Against thy Neighbour: The Rise of Xenophobic Populism in South Africa

South Africa is currently being rocked by mass demonstrations and attacks against immigrants. The country has seen several episodes of xenophobic violence since the late 1990s. However, the current situation represents an unprecedented exacerbation of anti-foreigner propaganda. In order to make sense of these recent developments, this blog post looks into the rise of a »New Right«, epitomized by political parties such as the newly founded ActionSA as well as the infamous Operation Dudula, an overtly xenophobic campaign. It further dives into the country’s recent past and highlights the painful legacy of apartheid that continues to affect various aspects of the social, political and economic realities in the wider subregion today. How can the prevalence of xenophobia in the early 2020s be explained in South Africa, a country that was foreseen to become a beacon of liberal constitutionalism and human rights after its first democratic elections in 1994 and that represented a safe haven for so many across the continent?

Against thy Neighbour: The Rise of Xenophobic Populism in South Africa

llustration: die superpixel

In a recent conference in Cape Town jointly organized by the RISC project »Political Populism in Southern Africa« and the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR), researchers and activists from Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe discussed the state of social cohesion and the rise of populism(s) in Southern Africa. The three countries have many things in common. They share a similar historical legacy, having gone through a protracted and violent anti-colonial struggle, and have been profoundly affected by the apartheid regime. Moreover, inequality rates remain extremely high in this region and often still appear along the lines of historically defined race groups. Over the two days of the conference, one of the dominant themes that came up in the discussions was the ongoing xenophobic – or Afrophobic – attacks and campaigns against other foreign nationals taking place in South Africa, primarily (but not exclusively) against Zimbabweans. The phenomenon also seems to increasingly reverberate at a regional scale. Today, the wider subregion has become »an unsafe space for Zimbabweans«, as was highlighted by Namibian journalist Frederico Links at the event.

The symbolic »Freedom Flame« at Constitutional Hill, a historical site in Johannesburg that serves as a key place of remembrance of apartheid crimes and that today is the location of South Africa’s Constitutional Court.  
Copyright: Constanze Blum

Afrophobia in South Africa: Not a New Phenomenon

Over the last year, pictures of large rallies in South African inner cities, marching under the banner of »Operation Dudula« (isiZulu: »push out«), »Put South Africans First«, and other anti-immigrant slogans, were shown on the larger international news channels. In April 2022, Zimbabwean national Elvis Nyathi was brutally killed by a mob in Johannesburg, South Africa’s largest city. Xenophobic attacks and recurring episodes of violence against citizens from the neighbouring countries of Zimbabwe and Mozambique, but also the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria, Somalia, and other African countries, are tragically not a new development. They have had a longer trajectoryAttacks on foreign nationals were already reported in the late 1990s, not long after the racist apartheid regime had ended and the first democratic elections had taken place in 1994. In May 2008, a time when South Africa was suffering from the consequences of the global financial crisis that heavily impacted on its economy and led to mass unemployment, an estimated 62 people were killed and many more injured in xenophobic riots that started in Johannesburg and spilled over to other parts of the country. It was in 2008 that the topic first received international attention. In 2015, another wave of xenophobic violence broke out in Kwa-Zulu Natal province, as well as larger cities. At that time, I was living in Mozambique and travelled regularly to South Africa. I still remember well the long queues of Mozambicans at the South African side of the Lebombo/Ressano Garcia border post, with their belongings strapped onto minibuses and cars, trying to make it back across the border to safety. The current anti-foreigner protests in South Africa that often make use of a »classic« script of scapegoating foreigners – blaming them for a lack of jobs, high crime rates, and poverty – thus need to be seen in this wider historical context. However, something seems to be different since 2021/22.

The Rise of a »New Right« 

Firstly, South Africa has seen the rise of a »New Right«. This has become especially obvious in the November 2021 local elections. Conservative and populist politicians strategically fuelled anti-immigrant sentiments by increasingly making use of social media platforms, such as TwitterA critical role in this context can be attributed to Herman Mashaba. Mashaba, who presents himself as classic »self-made man« (and Trump supporter) and who prior to becoming a politician had attained a millionaire status by selling beauty products, first appeared on the political scene in the 2016 local elections, winning the mayoral post of Johannesburg. After a falling-out in 2019 with his party, the Democratic Alliance (DA), he stepped down from this position. He reappeared in the local elections of November 2021, running under the banner of a newly founded political party that he also chaired, ActionSA. Though the young party only managed to take 2 per cent of the overall votes in the election, which had the lowest turnout in the country’s history, it was influential in setting a campaign tone that was deeply marked by xenophobic rhetoric. 

The South African flag flying; in the background you can see the Hillbrow tower, symbol for the city of Johannesburg/Gauteng province that has been one of the epicentres of recent xenophobic attacks.
Copyright: Constanze Blum

However, Mashaba is not the only politician openly fuelling xenophobic sentiments. A recent article by the Daily Maverick analysed the responses (or lack thereof) of South African political parties to the recent xenophobic rallies as well as events following a harrowing gang rape in Krugersdorp in August 2022 that was allegedly perpetrated by informal miners from Lesotho. The article concluded that apart from ActionSA, it is especially the Patriotic Front, led by a former inmate, that has issued several xenophobic statements. The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), around Julius Malema, have »flip-flopped« on the issue of immigration like a flag in the wind, presenting itself as a beacon of pan-Africanism and condemning xenophobic violence one day and (following a rather disappointing election result in November 2021) threatening to visit local restaurants to check how many foreigners were employed there on another day. As for the ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC), it has missed out on opportunities to distance itself from xenophobic language, sometimes adapting to such rhetoric itself. Post-Krugersdorp, ANC spokesperson Pule Mabe called for rallying against »illegal immigrants« before criminal investigations were concluded. The humiliation of a Zimbabwean patient in a public hospital by a high-level health official in Limpopo province has been another shocking example of the normalization of xenophobic language and rhetoric in mainstream politics. Scapegoating migrants for political failures has become common and xenophobic rhetoric has increasingly become socially accepted. Xenophobic scripts have not only become normalized but also »functional to the political process«, as Tasneem Essop from the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg highlights. While many ANC and opposition leaders have condemned xenophobic violence, it is noteworthy that the omnipresence of anti-foreigner rhetoric was not mentioned in President Cyril Ramaphosa’s State of the Nation Address, the annual keynote before Parliament, held in April 2022.  

Operation Dudula 

Secondly, a rather well-organized, anti-foreigner campaign has recently formed that receives a lot of public attention. The so-called Operation Dudula, first appearing on the scene in mid-2021, operates under a »concerned citizens« banner and is clearly directed against foreign nationals. The organized marches attract large swathes of people and spread xenophobic messages, for example by using vocabulary like »clean-up« operations and equating foreigners with criminals. The campaign originated in Soweto, a township in Johannesburg where both anti-apartheid icons Nelson Mandela and Bishop Desmond Tutu lived and worked for many years. However, not much is yet known about the campaign’s origin, leaders, actual follower size, and funding. What is known, however, is that it was initiated by Soweto resident Nhlanhla »Lux« Dlamini. Operation Dudula first appeared on online spaces in mid-2021, framed as a vigilante group and a reaction to the July 2021 riots, during which there were several days of looting and chaos following the imprisonment of former president Jacob Zuma. These seven days of unrest claimed the lives of over 350 people. In its initial messaging in Soweto, the group aligned with community-focused initiatives to protect Soweto residents against looting and violence. Their rhetoric was about »law and order«. At the beginning, there were no distinctly xeno-antagonistic elements in the group’s messages, as highlighted by Ottilia Anna Maunganidze, Head of Special Projects at the Office of the Executive Director at the Pretoria-based Institute for Security Studies (ISS). This changed in the lead-up to the November 2021 elections when Operation Dudula changed its messaging to be blatantly xenophobic. Social media, including WhatsApp and Twitter, seems to play an essential role for these dynamics in South Africa, a country with one of the highest internet coverage on the continent. For the moment, the links between what is framed as a »street movement« led by »ordinary people«, online spaces in which hate against foreigners is propagated, the potential financial support by political actors or private capital, as well as the operation’s affiliation with other campaigns (such as the aforementioned »Put South Africans First« campaign) are not yet fully understood. This is a key aspect that investigative journalists, who have frequently proven their important role for South African democracy, are currently trying to get to the bottom of. 

Compounded Crises and Counter-campaigns

The potential to mobilize protesters with xenophobic messaging in South Africa 28 years after the dawn of democracy arises from a specific socioeconomic setting. The current unemployment rate is 43 per cent, according to the expanded definition of unemployment. The young bear the largest burden. Youth unemployment amounts to a staggering 70 per cent. Over 18 million South Africans live in extreme poverty. The multilayered economic and social crisis was further exacerbated in 2020/21 by the Covid-19 pandemic and related policy measures. Fuel and food prices have skyrocketed, exacerbated by the global energy crisis following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in early 2022. Arguably, South Africa has always struggled with extreme (and racialized) inequalities and been a potential hotbed for the instrumentalization of frustrations. However, what is new today is the presence of well-structured and orchestrated campaigns such as Operation Dudula that manage to successfully pit parts of a poor Black working class against another part of the poor Black working class. The South African economy has always been regional, with labour immigration representing one of its cornerstones, both in apartheid and post-apartheid times. Traditional left voices, such as the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), have struggled to find a clear and coordinated response against the rising hatred. The historical Tripartite Alliance between COSATU, the South African Communist Party (SACP), and the ANC has not been a loud voice in advocating for global workers unity. To the contrary, the so-called Zimbabwean Exemption Permit (ZEP), one of the few formal tools that allows Zimbabweans to legally settle and find work in South Africa, was recently revoked by the minister of home affairs, Pakishe Aaron Motsoaledi, catering to a (perceived) call for a tougher stance on immigration by the electorate. Although the »grace period« to apply for a different type of visa was recently extended to June 2023, this decision has taken a central option away from Zimbabweans in South Africa to regularize their status. Other visa types are often impossible to obtain. However, there are also strong voices and counter-movements emerging in South Africa’s vibrant civil society environment in support of migrants and the protection of their rights. To name but a few, grass-roots organizations like Abahlali baseMjondolo, an organization advocating for the rights of people living in informal settlements, have been vocal against xenophobia. The Kopanang Africa Against Xenophobia (KAAX) coalition that brings together several civil society organizations, grass-roots movements and diaspora structures, has organized a variety of public events, such as workshops, demonstrations and debates in order to debunk xenophobic rhetoric and myths and to improve civic education on this issue. It also organizes support to victims of xenophobic violence. The Helen Suzman Foundation is one of several organizations that are legally challenging the discontinuation of the ZEP. These court cases are currently pending. In many instances, immigrants have been protected and supported by communities during attacks.

Is South Africa’s Apartheid Legacy Rearing its Ugly Head?

Why is xenophobic violence so prevalent in South Africa, a country that was foreseen to become a beacon of liberal constitutionalism and human rights after overcoming apartheid and that represented a safe haven for so many across the continent? One line of interpretation coming from the field of psychological and criminal sociology points towards the long-term scars that the structural violence of centuries of colonialism and apartheid have inflicted on individuals, families, and entire communities in the country. Two elements point towards the long-term effects of apartheid being reflected in xenophobic violence. Firstly, a significant share of the people that were attacked in the recurrent waves of violence were actually South African nationals that were targeted due to their darker skin, believed to be a characteristic of citizens from countries »further North«. Colourism is thus very present and highlights an inherent racist dimension in the xenophobic violence. Secondly, new research on social cohesion in South Africa points towards an entrenchment of in- and out-groups in public perception, partially re-enforced by the South African »exceptionalism« narrative instilled into the post-apartheid public conscience. The desperate need to create national unity and internal social cohesion (as well as to maintain the ANC’s hegemony) after 1994 may have had the unintended side effect of contributing to the alienation of anything or anyone considered external or foreign.

A (tattered) picture of former ANC presidents found in the central business district of Johannesburg close to the ANC headquarters. Copyright: Constanze Blum

»Put South Africa First« – Referencing a Slogan from the Times of White Minority Rule

Tragically, the current anti-foreigner rhetoric is fundamentally ahistorical. Southern Africa has historically been defined and shaped by constant migration – starting from the Khoi San roaming the entire subregion in the Late Stone Age to migration movements such as those linked to the Mfecane in the early nineteenth century to the labour migration resulting from the apartheid economic system, which depended on cheap labour, especially in South African mines. The apartheid regime’s hostile destabilization of neighbouring Black governments and the resulting conflicts furthermore caused substantial regional displacement during the second half of the twentieth century. Southern Africa thus has a decidedly transnational history and identity. By delimiting a »South African« identity and denying these transnational entanglements in the lives of citizens, politicians such as Mashaba »take away our history«, says the ISS’ Ottilia Anna Maunganidze. In the same vein, the rhetorical continuity with the times of white minority rule and racial segregation that is present in current xenophobic discourse is macabre. J. B. M. Hertzog, prime minister for the National Party (NP) from 1924 to 1939, was known for his »South Africa First« slogan – at the time meaning white (Boer) South Africans and trying to distance itself from the British Empire. Using a similar wording today for xenophobic messaging against other disenfranchised and marginalized Black Africans, such as illustrated in the »Put South Africans First« campaign, is particularly oblivious to South Africa’s violent history. 

The Transnational in Xenophobic Populism

Populism is often seen as a reactionary, anti-globalist response to a perceived deregulated globalization. It is interpreted as a response to a »crisis of globalization«. Xenophobia arguably also follows a certain global script. It pits poor against other poor – the »losers« of globalization – while the ruling and economic »elite« continues to strive. Pronounced inequality, high poverty rates, and the inability to lead a life with dignity for the large majority of the Black population in South African society arguably creates fertile grounds for polarization and for divisions and frustrations to be exploited. The (not necessarily ill-intended) argument that poverty is the main driver of anti-immigrant sentiments is frequently encountered, not only in South Africa. I argue that while highlighting these underlying historical, social, and economic conditions is essential to make sense of what is going on, it is especially the importance of those actors that take advantage of these cleavages and explicitly trigger the weak points in society, usually for their own gains, that should not be underestimated or ignored. Disturbing campaigns such as #PutSouthAfricansFirst or #BoerLivesMatter, a cultural backlash towards the Black Lives Matter movement in the USA and elsewhere, are among the most obvious signs of the global entanglements, »learning«, and exchange that takes place between populists that adapt (and twist) ideas and concepts with global traction to their specific context to further drive fragmentation. While populist actors may position themselves as anti-globalist, we can get a glimpse of their transregional connectedness in their everyday actions.


Constanze Blum is a researcher at the Research Institute Social Cohesion (RISC) where she looks at national debates on social cohesion and populism(s) in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Namibia. She is particularly interested in the transnational linkages and exchanges between political parties as well as social movements in Southern Africa. Before joining RISC, Constanze worked in the field of rural development in Mozambique and as an advisor for Germany’s Africa policy for an NGO in Berlin. She is also a PhD candidate at the Graduate School Global and Area Studies at Leipzig University.


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