Mohlauhi found his 15 seconds of fame on 13 July 2021 after posting a video of himself on Facebook when the riots and looting that had gripped KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng had spread to Soweto. “Defend the township economy and the elephant at the centre, which is Maponya Mall … They will never breach the mall, it will be over my dead body; this can be my last day…” he declared.
The post caught fire. Mohlauhi was cast as a township warrior, a hero of eKasi, a fresh young guard, at last, rising to take a stand against looters, criminals and lawlessness.
But a month earlier Mohlauhi had been making sparks with a “clean-up” project in Soweto aimed at shutting down businesses run by foreign shop owners that his group deemed illegal. Mohlauhi was at the helm of the group organised under the banner of Operation Dudula (“beat back” in isiZulu).
Mohlauhi has since lapped up the limelight of television and radio interviews, and his ever-growing social media followers on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, but has played a cat-and-mouse game over the past five months with Daily Maverick journalists who have been trying to interview him about the increasingly violent actions triggered by Operation Dudula’s anti-foreigner rhetoric and raids.
The current surge of xenophobic hatred led to the murder of Zimbabwean gardener and father of four, Elvis Nyathi (43) on 8 April. Nyathi was killed in Diepsloot by a mob going door to door demanding to see visas. They drove him out from his hiding place, beat him and burnt his body.
The feast of low-hanging fruit
Operation Dudula’s tactics have been to work as a mob, demanding that people produce documents to prove their identity and legal status in the country. Those who cannot comply are detained by the mob, supposedly to hand over to police for deportation.
Operation Dudula has in the past 10 months become a fast-growing movement. It bills itself as a group of citizens with a mission to “Put South Africans first. Only legal immigrants in SA”.
It has shown signs of significant growth in the past few months with branches being established across Joburg, but it’s also known to bus supporters in to gatherings. During its launch in Jeppestown on 19 March, the group descended on four companies: Hersol Laboratories, BMG, Disappeared Anodes and Sharp Centre. They also targeted restaurants in Maboneng and demanded that these companies only employ South Africans.
The movement is marked by loose organisational and membership structures as well as high social media visibility and activity – two elements that supercharge proliferation and replication.
The movement has muscle in the form of the Put South Africa First campaign, which includes the Alexandra Dudula Movement, the All Truck Drivers Foundation and the disbanded MKMVA – the uMkhonto weSizwe Military Veterans Association.
Then there’s also an open invitation to the feasting table groaning with the lowest of low-hanging fruits: open season to take aim at a failing ANC government and blaming the day-to-day realities of joblessness, scarce resources being spread even more thinly, soaring crime and a drug dependency crisis on undocumented foreigners.
Operation Dudula’s rapid rise to prominence off the back of outsiders as scapegoats has to be framed within the fallout of Covid-19 deaths and lockdown. The Social Economic Rights Institute (SERI) noted in February: “The devastating impact of the pandemic in the past two years has seen people from all walks of life being pushed into poverty. The informal sector continues to face the harsh reality of economic and political woes.
“In recent weeks the informal sector, which was the hardest hit by the prolonged lockdown compounded by policy neglect, is now being subjected to unlawful, discriminatory, and politically motivated conduct orchestrated by some political parties under the pretext of protecting employment for vulnerable South Africans.”
Operation Dudula’s promise that “now it’s the turn for South Africans to eat” has driven up its Facebook member numbers. Its public membership groups on the platform have just a few hundred members but it’s in the private groups that the action happens: these groups each have tens of thousands of members. A request to join any one of these groups returns a warning by Facebook that content on the group violates its community standards.
Slippery Mohlauhi backpedals
Publicly, Mohlauhi seems at pains to say “that they are fighting crime and operating within the boundary of the law”. So he would be best placed to explain why content on Operation Dudula’s Facebook groups would be considered offensive. He could also answer and clear up the gossip, red flags and gaps in his story that have been swirling since he started making headlines and becoming a trending hashtag.
Alas – but not unexpectedly – he once again backpedalled since initially agreeing to an interview with DM168 on 29 March.
His response in that Tuesday telephone conversation was: “From Friday I’m available, my darling, I’m just waiting for my legal team to fly in and my green light is from 3pm – call me on Friday morning and we can meet at the Soweto Parliament.”
Let’s pause here…
The cracks widen
Mohlauhi never took a call that Friday and has not responded to interview requests since. Saying yes to us would mean answering questions about cracks in his stories that were lapped up by media when he first started giving interviews.
There was no “legal team flying in” for him. He had already been released on bail after being arrested and charged in the Roodepoort Magistrates’ Court on 28 March for housebreaking with intention to steal and for malicious damage to property. The incident occurred when Mohlauhi and some of his followers apparently broke away from an Operation Dudula march that had a police escort.
This breakaway group apparently targeted the home of a man called Victor Ramarafe whom they alleged to be a drug dealer. They allegedly stormed and ransacked Ramarafe’s home.
Ramarafe is a known EFF supporter. Police confirmed that no drugs were found and maintained that they were not conducting the raid alongside Operation Dudula. Mohlauhi is expected back in court on 27 May.
Mohlauhi had, till his court appearance, gone by the surname Dlamini, never bothering to make the correction – another discrepancy, or deflection. During the brief court appearance he asked to address the court. Bizarrely it was to make an apology for being dressed casually. He was wearing a black tracksuit top.
Back to his telephone conversation comment of meeting at the “Soweto Parliament” – no satellite navigation device, no Google Maps, not even a good ol’ street address would provide a location for the Soweto Parliament. It’s because it doesn’t physically exist. Just like Mohlauhi’s Young Peoples (sic) Government of South Africa. They are just names; constructs in his imagination and on Facebook pages. It has no mandate, no governance structures, no elections or nominations, not even a telephone number that works.
Knocking at the door of privilege
It brings his story to a “rewind moment”, back to Mohlauhi’s childhood and school days, and then to a life lived mostly through social media curation and fantasy. There’s deep tragedy here too of how opportunities from his school days led him to the edge of the promised land of money, privilege and a life outside the township grind.
Even sadder perhaps is that he is a casualty of being torn between two worlds in a fractured society – growing up neither fully of Soweto nor fully of Sandton. He has said in a radio interview on KayaFM: “I was forced into two worlds, so you felt you had to adapt.”
On one hand it’s made him a crafty chameleon. When he was invited to Ethiopia in January he framed his message as “fighting colonial forces” and “standing up for our motherland Africa – we can’t leave here like other people”. He cosied up to Namibia’s youngest parliamentarian Patience Masua and posted photos with her as “young African leaders uniting” on Facebook.
But on home turf he sticks to the “Put South Africa First” line. Pushed on this inconsistency his go-to response is that it’s not a fight against foreigners but a fight against undocumented foreigners.
It’s a false distinction, of course. When a foreigner is attacked they will not be able to hold back vigilantes and mobs while they try to produce paperwork.
The schoolboy vs the man today
Mohlauhi grew up in Soweto between split households in Dube and Meadowlands. He has gone on record as saying his dad was a struggle hero and gangster, forced to rob banks to fund the struggle. He never names him.
He grew up sporty and after getting into public model C schools, including at Jeppe Boys High, he earned a sports scholarship to the upscale Catholic private boys school St David’s Marist Inanda in Johannesburg, where he matriculated in 2005.
An old schoolmate, who spoke to DM168 anonymously, can’t reconcile that the “likeable guy with the polished Sandton accent [which he now drops depending on his audience] who hung out in the library” is the person who’s “controversial and putting out anti-foreigner rhetoric”.
Social media fantasy
This schoolmate said the “Lux” persona emerged years after school, in the years when Instagram started becoming a thing. In his very first Instagram post in March 2015, Mohlauhi flashes a blingy timepiece, sports dark shades and a pin-on pilot’s badge. He hashtagged something about promoting his company “Native Airways”.
In the following posts he starts quoting himself in professionally designed logos that feature the Soweto cooling towers, the words “Soweto Airport” and an airplane. Then there’s an endless scroll of him in great outfits posing in private jets, sometimes with a Macbook conveniently in view; shirtless, brushing down a racehorse; on a golf course; or cruising top-down in imported cars. He also seeks out photo ops across his social media platforms with everyone from beauty queens to politicians, among them Miss South Africa 2020 Shudufhadzo Musida, former president Kgalema Motlanthe, Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke and billionaire investor Rob Hersov.
His more recent posts are of him in camo fatigues and he has posted curious military or defence-themed posts on his Facebook. The most mind-boggling is a video in a garage gym where he’s in camo gear running on a treadmill with an automatic rifle that he aims into an imaginary battlefield.
Mohlauhi was a member of the Naturena Community Policing Forum’s patrol group in about 2019. Deputy chairperson of the CPF Naturena Crime Forum Nceba Ndube praised Mohlauhi.
“We invited him, he came and he helped a lot with our recruitment drives and he also contributed about R10,000 to our forum,” said Ndube.
Ndube said in Naturena they battle crimes that include drug dealing, especially in crystal meth, cable theft and housebreaking.
“These people we are arresting are undocumented foreigners and they are coming to cripple our country. So for me personally, not as the CPF, I support what Nhlanhla is doing 100%,” he said.
Bills and bail as the courts catch up
But building Mohlauhi’s brand has come with a price tag and, allegedly, also unpaid bills.
Mohlauhi is being sued to the tune of R600,000 by an events and promotions company called Vertex Events. According to lawyer Muyeyeka Bazuka Mhango of Bazuka & Company, the matter relates to an outstanding debt for promotions work done for Mohlauhi that dates back to 2015. Mhango said they expect to file papers in the Johannesburg High Court within the next fortnight.
“My client has tried for years to get their money … It’s a matter for the high court because of the large amount of money involved,” Mhango said.
And just this week it emerged that, on 13 February, Mohlauhi was handed a “caution and discharge” notice. Essentially he has been convicted for failure to appear in court in September 2019 in connection with a common assault case in which he is alleged to have attacked a tenant who hadn’t paid rent to his mother on time.
He must now appear in court on 3 May for the common assault charge or face another fine or jail time.
Mohlauhi has 10 companies registered under his name, but none trade today.
His schoolmate summed it up: “The bursary kids had it tough; they were at school with these rich Sandton kids so the black kids generally hung around with each other. There wasn’t any nastiness towards them but maybe the school made him aspire for wealth … seeing wealth was all around him and he didn’t have it.”
When he was 28 years old Mohlauhi was interviewed for a “Black Excellence” Q&A in Bona magazine, published in March 2015. Mohlauhi told the publication that he studied politics at the University of Johannesburg and became an ANC youth league secretary on campus. But he “got bored” and dropped out.
He claimed to have convinced the Chinese embassy in Pretoria to accept his proposal to “teach sports development” in the country in exchange for being able to study in China. He was 19 and without any qualifications in sports development, but he said they agreed and he left for China. Within a year he was back in South Africa.
At that point he turned his attention to “studying” golf through the Professional Golfing Association. That career choice didn’t stick either because he moved on to register Native Airways. He claimed in that Q&A to have qualified as a pilot but said in another interview this year that his licence lapsed.
There are many non-starts, outright fails and almost desperate curation in the contradictions that make up the story of Mohlauhi. Operation Dudula represents a restart, perhaps also a meal ticket. Or maybe there’s a political springboard or a shot at stretching out his 15 minutes of fame a little bit more.
Mohlauhi has insisted that Operation Dudula is not funded by anyone, just individual members who contribute a few rands towards communal transport to get to marches and operations. There are also T-shirt sales.
But he has blipped on the radar of many political parties. He’s found himself in the crosshairs of the EFF and he readily goads Julius Malema on public platforms. Outside the Johannesburg Central Police Station when he was arrested in March he said to TV cameras: “Julius wants to hold on to power. When a strong man is speaking and people are listening better he is jealous … he hates our progress.”
But Mohlauhi has friends in Action SA and in the Patriotic Alliance. Herman Mashaba, interviewed on Radio702 at the time Mohlauhi was arrested, said he admired what Operation Dudula does but warned them not to take the law into their own hands.
“It hurts me to see this young man in jail today while the real criminals are sitting in Parliament and Cabinet,” the Action SA leader said. He also laughed off suggestions that he is the money behind Operation Dudula.
Meanwhile Kenny Kunene, deputy president of the Patriotic Alliance, said to DM168: “I would love for Nhlanhla Lux to be a member of the Patriotic Alliance, to be a leader so we can appoint him as minister of foreign affairs and he can finish where Dr Aaron Motsoaledi cannot go because of the limitation of his party. Nhlanhla can deal decisively with this issue of illegal immigration.”
Kunene was in court on 28 March and was ready to pay Mohlauhi’s bail, but he said Mohlauhi’s mother paid as the R1,500 bail “was trivial”.
Kunene did not want to disclose amounts but said: “I have assisted here and there … I am not only supporting Nhlanhla but I have also assisted in other incidents where leaders of PA and other Operation Dudula members were arrested. We are supporting each other because we have got the same patriotic goal to put South Africa first.” – Daily Maverick
Additional reporting by Bheki Simelane.