Dear Operation Dudula: Powerful elites, not migrants, are your enemy

It seems that daily life in South Africa is governed by suffering and crisis. Jobs are endlessly scarce. Criminals thrive on the streets and in the ruling party. Places have decayed, blighted by pollution and crumbling infrastructure. Food, and almost everything any human needs to comfortably survive, is becoming an expensive privilege. With hope seeming irrational and reality unbearable, alcohol and drug abuse is an increasingly popular form of escapism, especially among the youth. 

How did we become entangled in these layers of crisis? Who or what is to blame? 

Movements such as Operation Dudula argue that the presence of foreigners, undocumented or not, is a significant cause of the country’s deterioration. Their leaders, such Nhlanlha “Lux” Dlamini, claim that the over-representation of foreigners, in the formal and informal economy, dries up business and job opportunities for South Africans. 

Undocumented immigrants invite an especially intense kind of anger from these movements. On numerous popular platforms, the ideologues of Operation Dudula assert  that undocumented people are notable contributers to the brazen criminality we see around us. They are accused of dismantling public infrastructure, orchestrating drug trafficking and being an omnipresent force in an array of violent crimes. 

It is clear that the leaders of these movements think it impossible for South Africans and immigrants to exist in a peaceful, mutually beneficial relationship. This militant hostility to migrants is not new or uniquely South African. This rage has been long brewing, cultivated by an economy never designed to thoroughly satisfy everyone’s needs or rupture cycles of poverty. The venom launched at anonymous migrants is patiently nurtured by a government uninterested in the safety and positive development of the poor, unemployed or working class. 

We saw this rage in the July riots of 2021. The majority of citizens have been living as though a steel boot has been pressing down on their necks. People can no longer endure life being suffocated by despair and destitution. As they struggle and squirm, flailing for air, opportunists will rise to exploit their anguish, promising transformative change and respite from their suffering. 

What is the purpose of Operation Dudula? If it is the banishing of foreigners, undocumented or not, how these movements plan to achieve this while avoiding a humanitarian crisis is confusing. Beyond short-term objectives, this movement has no tenable plans on how to fix the country if immigrants were to leave. Let us assume that migrants were to vanish from the country, somehow without violence and bloodshed, the crucial question remains: why would the absence or minimal presence of foreigners make South Africa better?

Would it repair the infrastructure of debilitated public hospitals or supply vital resources to schools in rural areas? Would a migrant free South Africa dispell corruption and brutality from the police, who torture, harrass and kill thousands on an annual basis? Will a migrant free country reduce the cost of food, erase consumer debt or increase wages? Without foreigners, will we revitalise Eskom or be finally motivated to seriously pursue decent public housing

The leaders of Operation Dudula do not have useful answers to these questions. It is a movement with no positive vision, no practical policies and no principles. Trapped to be governed by an ineffective government and seeing no avenues to improve their lives through formal politics, the worldview of Operation Dudula fails to see the forest for the trees. 

South Africans are shackled and every day being suffocated by their ruling elites. It should be surprising that in the most unequal nation on Earth, the absurdly uneven distribution of resources and wealth feeds into the uneven distribution of power. Self-determination is an elusive dream for most people; a dream held beyond grasp by elites who have designed and ruled society for the sake of their own power. Mining moguls such Ivan Glasenberg, captains of the retail industry such as Whitey Basson, the owners of corporate media companies such as Naspers, foreign investors,  millionaire politicians such as Herman Mashaba, Jacob Zuma and the president himself

The root of our dilemma is not that we are ruled by the greedy and indifferent. The power amassed by elites has granted them vast influence over our economic system and political order. From the construction of state policy,  in the daily work of local government, to the management of the economy, the needs of South Africa’s majority are not a primary priority. 

It was not Nigerians or Somalians who appointed incompetent cabinet ministers for more than 20 years. Last I recall, it wasn’t Pakistani or Bangladeshi migrants who encouraged the ANC to implement destructive economic policies, such as Tito Mboweni’s austerity measures. It isn’t Zimbabwean farmers who sit on the boards of mining companies, extracting vast wealth from black workers without substantially reinvesting it into society. Ugundans did not orchestrate a campaign of state looting, drastically reducing the state’s ability to deliver basic services in the poorest communities across the country. Nameless men from Mozambique did not keep citizens undereducated and underskilled, thereby compounding the unemployment crisis. Where are the Ghanians who have kept our state attached to an economic model defenceless against deindustrialisation and automation? Or the Kenyans who dissuaded the presidency from pursuing progressive economic policies?

South Africa has been crafted to work for its elites. It functions pretty well for those in gated estates and opulent suburbs, for those with prized assets and boundless bank accounts, who network with the affluent and have easy access to enriching opportunities. Of this ruling class, legendary comedian Georgle Carlin once said  “It’s a big club … and you ain’t in it.”

In other words, South Africa does not belong to all who live in it. It belongs to the extraordinarily wealthy, their rich peers and politicians who run our social order largely on their behalf. By briefly dissecting the crises of unemployment and crime, it becomes clear that Operation Dudula and #PutSouthAfricaFirst’s efforts against migrants are unproductive distractions. These movements will do nothing to challenge the power of the ruling class or change the economic and political relations which unleash suffering upon millions. 

Casting out foreigners would not significantly improve the employment prospects of South Africans because unemployment is a crisis produced by systems, not people. The mismanagement of public education means that most children will leave their basic schooling lacking the skills to ever have anything other than jobs of hard or “menial” labour. Those who strive for tertiary education are confronted by soaring fees. On graduation, their career ambitions and financial stability is undermined by the debt they’ve accrued acquiring degrees in a market reluctant to hire graduates. The R6.1-billion of debt will not be erased by the disappearance of immigrants. 

Outside a failing education system, the hyper-concentration of economic activity in major cities and industrial towns further obstructs the path to employment for the millions of citizens who live in rural areas. Deindustrialisation, a drastic economic change beyond the control of immigrants or ordinary South Africans, has led to hundreds of thousands of job losses across the manufacturing industry and this trend is unlikely to end in the near future. 

On the issue of crime, as on the crisis of unemployment, anti-migrant groups are profoundly misguided. Kidnappings, home invasions, gang wars, cash in-transit heists, prevalent petty theft, hijackings, drug related violence — the commonality of these kinds of crime is evidence of a population trapped in a vicious game of survival. Unable to find success in the economy, forsaken by the government, their poverty exists in stark and unfair contrast to the opulence of a few — people will steal, deceive, extort and kill to survive.

The ubiquity of crime is an obvious indictment of the criminal justice system. Prisoners are rarely rehabilitated, often encountering a culture of criminality in prisons and not provided with the tools needed to survive once outside. The police, as an institution, have embraced a culture of corruption and violent hostility towards poor black citizens. Whether neglecting their duties, lacking the competency to execute their mandates or themselves complicit in various forms of organised crime, the police have been a feeble force in the struggle to decrease crime. 

Some migrants do commit crimes and some sectors of the business world enjoy exploiting the cheap labour that migrants tend to offer. But to think banishing migrants will miraculously unlock job opportunities for millions or drastically decrease crime rates is to misunderstand core sources of our nation’s crisis. 

Operation Dudula is an ugly spectacle. A hollow movement that gives a platform to rage and frustration at the cost of migrants livelihoods, safety and human dignity. While the deeply disgruntled shout at migrants in the streets of Hillbrow and elsewhere in the country, South Africa’s elite continue to rule over systems unattuned to the interests of ordinary people. 

If elite power is not confronted , the country’s descent into crisis will continue. Without a renewal of the economy and political order, shameless opportunists will continue to manipulate despair and tempt citizens with destructive distractions. 

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Andile Zulu
Andile Zulu is a political essayist who runs the Born Free Blues blog.

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