The ‘Rainbow Nation’ has a long history of xenophobia. But the covid-19 lockdowns saw the emergence of organised online groups that exacerbated the problem and whose anti-immigrant rhetoric has spilt out onto the streets of South Africa’s townships, writes Bastien Dratwa.
A few weeks after the South African government implemented a national lockdown on 26 March 2020, anti-immigrant hashtags flooded South African cyberspace. On Twitter, hashtags like ‘All foreigners must leave’, ‘We want our country back’ or ‘Clean up SA’ were trending, with ‘Put South Africa First’ being used over 16,000 times within a single day (ironically on Freedom Day 2020).
Recently, two anti-immigrant movements have emerged out of the rise in digital xenophobia: The ‘Put South Africans First’ movement and the vigilante group called ‘Operation Dudula’ (Operation Pushback). Both revolve around the view that South Africans have been marginalised in favour of migrants, often from elsewhere in Africa. The groups promise to “reclaim” or “give back” what they say rightfully belongs to South Africans in terms of jobs, housing, education, healthcare, and life opportunities.
A pervasive feature of post-apartheid South Africa
Xenophobia has a long and bloody history in post-apartheid South Africa. The first incidents of such violence were recorded only a few months after the country’s first democratic elections. In late 1994 and early 1995, the Alexandra Land and Property Owners Association along with the Concerned Residents Group of Alexandra accused migrants from Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and Malawi of causing crime, sexual violence, and unemployment in the township. People were forcefully evicted from their homes in a campaign called ‘Operation Buyelekhaya’, meaning ‘go back home’.
Only a year after the first black majority government was elected, the Southern African Bishops‘ Conference, in a report on immigrants, refugees and displaced people, noted the prevalence of xenophobia in South Africa: “There is no doubt that there is a very high level of xenophobia in our country…a variety of people have been lumped together under the title of ‘illegal immigrants’, and the whole situation of demonizing immigrants is feeding the xenophobia phenomenon.”
The worst episode of anti-immigrant attacks took place in May 2008. During two weeks of violence, at least 62 people were killed nationwide. Approximately 80,000 to 100,000 were displaced from their homes, and more than 200 shops were burnt. Since then, xenophobic attacks have occurred at regular intervals. In April 2015, and again in September 2019, new large-scale attacks against ‘foreigners’ were recorded, this time mainly in the provinces of Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal.
In 2019, similar attacks drew continent-wide condemnation. Mozambique, Malawi, and Zimbabwe hired buses to ferry their citizens back home and Nigeria chartered an airplane to evacuate its citizens. Football matches, music festivals and other cultural events hosted in South Africa were boycotted. In Lusaka, students demonstrated outside the South African consulate, and in Kinshasa, protesters outside the South African Embassy held signs that read “Don’t kill our brothers” and “No xenophobia”.
Covid-19 and endemic xenophobia
The covid-19 pandemic brought about a change in the form and organisation of xenophobia in South Africa. Previous xenophobic attacks have been carried out locally by groups of informally connected perpetrators without overall coordination. Since the covid-19 pandemic, this pattern has been complicated due to the emergence of online xenophobic movements.
Put South Africans First and Operation Dudula coordinate xenophobic campaigns across wide geographical distances. They have set up branches across South Africa and use social media to spread their messages.
The Put South Africans First movement was born on Twitter in April 2020 evolving out of the identically named hashtag. From there it moved to Facebook, to WhatsApp and then to the streets. The movement has staged several anti-immigrant protests in front of foreign embassies or government ministries. Under the ‘23SeptemberCleanSA’ hashtag, the group called on its followers to join a march on the Nigerian and Zimbabwean embassies in Pretoria, demanding that ‘foreigners’ be deported.
Operation Dudula emerged on 16 June 2021, also on Twitter, with a campaign launched on Youth Day 2021, called “Let’s Clean Soweto”. Since then, members of Operation Dudula have been involved in a variety of violent and coercive actions, such as forced housing evictions, attacks on migrant street traders, and more recently, identity checks in front of public hospitals and schools in Johannesburg.
Over the pandemic, Put South Africans First and Operation Dudula managed to establish visible online presences centred around anti-immigrant lies, conspiracy myths, and the refurbishment of colonial stereotypes about Africa. Spread online, their xenophobic slogans can potentially reach millions of (South African) Facebook and Twitter users.
This new type of xenophobic mobilisation does not follow the traditional ‘charismatic leader-susceptible crowd’ model. Instead, these mobilisations are driven by peer-to-peer interactions in digital echo chambers. In these interactions, coherent ideological beliefs are less important than the steady circulation of stories, narrative fragments, and visuals to maintain people’s anger. Both groups feed off feelings of frustration, despair, and disillusionment among marginalised black South Africans and channel these feelings towards a loosely defined group of “African foreigners”.
They are acutely aware of the role social media plays in fostering their anti-immigrant agenda. “Without social media, we would not exist. All started on Twitter, it shows you the new age of politics,” said one Put South Africans First member. Put South Africans First and Operation Dudula use Facebook and Twitter to spread conspiracy theories about migration (what they call ‘raising awareness’), to announce future campaigns, and to create low-level entry points for average citizens into the realm of organised xenophobia.
In enclosed WhatsApp groups, members reinforce their xenophobic worldview by exchanging countless negative stories about ‘foreigners’ with a like-minded audience every day. It is in these enclosed spaces they also discuss, plan, and orchestrate anti-immigrant marches and xenophobic violence in the streets.
It is vital to understand these novel styles of mobilisation, organisation, and action so that effective strategies can be formed to disrupt these recently formed online xenophobic movements and prevent future xenophobic attacks in South Africa.
Photo credit: flowcomm used with permission CC BY 2.0