On March 6, Zimbabwean national Elvis Nyathi heard a mob approaching his home in Diepsloot. Nyathi knew the drill. The mob had come looking for him before, and he survived by hiding in the back of his house. But this time would be different. His mutilated body was later found in the same hiding spot, where the mob had caught up with him. They doused his feet with gasoline and lit them on fire, then whipped him with iron cable as he burned to death. Witnesses saw what happened and gave public accounts of the ordeal, and the police have so far arrested seven men who are accused of murdering Nyathi.
The brutal violence that befell Nyathi is becoming more common in South Africa, which is leading the world as one of the most xenophobic places for Black African migrants, who have often fled war and poverty in their own countries in search of a better life in South Africa. The migrants hail from Zimbabwe, Nigeria, Somalia, Mozambique and Congo, among others. And the perpetrators of the violence are Black South Africans, increasingly organized into vigilante groups and etching closer toward the political mainstream in ways that eerily parallel neo-Nazi groups in the West.
The past two months alone have witnessed numerous anti-immigrant demonstrations in the provinces of Gauteng and KwaZulu Natal, with protesters raising banners of any number of the new and mushrooming xenophobic groups. Among the most prominent are Operation Dudula, Put South Africa First, The Patriotic Alliance Party and All Trucker Foundation, which has openly declared that they will “clean the country of immigrants,” whom they accuse of taking jobs from Indigenous South Africans and blame for the country’s rise in criminality. (South Africa has one of the highest homicide rates in the world, with 50 murders per day.)
“Dudula,” which in native Zulu means push out or shove aside, is led by 35-year-old Nhlanhla “Lux” Dlamini, who is usually seen wearing military fatigues with a bulletproof vest.
Dlamini rose to fame when he protected Maponya Mall in Soweto during a looting spree after former President Jacob Zuma was arrested on contempt of court charges in July 2021. He later spread a series of xenophobic comments online warning foreigners against opening “spaza shops” (the popular informal convenience stores) in Soweto.
His group, Operation Dudula, gained momentum in 2021 on the 45th anniversary of the June 16 Soweto uprising, a commemoration of the nearly 200 youths who died while protesting the use of Afrikaans—the tongue of the white-minority establishment—instead of English as the language of teaching in schools.
In the weeks leading up to the anniversary, flyers and posters circulated online with the warning: “We will be removing foreigners by force!!”
Fringe political parties also have become increasingly vocal about their contempt for undocumented migrants, blaming them for society’s ills.
The Patriotic Alliance Party, for example, says it wants all illegal migrants to be forcibly removed because they are “responsible for the high levels of crime” and have destabilized communities.
“When you look at rape, assault, serial killers, the majority of perpetrators are illegal immigrants who live side by side with the locals who now can no longer stand the criminality,” Kenny Kunene, a former convict and vice president of the Patriotic Alliance, told New Lines.
In the township of Diepsloot, in particular, Zimbabweans are being targeted as they represent the largest migrant population. An estimated 1 million Zimbabweans work in South Africa in both the formal and informal labor market. Many undocumented Zimbabweans have settled in Diepsloot, a densely populated township that means “deep ditch” in Afrikaans, because they do not need documentation for cheap accommodation.
Now they are fighting back against the rising rhetoric that aims to criminalize them en masse.
“When one Zimbabwean is caught, it is blown out of proportion by the police, media and community leaders. Is it necessary to announce the nationality? Show me the statistics that say foreigners are the ones committing the crimes,” said Gabriel Shumba, a Johannesburg-based Zimbabwean human rights lawyer. Shumba has been representing both exiled Zimbabwean nationals and the undocumented ones in South Africa.
Indeed, the perpetrators of this violence target the poorest and most vulnerable among immigrants, especially those who peddle or run informal shops.
“The undocumented migrants largely live in townships and therefore bear the brunt of the locals’ frustrations. The other affluent migrants are in the suburbs doing white-collar jobs, so they are not targeted because they aren’t in the same locality,” said Innocent Jeke, a Zimbabwean national who runs the nonprofit group Africa Integrated Platform in Midrand, Johannesburg.
This sense of being targeted is all too real for Congolese national Babeth Kalumba, who runs a spaza shop.
“The violence is happening in the townships where people are poor and suffering, so they are not happy that we are running small businesses. Every day I see their frustrations growing, and I fear for my life,” Kalumba told New Lines.
Such fear translated into reality for 36-year-old Kangolongo Kayembe, an asylum-seeker from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Like hundreds of thousands of Africans, she arrived in South Africa in 2009, fleeing the fighting in her country. In 2021, Kayembe was attacked by a mob while selling food in the streets of Johannesburg East.
“I have learnt my lesson. Last time they attacked me and took my goods and threw them away. Since [the attack on Nyathi] in Diepsloot, they have been terrorizing us for days. I will stay indoors and keep away from them,” she said.
Some experts say that the reason that Black vigilantes target Black Africans might be rooted in South Africa’s apartheid-era education system, which portrayed the rest of the continent as uncivilized and underdeveloped, leaving the majority of South Africans without a sense of pan-Africanism.
Indeed, there has been little education about the critical role that African states have played in supporting South Africans dismantle the apartheid regime, thanks to an archaic education system that continues to teach a Eurocentric history.
“South Africa was disconnected from the rest of the continent, and the whites drummed it into the Blacks’ minds that they were better off than other Black Africans and painted the rest of the continent as being riddled with disease, dictatorship and genocide,” said Savo Heleta, a researcher at Nelson Mandela University in Port Elizabeth.
There has also been a lack of knowledge about anti-immigrant sentiment during apartheid, when Africans from neighboring countries migrated to South Africa to work as cheap labor in the mines and farms and attacks against them largely went unreported.
From the high standards one was welcomed to on arrival at the ultramodern Jan Smuts Airport and the efficient motorways sweeping them into the lavish, world-class hotels adorning the city’s skyline, Johannesburg was as vibrant as any modern American or European metropolis.
While the rest of Africa struggled during their immediate post-independence eras, shrugging off the effects of colonialism and economic underdevelopment, South Africa’s growth as an economic powerhouse differentiated it from the rest of the continent. South Africa’s disinformation machine during apartheid also influenced the global narrative about the continent, painting a bleak picture of Africa as a dark, backward, backwater place riddled with corruption, famine and disease.
During apartheid, the South African government aimed to balance these two sometimes conflicting points. They needed economic migrants to fill in for the Black South Africans purposely disenfranchised from their own economy while maintaining the mischaracterization of Africa as a scary and terrible place so as to discourage South Africans from leaving the country and agitating against the white government.
So Black migrants “were brought in by the white government intentionally to undermine and frustrate Black South Africans by giving the foreigners preferential treatment, but in the same breath they demonized the rest of Africa as a way of discouraging Blacks from going into exile to fight the apartheid regime,’’ said Loren Landau, a lecturer at the Africa Center for Migration & Society at Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg.
This dissonance resulted in waves of African migrants to South Africa, only to be met with a rising tide of Black-led xenophobia and violence against them.
Ephraim Banda was one of the migrant workers who made South Africa his new home in the quest for a better future for his family, before he found it wasn’t all that he had hoped it to be.
“We came here in the ‘50s to work in the mines from Nyasaland [now Malawi], and even then, we were mistreated by our fellow Blacks. It’s as if they never appreciated what our countries were doing to fight apartheid,” Banda said, referring to the support given to South African exiles during the struggle for Black majority rule.
In the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, the Mozambique civil war and Somalia’s descent into a failed state triggered the initial major waves of xenophobia, as hundreds of thousands of displaced Mozambicans and Somalis settled in South Africa.
In 1985 in Alexandra, a township in the city of Johannesburg, a campaign named Buyelekhaya (go back home) was launched by armed gangs who forcibly marched immigrants to the police station where they were detained and accused without proof by locals of sexually assaulting women. More incidents followed with the horrific deaths of a Mozambican and two Senegalese immigrants in September 1998. The victims were thrown from a moving train in Johannesburg after being attacked by a mob who were on their way back from a tense rally at which foreigners were blamed for the country’s high unemployment rate.
Sporadic violence as such gained momentum until it culminated in an infamous attack in July of 2006 in the Cape Flats, where 21 Somali immigrants were killed at various locations and times, though the police have denied that this was part of an organized attack.
When Nelson Mandela took up the mantle as South Africa’s first Black president in 1994, he captivated millions of Black South Africans dreaming and hoping for a better life. But the jubilation was short-lived, as poverty and corruption persisted despite the government’s intervention.
This period also precipitated an exodus of white South Africans, appalled as they were at the prospect of being ruled by a government led by people they had previously considered good enough for menial work and nothing else. This exacerbated the country’s brain drain, which had been ongoing since the final years of apartheid, when young, skilled, white South Africans left the country for greener pastures.
To fill the economic void left by white flight, Mandela’s government encouraged educated Black Africans to migrate to South Africa—a departure from apartheid-era migration to the country by unskilled labor meant to further disenfranchise Black South Africans. Under Mandela, it didn’t take much to attract Africans of all backgrounds and talents. South Africa was fast becoming a favored destination for Africans looking to earn a decent living, conceivably even better than the possibilities in Europe, at a time when the United States and European countries were making it increasingly more difficult for African nationals to travel there.
This wave of migrants arrived in South Africa and started taking up the less-desirable jobs increasingly shunned by young, up-and-coming South Africans—jobs like waiting tables as well as janitorial and domestic work.
In the late 1990s and 2000s, after Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) and Zimbabwe imploded, another large wave of migrants poured into South Africa. Not to be left behind were Nigeria’s eager and entrepreneurial economic migrants looking to escape the lack of opportunity in the continent’s most populated country.
Trading became another avenue of income for new immigrants. After initially hawking their wares on the streets, they set up small shops and found opportunities in the mainly Black communities that locals either hadn’t noticed or hadn’t adequately served.
But the country’s economy continued to suffer. Rising unemployment, wholesale corruption and lack of services ignited a wave of despondency and disillusionment in Black society.
On May 12, 2008, the growing tension and increasing number and ferocity of attacks on immigrants finally reached a boiling point. It happened in Alexandra, where mobs attacked Zimbabweans, Mozambicans and Malawians who were living there. South Africa’s ill-trained and notoriously corrupt police appeared incapable of containing the violence, making only cursory attempts to clamp down on the rioters as the situation spiraled out of control. More violence flared in other townships around Johannesburg and then spread to Durban and into the provinces of Mpumalanga, Free State and the Southern Cape.
By the time a semblance of normality was restored, 62 people had been killed. No one was brought to justice.
A few months later in September, President Thabo Mbeki was ousted and replaced by Zuma. But this made little difference in the lives of many South Africans, even as the country continued to attract migrants from as far away as South Asia.
Soon came an influx of Bangladeshi and Pakistani citizens, who first arrived as visitors and then overstayed their visas and worked in the informal sector. In 2015, Statistics South Africa estimated that from 1.2 to 1.5 million immigrants were living illegally in South Africa.
Attacks continued to flare up across the country, targeting immigrants with more organization and precision.
“The 2008 attacks were very localized and started in Johannesburg then quickly spread to other parts of the country. It was not planned. What we see today is massive planning by disgruntled people,” Heleta said.
As for the groups perpetuating hate speech and violence against immigrants, the anger is palpable.
Zandile Dabula, who is Operation Dudula’s national spokesperson, often says that small business owners like her are “losing opportunities due to foreign competition,” leaving her and many of her compatriots without jobs or income.
“It’s a ticking bomb, and it’s about to explode because South Africans are angry. We can’t be called xenophobic because what we are doing is ensuring the law is followed,” she said. “We are trying to reclaim our South Africa.”