In South Africa, a Failed State Has Turned on Migrants

A new campaign, Operation Dudula, has mobilised thousands of angry protesters.

by Derick Matsengarwodzi

15 July 2022

An anti-migrant protest in Johannesburg
An anti-migrant protest in Johannesburg, February 2022. Siphiwe Sibeko/ Reuters

In 2008, the ‘burning man’, 35-year-old Ernesto Alfabeto Nhamuave, was beaten, stabbed then set alight by a mob in South Africa. Footage of his gruesome murder shocked the world.

In April this year, it happened again. Mbodazwe Nyathi tried to hide in the house he shared with his wife and four children when an armed mob arrived, demanding to see documents that proved he was in the country legally. The 43-year-old gardener, known as “Elvis” to his friends and family, was undocumented, having fled economic turmoil in Zimbabwe. The vigilante group whipped his wife, Nomsa, stole money from the family and then beat, stoned and finally burnt Nyathi to death on his own doorstep.

Nyathi’s brutal murder is part of a new wave of xenophobia in South Africa, that frightened migrants say is reminiscent of 2008, when 62 people died during two weeks of violence. John Muchogo*, also from Zimbabwe, remembers hiding in a church during the unrest 14 years ago. 40,000 migrants left South Africa in the aftermath, and another 50,000 were internally displaced – but Muchogo decided to stay.

“I left Zimbabwe…when the economy was failing and I could not afford to buy basic goods for my family,” Muchogo told Novara Media. “ I would visit home when I got the chance, but South Africa has become my home for now.”

But with anti-migrant violence on the rise once again, Muchogo said he is living in fear after a spate of attacks in his local community.

The ‘force out’ campaign.

Behind much of the recent rise in xenophobic violence is new anti-migrant group Operation Dudula, an offshoot of the far-right Put South Africans First movement.

The Covid-19 pandemic has worsened inequality in South Africa, which was already the worst in the world. The country’s poor – 16.3 million of whom live in extreme poverty on less than $1.90 a day – have borne the brunt of job losses and austerity policies. When the imprisonment of former president Jacob Zuma sparked riots in 2021, discontent came to a head, fuelling widespread civil unrest. Operation Dudula, which means ‘force out’ in Zulu, was able to capitalise on this, accusing migrants of taking jobs, perpetuating crime and putting pressure on social amenities.

The movement’s leader, 36-year-old Nhlanhla ‘Lux’ Dlamini, was unknown to much of South Africa until 6 June 2021, when he led hundreds of followers through Johannesburg’s Soweto township, targeting suspected drug traffickers and businesses that were allegedly hiring migrants for below the minimum wage.

In March, the government warned Operation Dudula that “lawlessness will not be tolerated and the law enforcement agencies stand ready to act,” after the movement threatened to mount an operation in the eastern city of Durban.

In a weakened economy, Operation Dudula has pit migrants and locals against each other. “People come all the way from Nigeria to compete with us, when we can’t go there because the laws in that country don’t allow us to compete with them,” said member Matome Machaba.

The 35-year-old tech entrepreneur claimed that his desire to remove migrants from the country wasn’t personal. “I don’t have problems with migrants really, what I have a problem with is the ANC [African National Congress – South Africa’s leading political party] policies that allowed them to be here.”

Yet it is migrants like “Elvis” Nyathi and his family – not politicians – that groups like Operation Dudula are brutally targetting.

Zimbabweans are no longer welcome.

There are an estimated 2.9 million migrants in South Africa, making up just under 5% of the country’s total population. The figure is probably higher when undocumented people are included.

An estimated 70% of foreign nationals in South Africa are from Zimbabwe, Mozambique or Lesotho, with desperate migrants dodging police, soldiers and crocodiles to escape economic turmoil in their country of origin. Pregnant Zimbabweans are among those who frequently make the perilous journey to South Africa; with one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world, Zimbabwe’s dilapidated public hospitals often amount to a death sentence for those who stay.

In 2009, South Africa responded pragmatically to high migration from neighbouring Zimbabwe by introducing a special exemption that allowed migrants like Muchogo to work legally in the country. With the permit, he opened a bank account and travelled freely.

But this year, the government decided to revoke the policy, in a move that will affect 178,000 Zimbabweans. Muchogo must choose between returning to a country he left more than a decade ago, or remaining in South Africa illegally.

According to home affairs minister Aaron Motsoaledi, the policy “was and has always been a temporary measure, pending improvement and economic situation in Zimbabwe.” But GDP has plummeted in Zimbabwe since the pandemic, with more than half the population now facing extreme poverty

When pressed by human rights groups, which are contesting the decision, Motsoaledi implied that an increase in anti-migrant sentiment had influenced the policy change. “The decision of the Minister not to extend the exemptions granted to Zimbabwean nationals has been widely supported by South African citizens,” he said, in response to a court action by liberal think-tank the Helen Suzman Foundation.

Scapegoating migrants.

South Africa’s unemployment rate increased by 1.8% to 34% in 2021 – the largest rise since 2008. Working-class people working low-paid jobs have been disproportionately affected by an estimated three million job losses in 2020, worsening South Africa’s severe inequality.

“Where there are deep socio-economic inequalities it can be perceived that the migrants or refugees are burdening the social welfare system and crowding the job market,” said migration law researcher Shepherd Mutsvara  .

The situation is made worse by employers, especially in the construction and hospitality sectors, treating migrants as “a form of slave labour”, said former home affairs minister Malusi Gigaba. Bosses frequently allege that “South Africans are lazy, they are criminal, there are jobs that South Africans don’t want to take,” in order to justify instead hiring – and exploiting – migrants, he explained in 2017. In reality, he added, employers prefer migrant workers because they can often pay them below the minimum wage.

Experts have made it clear that migrants are not the cause of South Africa’s poor living conditions – and driving them out is not a solution. In April a group of migration specialists from the Human Sciences Research Council responded to growing xenophobia with a statement. “Our work shows that only a small quotient of the South African population are international migrants,” they said, “and that the overall effect of international immigration on the labour market is not detrimental.”

For Mustvara, the violence will not abate and living conditions will not improve until the government is willing to address the root cause of the problem: inequality.

“The long-term solution is, unfortunately, a big ask,” he said. “The government must balance out socio-economic inequalities in South Africa.”

But the situation is unlikely to improve in time to help Muchogo. With anti-migrant sentiment continuing to grow and the future of work permits uncertain, he faces tough choices.

“During [South Africa’s] apartheid era, Zimbabwe was home to many South Africans who were fleeing the unjust minority rule, but today we are branded as enemies,” he said.

“For now, I am sending my family and property back home, while I remain in the country to see if there is a future for me.”

Derick Matsengarwodzi is a journalist based in Zimbabwe. 

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