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An anti-migrant vigilante organisation in South Africa has registered as a political party and plans to contest seats in next year’s general elections.

Operation Dudula, whose name means “to force out” in Zulu, wants all foreign nationals who are in the country unofficially to be deported.

The party, which first emerged in Johannesburg’s Soweto township after riots in 2021, claims to have widespread support, with a formal presence in seven of South Africa’s nine provinces. It claims to be planning to stand candidates in 1,500 of the country’s 4,468 voting districts. 

Many Operation Dudula followers have faced allegations of hate speech and physical violence. They have staged protests outside embassies, turned people away outside hospitals to prevent foreign nationals from accessing state medical services, and conducted door-to-door searches of businesses in poorer areas demanding to see identity documents.

In August, Philani Gumede, a 36-year-old from Durban, was convicted of hate speech after sending a voice-note to members calling on them to evict foreigners from businesses in the city. Nomalungelo Ntshangase, a regional court prosecutor, told the court that this had led directly to xenophobic attacks and looting.

In 2022, Operation Dudula followers camped outside Kalafong hospital in Atteridgeville, a suburb of South Africa’s administrative capital, Pretoria, preventing people, including pregnant women, from entering the hospital.

“People were turned away by the protesters based on their appearance and accent,” said Sibusiso Ndlovu, a health promotion supervisor for Médecins Sans Frontières. “They have even demanded that critically ill patients who are migrants must be ‘unplugged’ and taken out.”

Civil society groups have taken the party to court over unlawful evictions and conducting unauthorised citizenship checks in public. A court date has not yet been set.

The Operation Dudula party’s spokesperson, Isaac Lesole, said the transition from civil movement to political party would mean a tempering of tactics.

“We want to demilitarise Operation Dudula. We know the military angle did not appeal to a lot of people,” he said. “Now we’ve taken a new posture, we need to guarantee that we can still achieve a lot without people being militants and killing or kicking things. As a political party, we are governed by a different set of rules.”

But its core ideology would not change, he said. “We view illegal immigrants as criminals, and they must go back to their countries.” 

About 3.95 million immigrants live in South Africa, according to 2022 estimates by the Institute for Security Studies (ISS). However, there is no such thing as an “illegal foreigner” in South Africa, as its constitution – widely hailed as one of the most progressive in the world – confers limited rights upon all people within the country’s borders, regardless of nationality or birthplace. 

Operation Dudula has its roots in the riots that swept across KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng provinces in June 2021. In the absence of police, some citizens banded together to protect shops and businesses from thieves.

“You saw a lot of communities starting to self-protect. They started cordoning off malls, and protecting them from being looted. Some of these organisations also felt emboldened to have more operations, under the auspices of ‘anti-crime’,” said Lizette Lancaster, an ISS researcher.

Lancaster said the chronic failures of the state in South Africa, which has high rates of corruption, unemployment and violence, created the space for the party to thrive. 

“South Africans have been trying [to hold the state accountable] through protests, but are not getting anywhere,” she said.

“It is almost natural for people to look for another scapegoat. The most obvious scapegoat would be our brothers and sisters that have come here to look for better opportunities.”

Although not expected to win any outright majorities, the fractured nature of South African politics means that small parties can influence the formation of coalition governments – and can demand major concessions in return. The current mayor of Johannesburg, for example, is from the Al Jama’ah, a fringe Islamist party that won just one of the city’s 135 wards.

Established parties are struggling to respond to Operation Dudula, with seemingly contradictory messages.

In April, President Cyril Ramaphosa called it a “vigilante-like force” taking “illegal actions” against foreigners. “These things often get out of hand,” he said. “They always mutate into wanton violence against other people.” 

However, with the ruling African National Congress seeing its support eroded in recent years by a series of corruption scandals, rising inequality, high unemployment and violent crime, it has also begun to echo the rhetoric of Operation Dudula in a bid to shore up its electoral chances.

Last year an ANC spokesperson, Pule Mabe, told the Mail & Guardian newspaper that Operation Dudula was affirming the views of the ANC. “These [foreign] people come here to sell drugs, seat [live] here illegally, undermine our sovereignty, create illegal business.”

Julius Malema, leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), a militant leftwing party, said in a speech in July: “South Africans are not xenophobic. [Operation Dudula] is a group of criminals who are in cahoots with some ministers. They are small boys who must be put in their place.”

Related: Desperate Zimbabweans risk police or crocodiles in bid to reach South Africa

However, in a sign of how politically expedient xenophobia has become in South Africa, even the ostensibly pan-Africanist EFF has campaigned for restaurants to employ more South Africans. Malema visited restaurants last year demanding to see the identity documents of workers as he demanded businesses hire locals.

Amir Sheikh, spokesperson for the African Diaspora Forum, said: “At the end of the day, Dudula will not be the only party that is right wing or anti-immigrant, even including the ruling party, which is leaning towards the right wing.”

Many foreigners are returning home with their families, or moving to more friendly countries, although that is in part due to high crime rates and economic decay, said Sheikh. “Even the locals with the means to travel out of the country are doing so.” By Simon Allison in Johannesburg, Guardian

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