Social media mobilises xenophobic sentiment

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South Africans accuse foreign nationals working in Alex of stealing the jobs while those who are in the country legally question whether that’s really the issue at hand. Photo: Rosetta Msimango/City Press
South Africans accuse foreign nationals working in Alex of stealing the jobs while those who are in the country legally question whether that’s really the issue at hand. Photo: Rosetta Msimango/City Press

NEWS


The Operation Dudula Movement’s recent spate of activities against foreign nationals indicates a resurgence of mobilisation coupled with intensified social media tactics that exploit social divisions by fostering xenophobic sentiment under the banner of nationalism and patriotism.

In many cases, #OperationDudula activists are publicly taking the law into their own hands, raising questions about the capacity of law enforcement agencies to maintain order and protect all people in South Africa.

READ: Foreign nationals in Alex fear a repeat of 2008 xenophobic attacks

For the first six months after #OperationDudula appeared on social media in June, mentions of the hashtag occurred at low levels. Its volume was surpassed by the #PutSouthAfricaFirst conversation, which blamed foreign nationals for high levels of crime and unemployment in South Africa, and called for their deportation.

#OperationDudula recorded its highest peak last month, receiving more than 66 000 mentions, compared with #PutSouthAfricaFirst and #PutSouthAfricansFirst, which peaked at 59 000 mentions a month earlier.

READ: Voices | Julius Malema’s xenophobic quest for ‘blood votes’

Top hashtags within the #OperationDudula and #PutSouthAfricaFirst conversation between June and this month

#OperationDudula continues to generate the most mentions in the recent online conversation about foreign nationals in South Africa.

Posters of #OperationDudula’s plan to remove foreign nationals from Soweto began circulating in June, with the first spike recorded around Youth Day.

While supporters of #OperationDudula, #PutSouthAfricaFirst and related hashtags express similar sentiments against foreign nationals, the Centre for Analytics and Behavioural Change (CABC) found three instances where the two conversations showed similar peaks. This was during the week of June 16, when #OperationDudula members took part in the removal of foreign nationals in Soweto; the week of January 24, when supporters targeted Bara Taxi Rank; and the week of February 14, when they targeted foreign nationals in Hillbrow.

The narratives shared by accounts that use these hashtags indicate similar themes with a few variations. While some supporters are calling for the removal of undocumented foreign nationals, others are calling for the deportation of all foreign nationals living in South Africa.

A video of community activist Nhlanhla Lux Dlamini calling on documented foreign nationals to join the march against their undocumented counterparts caused mixed reactions, with some Twitter users arguing that they did not need foreign nationals to help them in the movement.

READ: Close-Up | Why blame outsiders for our internal woes?

Behind the peaks

Posters of #OperationDudula’s plan to remove foreign nationals from Soweto began circulating in June, with the first spike recorded around Youth Day.

#OperationDudula appears to be an “events-led” movement – in addition to using social media to garner support, it draws heavily on physical mobilisation to amplify its message.

Between July and December, minor spurts in the conversation occurred over an organised march to the Union Buildings in August, the launch of #OperationDudula in Yeoville in November, and the circulation of a video of Dudula activists allegedly confiscating goods from a shop owner believed to be a foreign national.

Higher peaks were seen in January, when some supporters of #OperationDudula accused the EFF of hijacking their movement following the party’s announcement that it would check the employment ratios of foreign nationals to South Africans.

At the same time, posters announcing the movement’s launch in Pimville, Soweto, were circulating on social media.

READ: How politicians stoke fires of xenophobic resentment

The high number of mentions during the second week of last month – when #OperationDudula received its highest peaks – can be attributed to the group’s descent on Hillbrow and the alleged clash between Dudula members and law enforcement officers in Alexandra.

Earlier this week, supporters of #OperationDudula vowed to rid Alexandra of undocumented foreign nationals, leading to a clash with law enforcement.

The highly publicised activities on the ground feeding into a strong social media presence support the operation’s attempts to push away foreign nationals.

Social Media

Both #PutSouthAfricaFirst and #OperationDudula take advantage of social media to amplify their messages.

Under the leadership of the now deactivated account of @uLerato_Pillay, the #PutSouthAfricaFirst conversation initially relied heavily on online misinformation and disinformation to blame foreign nationals for several social ills.

#OperationDudula appears to be an “events-led” movement – in addition to using social media to garner support, it draws heavily on physical mobilisation to amplify its message.

READ: Immigrants demand refugee offices reopen after two years of lockdown

The peaks in the conversation’s trendline indicate that posts announcing a Dudula mobilisation receive little traction for several days and then a peak appears on the day of the operation, and conversation wanes after the operation comes to an end.

While some task themselves with closing foreign-owned shops, arguing that #Operation Dudula is beyond political or law enforcement interference, others continue to call on government to deport foreign nationals.

For example, the first few posts announcing plans to rid Soweto of foreign nationals on June 16 emerged as early as June 9, with little traction. On June 15, only 66 mentions contained #OperationDudula, with the highest peak recorded at 16 mentions at about 9pm that day.

On June 16, more than 900 mentions were recorded, with the highest peak occurring at 112 mentions at midday. Conversation once again dropped to 150 mentions by June 17.

#OperationDudula mentions in the hours between February 19 and 20

A similar trend to the one observed last year occurred when #OperationDudula planned its second mobilisation in Hillbrow on February 19 and 20, when the #OperationDudula conversation reached its highest peak.

Mentions of #OperationDudula increased from more than 2 000 on February 18 – a day before the weekend operation – to more than 14 000 and 15 000 on the two days of the operation. The highest peaks were observed between 5pm and 7pm on February 19, and at 4pm on February 20.

This suggests that, while online allegations and threats against foreign nationals play a hand in keeping #OperationDudula at the top of the list of trending hashtags on South African Twitter, the physical mobilisation of supporters has a bigger impact on the hashtag’s performance online.

The future of this movement and its impact on social cohesion in South Africa remain uncertain.

The highly publicised activities on the ground feeding into a strong social media presence support the operation’s attempts to push away foreign nationals.

#OperationDudula also leverages allegations of the low employment ratios of South Africans to foreign nationals in some businesses to garner support.

Supporters of the movement appear to have lost faith in government and the law, and believe that the removal of foreign nationals falls within their jurisdiction.

While some task themselves with closing foreign-owned shops, arguing that #Operation Dudula is beyond political or law enforcement interference, others continue to call on government to deport foreign nationals.

#OperationDudula is emerging as an organised movement that could put social cohesion in South Africa at risk

A central dilemma is how supporters differentiate documented foreign nationals from undocumented foreign nationals. The movement claims that many foreign nationals are suspected of obtaining their documentation through corruption, with some supporters calling for people to carry their identification documents with them at all times to prove their citizenship.

The militant activities of #OperationDudula supporters also raise questions around the danger of citizens taking the law into their own hands, as well as the status of the rule of law and the constitutional protection of all those who live in South Africa, regardless of whether they are citizens or not.

Among the calls for government to play an active role in addressing the issue of foreign nationals in the country are also pleas for the president and law enforcement to condemn the actions of movements such as #OperationDudula to avoid conflict between foreign nationals and South Africans.

While anti-foreigner activations and the coordinated use of #OperationDudula and similar-minded hashtags are on the rise, there appears to be little kickback from citizens and civic organisations opposed to all forms of xenophobia, either on the ground or on social media.

The future of this movement and its impact on social cohesion in South Africa remain uncertain. Will #OperationDudula continue to grow its support base by acting against foreign nationals and denigrating them on social media, or will Constitution-abiding South Africans and government authorities step in to restore the dignity and safety of our fellow Africans?


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