17 August 2022

By Imraan Buccus

Operation Dudula is a small organisation, but its recent inflammatory fascist rhetoric and confrontational street politics have rapidly raised the temperature on the perennial xenophobia crisis.

With each passing year impunity for xenophobic statements and action grows, and xenophobia is increasingly normalised. Last year the pro-Zuma forces claiming to be MK vets were able to engage in street level xenophobic thuggery with absolute impunity. Xenophobia is now rank within party politics, and all the major parties are, in different ways, taking xenophobic positions.

It seems highly likely that we are close to another round of xenophobic violence. Nationally the only forces with real power that have come out against the extremist wing of the xenophobic mobilisation, some of which is out rightly fascist, are the trade unions. Both Cosatu and Saftu have issued statements condemning xenophobia. This is a welcome development but unless the unions are willing to take to the streets and directly confront groups like Operation Dudula, their statements will not hold back an incoming fascist tide.

Operation Dudula has carried out its intimidatory street politics in places like Hillbrow and Sandton and does not appear to have a national presence. However, in the past; xenophobic violence has often begun in Johannesburg before appearing in Durban a few days later. For this reason, activists in the city are deeply worried about what the coming days and weeks may portend.

When it comes to the possibility of xenophobic street violence, Durban is different from the rest of the country in two important respects. One is encouraging and the other deeply alarming. The good news is that Durban, uniquely, is home to a powerful social movement – Abahlali baseMjondolo – that has a long record of courageous opposition to xenophobia. Moreover, with its links to other smaller groups such as street traders and residents of inner-city flats via the Poor People’s Coalition activists in Durban can quickly pull alliances together in times of crisis.

The bad news is that Durban, along with Pietermatizburg and smaller towns in KwaZulu-Natal, is home to two other forces that are not present in the same way elsewhere in the country. One is the so-called ‘businesses forums’ that are officially part of ANC branches structures, and officially included in the eThewkini Municipality’s procurement policies. These ‘business forums’ are mafia organisations that are often well armed and willing to engage in violence.

Then there is the taxi mafia. The taxi mafia, which is entwined with ANC structures and can overlap with the business forums, has been granted impunity for violence for many years. It is well known that the assassins who carry out political assassinations come from the taxi mafia, and then often act in support of local ANC councillors and structures.

The problem that we face in Durban is that if the fascist xenophobic rhetoric of Operation Dubula reaches our city the progressive force, while large, is a non-violent force and is not equipped to confront violent action directly. On the other hand, the business forums and the taxi mafia have no popular support, but they are well armed and able to carry out violence with impunity.

If the Zuma faction of the ANC continue to see xenophobic street violence as a way to normalise their informal use of street violence power, and to try and legitimate themselves as ‘populist’ actors then there is a huge risk that they will get involved in fermenting and carrying out street violence.

We know that the police do not act against the taxi mafia and the ‘business forums’ in Durban so we find ourselves in a potentially very dangerous situation. However, if Cosatu and Saftu could form a united front with the Poor Peoples’ Coalition perhaps their sheer strength of numbers could keep the thugs off the streets. At the moment this seems like the only realistic way to erect a bulwark against the rising fascist tide.

Dr Buccus is Al Qalam editor.

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