South Africa’s Covid-19 lockdown has exacerbated the harsh economic realities in the country, while highlighting the extent of the inequality and the desperation many people face. Amid this upheaval, opportunistic extremists have made a concerted effort to turn people against each other.
The concerns about farm murders, for example, have seen right-wing commentators and YouTubers spread dangerous messages, often with little concern for accuracy or facts. The discussion around farm murders recently took an increasingly polarised and political turn following the murder of young farm manager Brendin Horner in Senekal in the Free State. The online hate directed towards migrants has continued unabated.
Despite South Africa’s history of violence directed at migrants, the online campaign driving the #PutSouthAfricansFirst hashtag has unashamedly embraced xenophobic language, continuing with its online attacks against migrants. The Lerato Pillay and associated accounts and bots led the way in these online onslaughts, but in recent months the vitriol has spread more widely across social media.
Amid all the #PutSouthAfricansFirst messaging, an organisation going by the name of PUTSAFIRST popped up. In recent weeks, a loose collection of wannabe politicians, opportunists and other hangers-on organised two marches in Pretoria under the #PutSouthAfricansFirst banner.
On 23 September, a group of no more than 50 people gathered in Church Square in Pretoria and later marched to the Nigerian high commission to demand an “end to human trafficking”. A man who identified himself as Chief Pastor Errol Jacobs, a representative of the Gonaqua nation, and Senior Paramount Chief Cornelius Botha, also of the Gonaqua nation, were among those who made disparaging comments about migrants, and Nigerian migrants in particular.
“They are behind everything. If we can get rid of these people in our society, then we’ll only sit with a handful of people committing crime,” Jacobs said outside the Nigerian embassy. He claimed he received a mandate from “his people” to come and address the embassy staff about allegations of Nigerian migrants’ involvement in human trafficking and the selling of drugs.
On the day, a number of other people addressed the small crowd. Among them was advocate Ike Khumalo. Khumalo has been quite active on social media in recent months, tweeting regularly using the #PutSouthAfricansFirst hashtag and engaging regularly with the Lerato Pillay and associated accounts. The Lerato Pillay account has also in the past retweeted many of the videos and tweets Khumalo posts, yet he denied having any link to whoever is running this account.
A second march by those behind the #PutSouthAfricansFirst hashtag was organised for 18 October, but this time the newly formed PUTSAFIRST organisation claimed to be the organiser. Its Gauteng chairperson, Faith Mabusela, said they had nothing to do with the earlier march, and that it had been organised by a group of “concerned citizens and patriots”.
The Lerato Pillay account shared pictures from both marches and tweeted encouragingly despite the low turnouts. Mabusela insisted her organisation had nothing to do with Lerato Pillay either.
Mabusela, who said she had a background working for the National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union (Nehawu) and later started her own business, said she got involved with “the movement” after realising there was an outcry from citizens. “They were being marginalised,” she said. “So it became something that I wanted to pursue and address after doing a bit of research on it and I realised it is a problem and the government is not doing anything about it.”
Mabusela said she started researching the “influx of migrants” in South Africa and how migrants are employed “ahead of South Africans”. Her “research” indicated to her that migrants were behind specific crimes in South Africa.
“We are not saying South Africans are saints … but the majority of the illegal immigrants who are here are doing the things, car hijacking, cash-in-transit heists, ATM bombings. They are involved and there are arrests that can even prove that, that they have been caught, most of them,” she said in her living room in a secure complex in Sunninghill, Johannesburg.
Asked if she could share the research on which she and the Put South Africans First fringe group have based their demands, she said she would send it. She later sent a statement by the Nigerian Citizens Association South Africa (Nicasa) about a picket against gender-based violence, human trafficking and crime in general as proof that Nicasa was “admitting to their people committing crime in the country”.
Mabusela later sent an undated screengrab of a Facebook post talking about the arrest of a Zimbabwean migrant as further proof of migrants’ involvement in crime in South Africa. “It was on the stats that 60%, it was the minister, I can’t remember his name, but he actually came out and said that 60% of crime in South Africa is committed by illegal immigrants; 60% of crime not 100%,” she said.
That statement can be traced to a comment made by former Gauteng police commissioner Lieutenant General Deliwe de Lange in 2017 following the release of the provincial crime statistics, when she said 60% of those committing “violent crime” were “illegal immigrants”.
Institute for Security Studies justice and violence prevention programme head Gareth Newham exposed inconsistencies with De Lange’s claim, including that the South African Police Service didn’t have a category called “violent crime”. Instead violent crimes were divided into the broad categories of murder, attempted murder, sexual assault, aggravated robbery, common robbery and others.
He concluded that “De Lange’s statements promote xenophobic attitudes and may provoke violence against foreign nationals”.
Other unsubstantiated claims made by Mabusela include her statements that there are between four and six million Zimbabweans in South Africa, and millions more migrants from other African and southeast Asian countries.
“When you follow it, and you kind of start putting it together, everything started happening after 1994. It’s gotten worse. It is just way out of control because the last census that was done, it was reported that we had two million Zimbabwean nationals in South Africa and without a doubt, I can tell you that has probably doubled, if not tripled,” she said.
Lack of credible data
The most reliable figure available on the number of migrants in South Africa is that of the 2011 census, which estimated around 2.2 million. Because of the Department of Home Affairs’ failure to gather credible data, the space has opened up for xenophobes, as well as the media in South Africa and abroad, to make wild claims about the number of migrants in the country.
The #PutSouthAfricansFirst campaign has also made a lot of noise about human trafficking, feeding into the global QAnon conspiracy theory. Despite its claims about human trafficking, little evidence exists to back up these claims. Mabusela further made claims about migrants’ alleged involvement in farm murders.
“We are also very much against the farm killings, we are so anti that, we don’t support that. At the moment, we are also trying to get research and find out where this whole thing comes from. But we do know that, for a fact, that it is not 100% the way it is reported. Because these killings have been happening and they have been increasing and we believe, although we don’t have proof yet, that immigrants are involved in the farm killings,” she said.
Despite data and facts often showing the contrary, Mabusela and the #PutSouthAfricansFirst fringe group still say South Africa is facing an influx of migrants who come to South Africa to, as they put it, steal jobs, commit crime and place a burden on public services. At the march on 18 October, a number of people spoke about wanting to tackle crime and unemployment in South Africa, which are concerns shared without a doubt by the majority of people in the country.
‘We should never be apologetic’
Other speakers described themselves as patriots and nationalists, and had increasingly dangerous demands, including the establishment of refugee camps and expelling all migrants from the country. But it was South African First party president Mario Khumalo, with his American accent, who received the warmest welcome from the 100 or so people who attended the march.
“And I want to make it clear to the media, some of you gave me an interview thinking it’s xenophobic. There’s nothing xenophobic. All of us, we should take pride in who we are. We should never be apologetic for loving our country and our citizens,” he said to the crowd.
“People come to the country undocumented and they think it’s okay. It’s not okay. South Africans are unemployed and you think it’s okay. It’s not okay,” he said. “If you think loving South Africa and South Africans is xenophobic, it’s not my problem.”
Mabusela said something similar when interviewed before the march. “Well, as a movement, we have embraced the word xenophobic because we feel it is a phrase that is used to silence us from crying to our government. There is nothing xenophobic about wanting our government to prioritise us. There is nothing xenophobic about calling the government out to implement laws of the country and the Constitution properly.”
When asked about it again, Mabusela said: “We are patriots and we like to call ourselves nationalists because we believe we should come first. We know we live in Africa and we know we are part of the SADC [Southern African Development Community] region, but we have internal issues in the country that need to be addressed.”
The normalisation of xenophobic language on social media and in the political and public sphere has led those behind the #PutSouthAfricansFirst hashtag to act more callously, and proudly proclaim to be xenophobes and nationalists. But although the campaign makes a lot of noise on social media, one thing the low attendance at recent marches has shown is that the online noise has yet to translate into popular support on the ground.