A #hashtag drives murderous nativist militias in South Africa.

By Nyasha Bhobo

#OperationDudula first showed up online in June, 2021. Its trending volumes were tiny, eclipsed by the popular #PutSouthAfricansFirst. Both are dreadful sentiments that pin South Africa’s double whammy of murderous crime and the world’s biggest joblessness on the backs of millions of mainly Black African “foreigners”—calling for their expulsion. However, in February, there was a sudden change of fortunes. The #OperationDudula hashtag netted nearly 60,000 mentions online and overtook #PutSouthAfricansFirst. Was it pushed by dark money?

“There’s money involved. There is expertise,” Loren Landau, an expert at the African Centre for Migration Society in Johannesburg, told me, hinting at the small nodes that connect dark money and a rumored digital “command center” that drives these chilling rightwing hashtags on behalf of hidden interests in South Africa.

The public face and de-facto leader of the #OperationDudula anti-foreigner movement, on- and off-line in South Africa, is Mr. Nhlanhla ‘Lux’ Dlamini, a digital savvy, GenZ figure who likes to strut around in military jackets and bulletproof vests with a platoon of fans and bodyguards, and says that no dark money or hidden engine is driving this.

“Our online hashtags reinforce our offline demands that ‘illegal immigrants’ must depart South Africa. We don’t copy online tactics of the US’s ‘Great Replacement’ theory or Proud Boys,” he says from Soweto, the big township where nearly 1.2 million low-income Black South Africans live, 28 years after the end of apartheid colonialism.

#OperationDudula, which translates as “OperationGoHome,” is a viral social-media hashtag in South Africa with the declared goal to deport millions of Black African immigrants who are accused of committing grisly crimes and “rushing to give birth” in order to grab welfare money and displace native South Africans

“Undoubtedly, commercial social media sites have become fertile ground for sharing messages propagating hate against minorities in many countries. In South Africa the movement has evolved quickly to evade (Internet) censors, regulation, and the country’s relatively strong hate speech laws,” explains Loren Landau, a professor at the African Centre for Migration & Society at the University of the Witwatersrand, in Johannesburg, South Africa’s commercial capital.

Critics of #OperationDudula point out that the hashtag is modeled on the ideals of America’s white supremacist, “Great Replacement” theory, which inspired a white teenager to kill ten Black Americans in Buffalo, New York, last May, while also broadcasting the atrocities on Facebook Live.

“#OperationDudula smells of Trump-aligned Proud Boys; it smells of ‘The Great Replacement’ theory. It’s digital bigotry arches from the USA to find eager admirers in South Africa, on- and off-line,” says Kudakwashe Magezi, a poet in South Africa, who has been on the receiving end of the #OperationDudula anti-immigrant trolls.

Another victim of #OperationDudula hate is Pious Rwande who remembers the night, last April, when a fierce anti-immigrant mob in Soweto Township descended on the home of a friend who was seized from his home, stoned, and later burned to death in the street. “The reason [was] my late friend had no passport. I survived by crawling under a tractor into reeds,” says the 27-year-old father of one who has now fled South Africa and returned to his native Zimbabwe out of fear for his life.

Pious’s escape from death by a whisker is no fluke. In 2008, 62 immigrants were murdered (some native South Africans were mistaken as ‘”foreigners” because they had “dark skin”), one burnt alive in front of global television cameras, while thousands were displaced when anti-Black xenophobia exploded across low-income South Africa. From April this year, hundreds of Black foreign immigrants in South Africa have found refuge in police stations. Their homes and markets have been torched. Murders have occurred as #OperationDudula thugs hunt for Black immigrants. In more volatile encounters, some Black “foreigners” have formed vigilante groups in defense and opened fire, killing alleged #OperationDudula attackers.

“It began as Twitter and Facebook hashtags, but offline the #OperationDudula hashtag is already spawning deadly consequences in South Africa,” says Peter Xolo, president of the Zimbabwe Immigrants in South Africa Solidarity Forum, a legal watchdog in Johannesburg. “In 2008, anti-Black immigrant murders [happened, but] there was no mobile internet, no Twitter, no Facebook then. New digital tech in 2022 or beyond could deepen the carnage of hate.”

How has a viral Twitter/Facebook hashtag created deadly results in South Africa? It has a lot to do with the decaying politics and economy of South Africa, the continent’s most industrialized nation. “What we are seeing is a specific and violent reaction to the impression that non-South Africans are stealing South African jobs and amenities,” argues Stephen Chan, a professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies, at the University of London. Chan doesn’t think that what’s happening in South Africa is inspired by groups or “hate projects” in the USA.

South Africa’s wealth has taken a hit in recent years, after a judicial investigation of state-led corruption showed that Mr. Jacob Zuma, the president between 2009 and 2017, allegedly linked up with shady business tycoons to loot and launder state coffers, bleeding the nation of an estimated $34 billion. Mr. Zuma maintains his innocence. As a result of the state’s impoverishment railways, electricity, water, and the state’s currency itself have suffered significantly, thus giving a boost to despair, such that in March, the World Bank declared South Africa to be the world’s most financially unequal country. Relatedly, crime in South Africa has risen so much so that a car is hijacked every 22 minutes, there are rampant kidnappings, and more than seventy murders each day, on average.

A cursory look at South Africa’s Internet ecosystem (Twitter, Facebook, Whatsapp) shows that extremist hashtags like #SouthAfricansFirst, #Expelforeigners, and #OperationDudula, etc. are having free reign, uncensored by these platforms. This leads tech critics in South Africa, like Darly Moyo, a trade unionist and leader of the informal Uber-Bolt Drivers in South Africa Alliance, to speculate that the likes of Twitter and Facebook (two US-based corporations) don’t see South Africa as an important online market where they must devote money and personnel to combating digital hate speech. Immigrant Uber and Bolt gig-work drivers in South Africa, whom Moyo leads, are victims of xenophobic hashtags too, and they often get robbed at work, carjacked, or shot dead.

Landau, the immigration expert, warns and explains that the lanes of digital deadly misinformation extend beyond publicly verifiable chat boards, like Twitter and Facebook, into closed digital echo-chambers in South Africa.

“Perhaps, more importantly, the movement continues to exploit non-public media like WhatsApp chat groups which are generally unregulated and free for many users. In these spaces we see the fragmentation of debate into bubbles and echo-chambers that help construct reality for people in ways often distorted and dangerous,” he says.

Over the last five years, we have seen a professionalization of the anti-immigrant message online in South Africa, adds Landau. There is money involved. There is expertise. There are clearly nodes or small groups propagating messages in service of their particular interests, whatever those may be. Though, he adds, “there is a risk of presuming coherence here when there are many sources and many voices.” It is important, Landau says, to separate the nature of #OperationDudula in South Africa from US digital narratives like the “Great Replacement” theory. “The US movement is led by a privileged minority afraid of losing its dominance whereas the South African movement appeals to a group that remains economically marginalized. Both fear losing what they feel was promised to them.”

You can visit the website at https://mg.co.za/opinion/2022-06-12-operation-dudula-is-a-symptom-of-unresolved-colonial-and-political-issues/

12 December, 2022