A movement gains force to 'put South Africans first,' and to drive migrants out The group Operation Dudula rallies against immigration, blaming foreigners for problems from crime to unemployment, and is gaining a following across South Africa.

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

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/1103445432/1103445433" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

For decades, immigration has been a hot-button issue marked by xenophobic legislation and bouts of violence in South Africa. And now members of a citizens group dubbed Operation Dudula are taking the law into their own hands. Their slogan is, Put South Africans First. NPR's Eyder Peralta reports from Johannesburg.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: As they march through the streets of the Hillbrow neighborhood, they wave bye at the windows of the buildings high above them.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing in non-English language).

PERALTA: We don't come to play, the chant goes. Mary Lowe is draped in the South African flag. She says this neighborhood was once middle-class. Now, as immigrants have taken over buildings, the streets are dirty and crime has soared, she says.

MARY LOWE: We are basically fighting against all the crime committed by foreigners who are illegally in the country.

PERALTA: She says she came here because her nephew was killed by an undocumented immigrant.

LOWE: We've got our own criminals here. Our hands are already full.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Du, du, du, du, du (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Du, du, du, du, du.

PERALTA: Operation Dudula, which means operation force out, stops in front of a supermarket. And Zandile Dabula, one of the top leaders, brings the manager out to the streets.

ZANDILE DABULA: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Non-English language spoken).

PERALTA: This supermarket, she says, is hiring too many foreigners, and this is their warning to the manager.

DABULA: Foreign nationals have taken over, and we are tired as South Africans.

PERALTA: They let the manager go and flood the streets again. The anti-immigrant chants ricochet from the apartment buildings.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting in non-English language).

PERALTA: A group of immigrants watch the march from behind a fence. They're scared to tell me their names, but they say that the problem in South Africa is corrupt politicians, not them.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: We are not eating anything.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Yeah, we came here to look for the job, not to steal, not to - what? I came here to look for the job.

PERALTA: One man who came from Zimbabwe says he's built a life here. He had a child with a South African woman. But to get papers would take a bunch of money he doesn't have. And as he says that, two Operation Dudula members shout from across the street.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: It's impossible that...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Go back home, baba (ph). Go back home.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Go back home.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: How possible me...

PERALTA: What does that feel like? I mean, it has to hurt.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Yeah, it's like that. But what can we do? What can we do?

PERALTA: Most of what you just heard about immigrants in South Africa is not true. Researchers have looked at the data and found that immigrants don't commit crime at a higher rate than South Africans. The job situation is so bad that immigrants account for an almost insignificant fraction of that problem.

GABRIEL SHUMBA: It is just misinformation, which is supposed to be touted to the gullible.

PERALTA: That is Gabriel Shumba, an immigrant rights activist who runs the Zimbabwe Exile Forum. He calls these bouts of xenophobia a tool for political mobilization. Through the years, politicians, he says, have blamed immigrants for crime, for unemployment, for AIDS. It's an easy political ploy, he says. Blame South Africa's very real problems on immigrants, and you've created a common enemy.

SHUMBA: We have a pattern that has been going on before. It is a chronic problem of xenophobia in South Africa and Afro-phobia in particular.

PERALTA: And it goes way back. In the late 1800s, as the United States was passing its first immigration law, South Africa was restricting Asian immigration - blaming them for taking jobs, calling them dirty. That was followed by apartheid. And now, every few years, South Africans turn their ire on African immigrants. And movements like Operation Dudula almost inevitably end in violence.

SHUMBA: 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.

PERALTA: A few days after the protest, we meet Zandile Dabula again, this time in a Soweto living room. This is a world away from her life. She lives in the city. She's well-off. But here in the township, roads aren't paved. Some of the houses are made out of aluminum siding. She says this movement started after a conversation with friends. They noticed that the immigrants who worked at the stores they frequented were impolite.

DABULA: We went to a restaurant. You complained about food. They did not care. So that's why we noticed that we are actually being disrespected.

PERALTA: She's here to meet Ndaba, a Dudula member.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: (Non-English language spoken).

NDABA: Hey.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: (Non-English language spoken).

NDABA: (Non-English language spoken).

PERALTA: He asks that we only use his first name because he fears for his safety. He was at the same protest. And that same night, someone came after him. He's in his 50s. His head is still bloodied.

NDABA: (Non-English language spoken).

PERALTA: Someone threw a brick to his head and then slashed him with a machete.

NDABA: (Non-English language spoken) - after 45 minutes. (Non-English language spoken).

PERALTA: He was out for 45 minutes and woke up in a pool of blood. Ndaba points at this place - small, cramped, not a window in sight. He should not be living like this, he says. He's tried to get ahead. He applied for a job at the local hospital, but he didn't get it.

NDABA: They are hiring old women from Zimbabwe so that they don't pay the money that they're supposed to pay the South African.

PERALTA: Ndaba makes a living collecting recycling in Johannesburg, but he had dreams that his kids could break them out of poverty. He says both of his sons finished technical school, but they can't find any work. And that's what hurts the most.

NDABA: I can't look at my house. For how long am I staying in a house like this?

PERALTA: One of the Dudula members suggests this is because of the illegal foreigners.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: The illegal foreigners - they're staying in nice apartments.

NDABA: The illegal foreigners. There - I must pay to illegal - where's my son? He will - he spend about four years at school. He does not work. How hard I must do (ph)? I must fight until I die.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing in non-English language).

PERALTA: They break into a song about how the world has yet to see the power of Dudula.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing in non-English language).

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

Eyder Peralta, NPR News, Johannesburg.

(SOUNDBITE OF CARLOS NINO AND FRIENDS' "PLEASE, WAKE UP")

Copyright © 2022 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.