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A man holds up a South African flag as members of "Operation Dudula" march down a street in the Hillbrow neighborhood to deliver memoranda to several businesses in the area, Johannesburg, South Africa, February 19, 2022.  © 2022 Mohamed Shiraaz/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Photo

South Africa has been grappling with sporadic and sometimes lethal xenophobic harassment and violence against African and Asian foreign nationals living in the country, including refugees, asylum seekers, and both documented and undocumented migrants.

On Monday last week, BBC Africa Eye released a documentary, Fear and Loathing in South Africa, which investigates the rise of xenophobia in the country and follows Operation Dudula, an anti-immigrant vigilante group that is reportedly violently targeting and harassing foreign nationals.

Launched in 2021 in Soweto, and now with branches across the country, Operation Dudula was conceived by South African youth activists in order to address crime and drug usage in Gauteng province’s communities. However, today the movement is better known for calling for mass deportation of undocumented migrants, blocking immigrants from accessing healthcare, raiding businesses belonging to foreign nationals, and forcing their shops to close. The isiZulu word Dudula means “to push out”, denoting pushing foreigners out of the country and back to their countries of origin.

The documentary spotlights how entrenched xenophobia is within the Operation Dudula movement, whose members use language derogatory to foreign nationals and sing struggle songs signifying a readiness to go to war with them. “To tell you the truth, I hate foreigners,” a member of Operation Dudula said. “How I wish they could just pack and go and leave our country.”

A message that came across loud and clear from the movement’s members is that, from their perspective, foreign nationals are the root cause of South Africa’s economic hardship and its challenges delivering needed services. However, as the documentary and various studies highlight, scapegoating immigrants will not improve basic service provision, reduce crime, or address the triple burden of inequality, poverty, and unemployment.

The documentary also points to a worrying trend towards anti-immigrant hate speech in the leadup to the 2024 general elections, with Operation Dudula confirming it will register as a political party and contest the elections.

South Africa’s constitution, which protects both citizens and noncitizens, states that everyone has the right to freedom and security of the person, including the right “to be free from all forms of violence from either public or private sources.” The authorities in South Africa should reaffirm these values and openly speak out against xenophobia, seek accountability for attacks and abuses against foreign nationals, and promote inclusivity and social cohesion.

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