Podcasts: Opinion

How grassroots democracy has become a xenophobic weapon in South Africa

‘Active citizenship’ sounds like a great idea – but used against undocumented migrants it can encourage murder

Luke Sinwell Terri Maggott Trevor Ngwane
17 February 2023, 11.33am

Nhlanhla 'Lux' Dlamini rips a picture of Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema at a demonstration outside a magistrate's court in Roodepoort, South Africa, last March


Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters/Alamy Stock Photo

Toronto University CERC Migration logo with extra white space.png

Grassroots democracy can be a tool to liberate, but it can also oppress, weaponised against the vulnerable. That seems to be what happened to Elvis Nyathi, who was stoned and burned to death last year when a group of about 30 people demanded identity documents and money that he didn’t have.

Nyathi, a 43-year-old gardener, was from Zimbabwe but living in South Africa, in Diepsloot (Afrikaans for ‘Deep Ditch’). The neighbourhood is a predominantly Black, working-class area of approximately 140,000 residents on Johannesburg’s northern fringe, notorious for high crime rates, poor services and mob justice.

Evidence suggests that the group who allegedly killed Nyathi that April night did not target him alone. They had been going from shack to shack asking for documents and money. This was a practice developed by Operation Dudula, a vigilante anti-immigrant movement. Dudula had recently gained notoriety outside Diepsloot with its xenophobic vitriol against undocumented foreigners who Dudula blamed for rising crime and unemployment. The group claimed that the people had to take action because the government was doing nothing about the proliferation of ‘illegal’ foreigners.

Just as Western media tends to over-emphasise the scale of South-North migration, so too the number of migrants coming to Africa’s economic powerhouse, South Africa, tends to be grossly exaggerated. The population of migrants in fact stands at less than 4m or about 6.5% of the population, which is similar to international standards.

In contrast to the late Desmond Tutu’s hopeful aspirations for a South African ‘Rainbow Nation’ associated with human rights and ubuntu – the collectivist philosophy that ‘I am only because we are’ – post-apartheid South Africa has been marked by xenophobic and racial violence.

The first major instances of xenophobic violence in democratic South Africa started in the year 2008 in a poor working-class township of Johannesburg, Alexandra, just a stone’s throw away from the ultra-rich suburb Sandton City. The violence spread to different parts of the country, leaving 62 dead, thousands injured and tens of thousands displaced. The African National Congress denied that it was xenophobia, claiming it was mere criminality.

However, right-wing populist groups are in fact weaponising grassroots democracy against some of the most vulnerable migrants. The Rwandan genocide, like other atrocities, showed that if a movement’s leaders say they want to ‘cleanse’ their community of “snakes” or “cockroaches”, this language can be mobilised to inflict racial, gender and ethnic violence.

Disgruntled residents had protested to speed up government intervention, but Dudula’s leader urged them to take matters into their own hands

In February 2020, the Diepsloot community had held a protest to put the high rates of crime on the government’s agenda. Police minister Bheki Cele promised to intervene, but over the next two years the problem remained unresolved. Early last April the community took to the streets alleging that seven people had been murdered by an undocumented migrant the previous week and demanding that the government intervene.

Cele went to the settlement and addressed the people in front of television cameras. He promised to send more police into the area and return the following day with the minister of home affairs, who is responsible for dealing with undocumented migrants. He advised the community not to take the law into its own hands. Cele kept his word and came back with his colleague the following day. However, the fracas had already attracted the attention of Dudula. That night, after the ministers left, Nyathi was murdered.

Dudula – which means ‘push back’ or ‘bulldoze’ in the isiZulu language – had fanned the flames: disgruntled Diepsloot residents had protested to speed up government intervention, but Dudula’s leader at the time, Nhlanhla ‘Lux’ Dlamini, urged them to take matters into their own hands.

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It’s not possible to say that a public speech caused violence, but Dudula’s anti-foreigner language and actions create an atmosphere of insecurity and violence.

Dudula explicitly promotes ‘active citizenship’, which is often associated with participation and grassroots democracy: the idea that state-initiated top-down interventions should be counteracted by bottom-up approaches which are supposedly in touch with the needs of the people.

But these approaches can be used by those with ulterior motives. Grassroots democracy can be a tool either for conservative politics that maintain the status quo or, by others, as Marxist politics that provide an alternative to capitalism. The ruling ANC has thus far responded by making Zimbabweans and other political and economic migrants, many of whom have been living legally in the country for more than a decade, scapegoats for the government’s shortcomings.

Drawing from the counter-xenophobic and Pan-African Kopanang Africa Against Xenophobia (KAAX) campaign, our research shows that grassroots democracy can be a mechanism to liberate the oppressed. But this requires that we understand the driving forces behind the rise of right-wing populism, which tends to result from both a sense of economic and social exclusion from capitalist democracy, and the artificial borders between African countries which were created during colonialism.

By linking the idea of international solidarity to grassroots politics and leadership in impoverished communities, we may be able to stop the weaponisation of democracy and prevent the killing of another Elvis Nyathi.

For more information on this specific theme and protest in South Africa in general, please attend this online seminar.

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