Fear and loathing in the townships: the advent of Operation Dudula

PHAKAMISA MAYABA / Portrayed as a rabble of guerrilla-like vigilantes baying for the blood of foreign nationals, and wielding a belligerent rhetoric to match, Operation Dudula is yet another ensemble who will contest next year’s general election. Barely known outside of Soweto, this grouping gained notoriety in the wake of the July 2021 riots when rampant looting and violence in parts of KZN and Gauteng saw some 350 people dead and billions (R54 billion, according to one estimate) wiped off the economy.

Although National Intelligence had warned the SAPS of the imminent uprising, they dithered, and by the time they acted, hordes of looters were liberally helping themselves to the illicit bounty as the outnumbered cops helplessly looked on.

Amid the anarchic bedlam, a band of what initially seemed like ordinary citizens gathered around Maponya Mall in Soweto. To a man, they vowed to defend the famous black-owned extravaganza. Their courage and zeal in the face of the chaos and gore captured the nation’s imagination. Media cameras came swarming in, and out of the fold would emerge a charismatic Nhlanhla ‘Lux’ Dlamini, seemingly ready to save the day, all kitted out in military fatigues. He became an overnight sensation.

Nhlanhla 'Lux' Dlamini. Image: Facebook page.

In the coming months, talk show hosts fell  over themselves to get him into their studios, while his social media following skyrocketed as one of the figureheads of the controversial Operation Dudula. In no time, the hashtag #PutSouthAfricaFirst began bleeping on the national radar. Unnerving videos of foreign nationals being accosted or intimidated began surfacing on pro-Operation Dudula websites.

From a policy perspective, however, it is unclear exactly what the party stands for, except that it’s been thumping a singular drum: Dudula (Zulu for ‘forcing out’ foreign nationals). After 2021, the group make headlines – mostly for the wrong reasons – but recently went quiet. At least in the mainstream media.

That is, until BBC Africa Eye flighted a documentary entitled ‘Fear and Loathing in South Africa’ a few weeks ago, which roused the group’s ill repute all anew. Despite the title, don’t expect any Hunter S. Thompson-type humour – only what seems like a township Gestapo wreaking havoc in the lives of black immigrants.

A cursory Google search suggests that mayhem and violence incesssantly dog the party. See here and here, along with the BBC’s worrisome production.

On 24 March 2022, Dlamini himself was arrested when he and members of Operation Dudula raided the home of Victor Ramerafe in Dobsonville, Soweto, searching for drugs. The arrest drew packed crowds outside the Roodepoort Magistrate’s Court, and Dlamini has since been handed two suspended sentences.

In the course of July in that same year, Dlamini severed all ties with Dudula, whom he felt was misguided in wanting to get rid of all foreign nationals, not just illegal foreign nationals. Evidently though, the departure has done little to dent Dudula’s appeal.

In May, some 800 people attended the group’s maiden national conference in Johannesburg where the executive leadership announced their intention to contest next year’s general election. The event, which was clearly well-organised, even garnered a compliment from the BBC Africa Eye journalist Ayanda Charlie, but also provoked questions around who exactly was funding the party.

An unyielding Zandile Dabula — whose responses to Charlie did little to persuade the viewer that the party was anything other than a group that, when push came to shove, would settle scores through strong-arming — was appointed president.

Zandile Dabula. Image: Facebook page.

She believes that ‘foreign nationals are working on a 20-year plan of taking over South Africa’, but is at pains to reveal the source of this information. ‘It’s a rumour,’ she ultimately concedes, ‘but … the way we see things happening, we believe the rumour is actually true.’  Later, she says: ‘Most of the problems that we have are caused by the influx of foreign nationals.’

Not too long ago, the EFF’s Julius Malema caused a furore by singing the Struggle song ‘Kill the Boer’ at his party’s tenth anniversary celebrations. Yet not much fuss has been made over Dudula’s own pointed dirge (translated from Zulu):

We will go to the garage
Buy some petrol
And burn the foreigner

With such thorough lyrics, civil society might be forgiven for regarding the group with a degree of apprehension. A number of politicians have also come out strongly against everything that Dudula seemingly stands for. Said BOSA’s Mmusi Maimane: ‘Operation Dudula is hating on fellow Africans, and I have a problem with that.’

And Julius Malema: ‘Black people are not loved all over the world. And for a black person to hate another black person who is hated all over the world, what is that?’

Perhaps Snuki Zikalala of the ANC’s Veteran’s League has come closest to the heart of the matter. ‘The majority of our youth are unemployed. I think Operation Dudula is a very dangerous movement because they saw a gap in that, they started hyping South Africans’ emotions.’

In the BBC documentary, Dudula’s unnerving impunity is demonstrated for all to see. Following a certain landlady’s complaint about a tenant who happens to be an illegal foreign national, and who hasn’t settled his rent, members of the group descend on her property. In the full glare of the cameras, they then proceed to threaten the man, demand his immigration papers, and ultimately force him to sign an agreement to vacate the premises in two months.

‘This is vigilantism,’ says the journalist. ‘No,’ retorts the Dudula task force man. It was just a peaceful intervention. ‘In some instances,’ Dabula later adds, ‘you need to really be harsh. We don’t promote violence … but at some stage …we need to push harder… because these people have attitude and they are very rude.’

Vigilantism! insists the journalist. Dabula is unwavering: ‘The fact that someone laid a complaint to us, it means he or she has been failed by the law enforcement, and who’s going to help … so someone needs to do something.’

Their tactics and nomenclature appear to suggest that Dudula is acutely aware of ‘violence as political technology’. The faithful are known as ‘commanders’. When foreign nationals lay eyes on a Dudula vehicle, they are known to ‘disperse, disperse!’ Dudula’s songs are belligerent odes to burnings and about being feared – or respected, as one member sees it – out on the streets.

Yet for residents of Alexandra, neglected for years and denied basic services, the movement is not without allure. Over the years, this township has been a hotbed of protest. We’ve seen its residents on the news barricading roads in an effort to get government’s attention, and while these sorts of tactics have resulted in high-profile ministers popping by, they have largely garnered precious little for the people. Now comes a group that is seemingly empathetic to their plight, that arbitrary orders foreigner nationals out of the RDP homes they are renting, and pushes a message of putting South Africans first — and this inevitably strikes a chord.

In an orderly world, outfits like Dudula might be seen as agitating outliers. However, in a South Africa where leadership are often considered little more than besuited pop-ups, a heroic veneer surrounds these vigilante types as they tend to speak to issues that intimately affect the grass roots. Sadly, particularly for vulnerable foreigners, these almost always end badly, mostly in tears and blood.

In July last year, the U condemned reports of escalating violence against foreign nationals in South Africa, and called for accountability in respect of xenophobia, racism and hate speech that were ‘harming migrants, refugees, asylum-seekers, and even citizens perceived as foreign throughout the country’.

But without meaningful government intervention, coupled with the anger that is seething in the shantytowns, our experts at the UN might as well be whistling in the wind. Truth is, as ugly and abhorrent as outfits like Dudula are, in marginalised and forgotten communities they have the logic of gravity. Think about it: despite the fact that the group has yet to make extravagant promises about what it will deliver should it gain power, it seems the solitary objective of seeing foreign nationals off is good enough for the thousands who are already singing their praises.

If that’s not worrying you, hopefully it tells you something. That perhaps, when the masses have been let down , this opens up a gaping vacuum in which even the most suspicious characters are able to step in and be seen as marching shoulder to shoulder alongside the community, thereby suspending those tenets that are vital for democracy to survive — and nobody really cares.

Because our search for anything else that might tickle Dudula’s fancy turned up nothing other than hostile rhetoric around foreign nationals, the BBC journalist Ayanda Charlie’s observations bear mentioning; ‘Scapegoating foreigners is not going to fix the drug issue, it’s not going to fix crime, unemployment, corruption or inequality. It’s not going to address those things.’

Be that as it may, Operation Dudula will be on the ballot sheet come 2024.

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