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A movement gains force to 'put South Africans first,' and to drive migrants out

Members of Operation Dudula march down a street in the Hillbrow neighborhood of Johannesburg and demand that businesses stop employing undocumented immigrants, on Feb. 19. The movement has spawned groups in other parts of the country, each blaming immigration for a number of grievances, from joblessness to crime.
Mohamed Shiraaz
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picture alliance via Getty Images
Members of Operation Dudula march down a street in the Hillbrow neighborhood of Johannesburg and demand that businesses stop employing undocumented immigrants, on Feb. 19. The movement has spawned groups in other parts of the country, each blaming immigration for a number of grievances, from joblessness to crime.

Updated June 14, 2022 at 12:06 PM ET

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — As they march through the streets of the Hillbrow neighborhood, the protesters wave at the windows of buildings high above them, but it's not a welcome greeting. They're waving a goodbye to the foreign residents who live there.

For decades, South Africa has grappled with a tense immigration debate, marked by hate, misinformation and bouts of violence. Now one group — Operation Dudula — is bringing the issue back to the fore and blaming immigrants for a range of problems.

One of the marchers, Mary Lowe, has a South African flag draped around her. She says her nephew was killed by an undocumented immigrant and has come to combat crime.

"We are basically fighting against all the crime committed by foreigners who are illegally in the country," she says. "We've got our own criminals here. Our hands are already full."

That's despite the fact that research shows immigrants don't commit crime at higher rates than South African-born citizens, in a country with alarming levels of violent crime.

More than a hundred protesters marched through the central business district of Cape Town, marking the launch of the Western Cape branch of Operation Dudula, on May 14. Operation Dudula is a campaign against undocumented foreign nationals that was founded last year.
Brenton Geach / Gallo Images via Getty Images
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Gallo Images via Getty Images
More than a hundred protesters marched through the central business district of Cape Town, marking the launch of the Western Cape branch of Operation Dudula, on May 14. Operation Dudula is a campaign against undocumented foreign nationals that was founded last year.

They demand "South Africans first"

The marchers are members and supporters of Operation Dudula — which means operation "force out" in Zulu. One of their slogans is: "Put South Africans first."

Operation Dudula is an anti-foreigner, anti-illegal immigration group, which started in and around Soweto, a township outside Johannesburg, almost a year ago. Without clear political affiliations, the group has attracted a lot of support, and spawned organizations in other parts of the country, like Cape Town and Durban. Their aim is to force out immigrants who they claim, without evidence, are taking jobs, driving up crime and putting a strain on public services.

The protesters stop outside a supermarket and shout, "Viva Operation Dudula, viva!"

Zandile Dabula, one of their leaders, forces the store manager to come out to the street and commences to berate him.

"This supermarket is hiring too many foreigners," Dabula declares. "Foreign nationals have taken over, and we are tired as South Africans."

With that warning, she lets the manager go back inside. And the crowd continues on down the street.

As they march along, their anti-immigrant chants ricochet off the apartment buildings.

A South African man argues with a man he suspects of being an undocumented migrant during a demonstration in Johannesburg's business district, on March 26. In recent weeks, scores of protesters in South Africa have participated in demonstrations against migrants in what they have dubbed Operation Dudula, Zulu for "force out."
Luca Sola / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
A South African man argues with a man he suspects of being an undocumented migrant during a demonstration in Johannesburg's business district, on March 26. In recent weeks, scores of protesters in South Africa have participated in demonstrations against migrants in what they have dubbed Operation Dudula, Zulu for "force out."

Immigrants are taunted to get out

A group of immigrants watches the protest from behind a fence. They say the problem in South Africa is with corrupt politicians — not them. They're too afraid to use their names for this story.

"We are not eating anything. We came here to look for jobs, not to steal," says one of the immigrants.

Another man, from Zimbabwe, says he has built a life here. He had a child with a South African woman. Getting a residency permit would require money that he doesn't have.

As he tells his story, two Operation Dudula members shout at the group from across the street. "Go back home, baba, go back home!"

Asked what it feels like to hear this, one man shrugs, acknowledging it hurts. "But what can we do? What can we do?" he says.

High school students and activists from various human rights organizations picket in front of the South African Human Rights Commission during Africa Day to protest against recent waves of xenophobia and vigilantism in the country linked to the rise of the anti-migrant Operation Dudula movement, in Johannesburg, on May 25.
Michele Spatari / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
High school students and activists from various human rights organizations picket in front of the South African Human Rights Commission during Africa Day to protest against recent waves of xenophobia and vigilantism in the country linked to the rise of the anti-migrant Operation Dudula movement, in Johannesburg, on May 25.

Rights activists call out xenophobia

Gabriel Shumba, a Zimbabwean human rights lawyer and activist in Johannesburg, says the protesters' behavior is xenophobia — fear and hatred of foreigners. He says leaders have long used this for political mobilization.

Through the years, politicians have blamed immigrants for crime, unemployment and AIDS. "It's just misinformation, which is supposed to be touted to the gullible," says Shumba, who runs a nonprofit association called Zimbabwe Exiles Forum.

"It is a chronic problem of xenophobia in South Africa, and Afro-phobia in particular," he says. "So it's a life of fear and terrible anxiety for non-nationals in this country and what it is testament to is a deep seated problem within the South African society."

In the late 1800s, many in the country scapegoated Asians and the government put restrictions on immigration from Asia.

That was followed by racial segregation and apartheid, in which the white people in power discriminated heavily against nonwhite South Africans.

And now, every few years, some South Africans turn their ire on immigrants from other African countries. And movements like Operation Dudula often lead to violence.

Police officers attend the scene as South African members of Operation Dudula clash with immigrants in the Alexandra township of Johannesburg, South Africa, on March 30.
Leon Sadiki / Bloomberg via Getty Images
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Bloomberg via Getty Images
Police officers attend the scene as South African members of Operation Dudula clash with immigrants in the Alexandra township of Johannesburg, South Africa, on March 30.

Some members are well-off, others have economic grievances

A few days after the protest in March, Zandile Dabula is sitting in the Soweto living room of another supporter. It seems a world away from her life. She lives in downtown Johannesburg; she's well-off. But in Soweto, roads aren't paved. Some houses are made of aluminum siding.

She says the movement started after a conversation with friends. They perceived immigrants who worked at local businesses they frequented to be impolite. "We went to a restaurant, you complained about food and they did not care. So that's why we noticed that we were actually being disrespected," she says.

The fellow operation member she's visiting, Ndaba, only wants to use his first name because he fears for his safety.

A man in his 50s, Ndaba was at the protest in Hillbrow, in downtown Johannesburg, and says that same night someone came after him. Someone threw a brick at his head and then slashed him with a machete. He was unconscious for 45 minutes and woke up in a pool of blood.

He sits in his Soweto shack with his friends, his head still bloodied and bandaged.

He points at his home — small, cramped, not a window in sight. "Look at my house," he says. "For how long am I staying in a house like this?"

He says he tried to get ahead. He applied for a job at a local hospital, but he didn't get it. "They are hiring old women from Zimbabwe so they don't pay the money that they're supposed to pay South Africans," he says.

Ndaba makes a living collecting recycling in Johannesburg. He had dreams that his children could break them out of poverty. Both of his sons finished technical school but they can't find any work. Another member of the group suggests this is because of illegal immigration. They nod in agreement.

"Where's my son?" Ndaba says. "He spent about four years in school and he does not work. What must I do? I must fight until I die."

At this point, they break into song in Zulu. The song is about how the world has yet to see the power of Dudula, one of Ndaba's friends explains.

They didn't know then that a few weeks after this conversation, the violence would escalate. They didn't know then, that in April, in a township not far from theirs, Elvis Nyathi, a 43-year-old Zimbabwean immigrant, would be stoned and set on fire by an anti-immigrant mob.

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