Instrumentalizing migrants

From Operation Fiela to Operation Dudula, xenophobia in South Africa is bent on protecting the interests of politicians.

Photo by Randy Rooibaatjie on Unsplash

On February 27, 2019, the Cabinet of South Africa approved the National Action Plan to Combat Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance (NAP). The Department of Justice and Constitutional Development (DoJ) launched the NAP on March 25. Its key ideal is to “reinforce the culture of human rights within the spirit of our Constitution and democracy.” But, in the shadow of the NAP launch, xenophobic attacks have become pervasive, particularly during national and local government elections, as political candidates scapegoat migrants. In recent years, we have noted a proliferation of state-sanctioned operations, such as Operation Fiela, and vigilante groupings targeting migrants, such as Operation Dudula.

Operation Fiela was launched in April 2015. It came about as a response to security and safety concerns based on illogical claims that migrants were behind pervasive lawlessness and crime in the country. In theory it was launched as an antixenophobia initiative. In practice, in the first three months of its operation, the most common category of arrest was of undocumented migrants.

Meanwhile the state itself bears a major responsibility for much of the absence of documentation. In his report of 2020, the Auditor General of South Africa noted:

… a backlog in registering new asylum seekers of seven months and in some cases 19 months. There was also a backlog in processing asylum seekers at independent bodies. If no new cases were received, it would take 68 years to finalise the backlog at the Refugee Appeal Board (RAB) and just over one year to finalise the backlog at the Standing Committee for Refugee Affairs (SCRA). There had been noticeable regression in the performance of the DHA in managing undocumented immigrants since the previous performance audit in 2007.

This huge backlog renders asylum seekers undocumented and vulnerable to arrest and deportation. As if this is not enough, in November 2021, the government of South Africa revoked the Zimbabwe Exemption Permit (ZEP) and more than 200,000 holders will be rendered undocumented on December 31, 2022.

These actions and failures of the state have been accompanied by an increasing volume of xenophobic rhetoric from political leadership. In March this year, Deputy President David Mabuza contributed to the narrative:

Our immigration system is grappling with the implementation of stringent measures to deal with the influx of undocumented foreign nationals into our country, who ultimately compete with our citizens for limited resources to survive.

Home Affairs Minister Aaron Motsoaledi made his own contribution when commenting on the bust of an operation to provide fake passports to migrants:

They were never refugees in the first place. They are making us fools. That is why I am not in any way touched by the allegations that we are xenophobic in South Africa. We are being undermined because this is not happening in any other country on our continent.

And there is now competition for the mantle of protector of South Africans against the foreign invasion. Gayton Mackenzie’s Patriotic Alliance conducts raids. In 2020, Tito Mboweni made unsubstantiated claims that the hospitality sector comprises more than 90% migrants, particularly from Zimbabwe.

This leads us to Operation Dudula, formed in 2021 in Alexandra Township. Dudula was launched on June 16 of that year by a youth-led organization known as the Soweto Parliament. It is led by one Nhlanhla “Lux” Dlamini. Its purpose is to make sure that jobs are given to South Africans and also to drive out undocumented migrants. It is active on social media platforms coordinated through hashtags such as #OperationDudula  and #PutSouthAfricansFirst.

The ambivalence of the state to act against vigilante groupings such as Dudula has resulted in a proliferation of smaller territorial groupings, such as the “Diepsloot Residents.” In March this year, following a meeting with the Minister of Police, ordinary civilians vowed in front of national television cameras to embark on a door-to-door “witch-hunting” operation. This resulted in the gruesome murder of a Zimbabwean gardener, Elvis Nyathi.

A common thread between Fiela and Dudula is that both are hell bent on protecting the interests of politicians, who very often depend on instrumentalizing migrants in times of elections and socio-economic crises. In effect, Dudula is a continuation of Fiela and a key strategy for the ruling party to gain back its lost votes by instrumentalizing migrants.

To counter these narratives, a collective of progressive civil society organizations (CSOs) founded the Kopanong Africa Against Xenophobia (KAAX) in February 2022. A planned march in Johannesburg on Human Rights Day was banned by Johannesburg Police. It took place five days later after a successful High Court action.

Since then, a number of activists have been targeted through cyber-bullying on social media platforms and during mainstream media panel debates and radio shows. Public litigation organizations (PLOs), which are also members of KAAX, are considering approaching the courts to seek relief on behalf of migrant small business traders whose socio-economic rights have been violated by Dudula activities. On June 10, the Socio-economic Rights Institute (SERI) dispatched a letter of demand to the Dudula Orange Grove branch in Johannesburg following reports of threats to shut down trading activities by migrant informal traders.

It is time we moved away from the stereotypes associated with migration narratives and highlight migrants’ contribution to the economic growth and social fabric. There is a need for robust mass education and awareness-raising on the rights of migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers. Equally important is the need for compensation for lost livelihoods (small-business operators and informal traders) including reparations for victims of xenophobia who have lost lives or acquired disabilities as a result of xenophobic attacks.

Moreover, politicians and civilians involved in perpetrating atrocities against migrants must be prosecuted for hate speech and heinous crimes against humanity.

South Africa is a member of a global village and needs to rethink the notion of illogical colonial borders. The state must address the issue of documentation, which is at the core of both Fiela and Dudula. There is a need for synergies among relevant departments to ensure efficient processing of asylum and work permit applications. Furthermore, the government needs to rescind the disingenuous decision not to renew existing regularization permits, such as the ZEP, as this will also have a harmful impact on the Lesotho Exemption Permit (LEP) and that for Angola. There is still hope in PLOs and CSOs that continue to render support and solidarity to migrants in South Africa.

Further Reading