They turned up in a crowd of hundreds at a migrant center in Soweto, Gauteng – unemployed, with guns and angry at foreigners accusing them of taking their jobs.
“Foreigners, go home,” they yelled, according to witnesses.
With unemployment at 35% – and rising to 65% among young people – competition for jobs has fueled resentment among some unemployed South Africans.
In the past, xenophobic protests have turned into violence. Attacks on foreigners killed at least 62 people in 2008, while seven more were killed in similar unrest in 2015.
Armed gangs attacked foreign companies around the Johannesburg financial center in 2019. At least 12 people, 10 of them South Africans, were killed in the ensuing clashes, the government said.
In recent weeks, dozens of protesters have staged demonstrations against undocumented migrants in what they have called Operation Dudula, Zulu for “driving back”.
There have been rumors of an attack at the Methodist Migrant Community Center in Soweto, which is home to about 100 migrant families.
Earlier this month, a horde – some wearing traditional Zulu leather whips – arrived in the center of South Africa’s most famous township, south of Johannesburg.
“Foreigners are stealing jobs that belong to South Africans,” protesters said, according to witnesses.
Sithulisiwe Chinora, a 22-year-old Zimbabwean, said she started shaking violently, wrapping her baby on her back.
“I thought I was going to die that day,” she said.
Father Paul Verryn, the center’s founder, says it is clear who the protesters were.
“They are xenophobic activists, they have clearly targeted foreigners because they want them out,” said the minister, who is famous for opening a church in Johannesburg for thousands of undocumented Zimbabweans after the first anti-immigration attacks.
But the Operation Dudula movement says it is pacifist.
The leader Nhlanhla Lux Dlamini, a man in his thirties from Soweto who often wears a military uniform and bulletproof vest, says he is simply trying to “restore law and order”.
“Law enforcement is failing us,” he told reporters.
Quota of foreign workers?
Last weekend, Dlamini led a protest at a supermarket in which he demanded that the foreign workers who worked there be fired.
“There’s (nothing) xenophobic about that, it’s the law,” he told reporters. “Any job that does not require skill in South Africa belongs to South Africans.”
According to official statistics, about 3.9 million foreigners live in South Africa, a country of nearly 60 million, including political refugees.
Human Rights Watch says foreigners are often scapegoated in a country with one of the world’s most unequal societies.
Jay Naidoo, one of the founders of the Cosatu, said anti-immigrant arguments did not hold.
“Even if they expelled all immigrants, our crime rate would not drop, nor would our unemployment rate,” he said.
So far, the latest demonstrations have not turned into violence.
A police source, who wishes to remain anonymous, said police were monitoring the demonstrations.
But “the right to protest is enshrined in the country’s constitution and so far they have not taken any action requiring the police to enforce the law,” the source said.
President Cyril Ramaphosa said on Wednesday that authorities are closely monitoring “pockets of groups that are trying to foment some sort of negative attitude” towards foreigners.
Early this month, the government said it was working on a law to introduce a quota for foreign workers in South African companies.