures they sell daily to tourists at one of the small craft markets scattered along the coast.
The day before, police notification warned of possible protests by the group, known for its attacks on immigrants, although nothing has happened so far.
“They want to take away our business,” said one vendor from a neighbouring country, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he feared for his life and that of his family.
Anti-immigrant sentiment is a long-standing problem in South Africa, where the end of white minority rule has not led to meaningful change for many black South Africans. Attacks on migrants have increased dramatically since May 2008, when an estimated 62 people were killed and dozens injured in Johannesburg in one of the country’s most xenophobic attacks.
A police notice in Cape Town in late May noted a possible “Dudul operation”. The group recently opened a branch in Cape Town, the country’s main tourist destination, after months of operating in poor areas around Johannesburg and Pretoria. It is accused of intimidating and terrorising migrants from countries such as Zimbabwe, Malawi, Mozambique and Zambia, who usually live in black settlements in South Africa .
In early April, a gang in the Johannesburg town of Dipslot stoned and burned Elvis Nyathi, a Zimbabwean father of four, when he failed to produce documents proving he was in the country legally . Seven men have been charged in connection with his murder.
The Operation Dudula campaign is seen as a coordinated effort rather than a general response to the chronic poverty and inequality that has persisted for almost three decades since the fall of apartheid.
Sharon Ekambaram, who heads the refugee and migrant rights programme at Lawyers for Human Rights, said the latest wave of xenophobia seems to be supported by well-funded organisations.
“The difference is that the face of vigilantism is a new phenomenon in the way violence is organised,” she said. “It seems organised and organised.”
“Dudula” in Zulu means “to repel”. Those involved in Operation Dudula blame migrant workers for rampant criminality and for contributing to the country’s high unemployment rate by taking jobs away from South Africans. Government statistics for the first quarter of this year show that the official unemployment rate is almost 35 per cent, with unemployment among workers aged 25 to 34 at a staggering 42 per cent.
According to Stats SA, there were about 3.9 million foreign-born people living in South Africa in mid-2021.
Attempts by The Washington Post to contact several leaders of Operation Dudula were unsuccessful. But in an interview with Cape Radio on 16 May, one of these leaders made their motives clear.
“Since 2004, we have witnessed illegal immigrants coming to South Africa and taking jobs,” said Sebele Tsholoane, who heads Operation Dudula in the Western Cape province. “We are not a political party. This is a civic movement. We are [not] vigilantes. We just want to make the law work.”
Ekambaram of Lawyers for Human Rights disagrees with this characterisation.
“Operation Dudula is not underfunded, so our experience is that this is not an organic uprising or a movement of people born out of anger over their living conditions,” she said. “It seems to be some hidden hand that is interested in collective violence. … We experienced violence in 2008, 2014, 2016, all because of the scapegoating by government officials.”
She said repression and illegal searches of immigrants’ homes by law enforcement agencies had increased, reminiscent of the apartheid years, when police went door-to-door checking the documents of black South Africans.
“What we have experienced in LHR is increased repression with increased deportations and arrests of migrants and illegal search and seizure operations by law enforcement teams knocking on doors and asking people for documents, which is totally illegal,” she said.
In Cape Town, traders anxiously watching for any sign of Operation Dudula, protesters blamed a hidden hand. “It’s all politics,” said another vendor, who spoke out on condition that his name and nationality would not be divulged for fear of intimidation.
Political leaders in South Africa have a history of fomenting xenophobia.
Herman Mashaba, former mayor of Johannesburg and now leader of the ActionSA political party, has repeatedly accused foreigners of taking jobs away from South Africans.
“I don’t want to live in a country where foreigners come and open hair salons and spa shops. No. These opportunities are for South Africans,” he told the Daily Maverick in September. “For foreign nationals to come and work in restaurants and drive taxis and trucks, no way. … I’m not going to apologise to anyone.”
In 2015, the Zulu king called foreign workers “head lice” and ordered them to leave the country. “Let’s get rid of the lice,” said Goodwill Zwelitini, who died last year. “We have to remove the ticks and expose them to the sun. We are asking foreign nationals to collect their belongings and send them back.”
He later said his comments were taken out of context.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa condemned vigilante groups acting against foreigners.
“We cannot support vigilante actions against a group of people and in particular against them as foreign nationals because what we are doing is just dividing our people on the African continent,” Ramaphosa told reporters in April. “People who are here illegally need to be treated within the law.”
The United Nations has expressed “growing concern” over South Africa’s treatment of foreigners and pointed to the country’s ratification of international human rights and refugee protection codes.
“In the recent past, we have noted with deep concern that movements such as Operation Dudula are illegally forcing people suspected of being undocumented foreign nationals to produce their documents,” the statement said.
In April, human rights organisation Amnesty International accused the government of not doing enough to protect migrants. It said migrants interviewed in the settlements said they lived in constant fear and felt unsafe because of harassment by police and anti-migrant gangs.