Dangerous vigilante groups such as Operation Dudula could fuel the next deadly wave of xenophobic violence as they rise to fill the void created by the South African state’s corruption and systemic failure to uphold law and order.
The movement, which seeks to drive out all foreigners who came to search for jobs in South Africa, is led by Nhlanhla “Lux” Dlamini, whose name appears on his charge sheet as Ntlantla Mohlauli.
Political analysts and psychology experts warned this week that Dlamini’s apparently “narcissistic” rise to the leadership of Operation Dudula (“to repel” or “beat back” in isiZulu) did not happen overnight. They added that if the government did not get to the bottom of who is funding the movement and establish dialogue, it risked destabilising peace and democracy.
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Operation Dudula this week vowed to press on with its drive against immigrants in South Africa after Dlamini was released on bail on Monday, having been arrested for theft and defeating the ends of justice his movement allegedly raided the home of a Soweto resident, accusing him of selling drugs.
The vigilante group poses a “big threat” to democracy, said political analyst Dr Ralph Mathekga, author of “When Zuma Goes”, adding that it was sad that South African citizens were now debating which vigilante group, which purports to advance their interests to save jobs for locals and provide other services, had the best moral conscience.
“The state is receding in public life as a source of authority and so a space, a natural vacuum exists that politicians cannot occupy which is how vigilante groups come up. These vigilante groups are doing the work of the state in some areas. In Diepsloot there are groups that certify documents because it is easier to go there than to the police station because services are no longer there,” Mathekga said.
Mathekga said this was why political parties such as the Economic Freedom Fighters found it morally justifiable to enter restaurants to enforce laws because labour department officials were not doing their jobs and were perceived as bribe takers. Similarly, the All Truck Drivers Forum was doing the state’s job by stopping truck drivers to check for foreign employees, while “construction mafia” groups had managed to weasel a share of projects in some developments.
“South Africans get very excited and when frustrated we tend to be enticed by solutions that lead to a long term disaster. When people are frustrated because of corruption, vigilantes look like an easy solution and they are very seductive in that they can claim ‘we have deported 2 500 foreign nationals’ but there are no rules and they cause destabilisation,” he said.
Mathekga said he had observed with concern last July’s looting and vandalism, when Dlamini was hailed a hero for protecting the Maponya Mall in Soweto.
“At the time of crisis people were looking for leadership and they have made him what he is today,” he said.
But the question has also been asked how Nhlanhla Lux Dlamini so quickly managed to raise together a mob to protect the mall. One well-placed source, who asked to remain anonymous, implied that he already had a strong organised underground network that enabled him to rally the group.
Speaking to radio station Kaya FM, Nhlanhla Lux Dlamini recently recalled how his late father, who had been involved in cash-in-transit heists, had influenced him in many ways that led to him starting Operation Dudula.
Institute for Security Studies programme director for governance, crime and justice, Gareth Newham, said international research indicated that all conditions were in place in South Africa for an outbreak of widespread violence.
“It is a very real risk, the underlying conditions in terms of attacks on African migrants has not improved since 2008 so we still have a high level of negative perceptions against migrants and we have seen a deterioration in economic conditions, job losses and a deterioration of public service.
Now we have this well organised, funded group, building on the myth that foreign nationals are the cause of crime and unemployment and that we somehow would be better off if they are forced out of the country. Very few foreign nationals commit crime in SA or take jobs that would be filled by South Africans,” Newham said.
He said there were a total of 4.4 million foreign nationals in the country, some who have lived here for 30 years and who employ twice as many local people in their businesses, such as spaza shops and salons, than locally owned firms.
“They have drive and are well educated, so rather than embracing that and working together this group is taking a very destructive approach,” he said.
He urged President Cyril Ramaphosa to heavily punish ministers such as Home Affairs Minister Aaron Motsoaledi for making allegedly xenophobic remarks that foreigners were abusing the country’s immigration laws.
“We need to see harsh action taken against any government official that promotes xenophobic attitudes. They should be sanctioned and removed from their posts saying that we do not accept these types of statements because it affects our democracy – it’s about preventing hate speech,” he said.
“[Dudula] is a real threat to stability and democracy. You just need some incident … a mob going through a township forcing people out and threatening and intimidating people aggressively and there could be a reaction that leads to mass violence. It is critical that the security agencies get on top of it and find out who is funding it,” he said.
Newham added that while the government had adopted the national action plan to combat racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, which should lead to dialogue with communities, it was also important for high-profile people including sportspeople, actors and musicians to speak out public against xenophobia.
Free Market Foundation founder and president Leon Louw said vigilante groups varied from legitimate community policing forums, neighbourhood watch groups and taxi associations to groups like Dudula. He said Dudula and similar groups posed a threat for a potential rise in xenophobic violence.
“There are many vigilante groups and in Alexander township and elsewhere there are also many community groups who we could hypothetically call vigilantes who protect foreigners. Not all local people are anti-foreign. Foreigners provide goods and services to citizens but it is the people who are in competition with them for business and jobs who oppose them,” he said.
Centre for Industrial and Scientific Research assistant senior researcher and lecturer at the University of the Witwatersrand’s psychology department, Professor Malose Langa, described vigilante group leaders generally as narcissistic “political entrepreneurs”.
He co-authored The Smoke that Calls, which documents community protests and xenophobic violence.
“Political entrepreneurs are people who exploit the dissatisfaction of the marginalised for their own political gain and hence these ‘concerned groups’ are always led by people with charisma. They employ narcissistic manipulation strategies and when they speak they hit the nerve and get catapulted to hero status. The young and old say that whatever this person says is the gospel truth, there are no alternative explanations to counteract his discourse,” Langa said.
He recalled how entrepreneurs had confessed to him about ‘the people’ that ’I have them eating out of my hands’ and ‘for the first time I am having this love that I never imagined’.
“Obviously they are quite smart, they speak the language of the people and make claims that they are not politicians and that they will rise to restore whatever has been broken. But when they have gained capital and are known they later enter the political space,” he warned.