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Vigilantes and violence have migrants in South Africa scared for their lives

An altercation breaks out between a foreign national and members of the anti-migrant group Operation Dudula during an event in March in the South African township of Alexandra. (Leon Sadiki/Bloomberg News)

CAPE TOWN, South Africa — The street vendors paced nervously, huddling in pairs, wondering whether it was safe to unpack the carvings, baskets and wire sculptures they sell daily to tourists at one of the small crafts markets dotting the coastline.

A police notice the day before had warned of possible protests by a group known for attacks on immigrants, though nothing had yet happened.

“They want to take away our businesses,” said one vendor from a neighboring country, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he feared for his and his family’s lives.

Anti-immigrant sentiment is a long-standing problem in South Africa, where the end of White minority rule failed to deliver meaningful changes for many Black South Africans. Attacks against migrants have sharply increased since May 2008, when an estimated 62 people were killed and scores injured in Johannesburg in one of the country’s worst xenophobic attacks.

The police notice in Cape Town in late May flagged possible “Operation Dudula action.” The group recently launched a branch in Cape Town, the nation’s main tourist destination, after months of targeting poor neighborhoods around Johannesburg and Pretoria. It has been blamed for intimidating and terrorizing migrants from countries such as Zimbabwe, Malawi, Mozambique and Zambia, who typically live in South Africa’s Black townships.

In early April, a gang in Johannesburg’s Diepsloot township stoned and burned to death Elvis Nyathi, a Zimbabwean father of four, when he failed to produce documents showing he was legally in the country. Seven men have been charged in connection with his killing.

The campaign by Operation Dudula is believed to be a coordinated effort, rather than a general response to the chronic poverty and inequality lingering almost three decades after the end of apartheid.

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Sharon Ekambaram, who heads the refugee and migrant rights program at Lawyers for Human Rights, said the latest wave of xenophobia appeared to be backed by well-funded organizations.

“What’s different is that the face of vigilantism is a new phenomenon in the way the violence is being organized,” she said. “It appears to be orchestrated and organized.”

“Dudula” means “to push back” in the Zulu language. Those involved in Operation Dudula blame migrant workers for rampant crime 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 the official unemployment rate at nearly 35 percent, with joblessness for workers between the ages of 25 and 34 at a staggering 42 percent.

About 3.9 million foreign-born people were living in South Africa in mid-2021, according to Stats SA.

Efforts by The Washington Post to contact several Operation Dudula leaders were unsuccessful. But in a May 16 interview on Cape Radio, one of those leaders was clear on their motivation.

“Since 2004 we saw illegal immigrants coming to South Africa and taking the jobs,” said Sebele Tsoloane, who heads the Operation Dudula chapter in the Western Cape province. “We are not a political party. It is a civil movement. We [are] not vigilantes. We just want to force the law to work.”

Ekambaram of Lawyers for Human Rights disagrees with that characterization.

“Operation Dudula is not short of funding, so our experience is that it is not an organic uprising or a movement of people born out of anger about their living conditions,” she said. “This seems to be some hidden hand that has a vested interest in collective violence. … We’ve lived through the violence of 2008, 2014, 2016, and all of it came out of scapegoating by state officials.”

Repression and unlawful searches of immigrant homes by law enforcement agencies have increased, she noted, in scenes reminiscent of the apartheid years, when police went door to door checking documents of Black South Africans.

“What we have experienced at LHR is increased repression with increased deportations and arrests of migrants, as well as unlawful search and seizure-type operations by law enforcement groups, knocking on doors asking people for papers, which is totally unlawful,” she said.

In Cape Town, the traders anxiously watching for any signs of Operation Dudula protesters blamed a hidden hand. “This is all politics,” said another vendor, who spoke on the condition that his name and nationality be withheld for fear of intimidation.

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Political leaders in South Africa have a history of stirring up xenophobia.

Herman Mashaba, the former mayor of Johannesburg who is now leader of the ActionSA political party, has repeatedly blamed foreigners for taking jobs away from South Africans.

“I don’t want to live in a country where foreign nationals come and open hairdressing salons and spaza [convenience] shops. No. Those opportunities are for South Africans,” he said in September in an interview with the Daily Maverick. “For foreign nationals to come and work in restaurants and drive taxis and trucks, no ways. … I’m not going to apologize to anyone.”

In 2015, a Zulu king referred to foreign workers as “head lice” and told them to leave the country. “Let us pop our head lice,” said Goodwill Zwelithini, who died last year. “We must remove ticks and place them outside in the sun. We ask foreign nationals to pack their belongings and be sent back.”

He later claimed his comments were taken out of context.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa has condemned “vigilante-type” groups acting against foreigners.

“We cannot support a vigilante type of move against a group of people and particularly targeting them as foreign nationals, because what we are doing then is just to divide our people on the African continent,” Ramaphosa told reporters in April. “People who are here illegally have to be dealt with within the framework of 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 codes on human rights and protection of refugees.

“Over the recent past we have noted with deep concern as movements such as Operation Dudula are illegally forcing people suspected to be undocumented foreign nationals to show their papers,” it said in a statement.

The human rights organization Amnesty International accused the government in April of not doing enough to protect migrants. It said migrants interviewed in townships described living in constant fear and feeling unsafe because of harassment from both the police and anti-migrant gangs.