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The impact of migration and xenophobia in South Africa's elections

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

South Africa goes to the polls tomorrow, and this campaign season has seen a number of candidates pushing anti-immigrant sentiment. More than 30 parties are on the ballot, all of them trying to chip away at the ruling ANC, the African National Congress', absolute majority. Well, NPR's Emmanuel Akinwotu is reporting from Durban, South Africa. Hi there, Emmanuel.

EMMANUEL AKINWOTU, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise.

KELLY: Hey. Start with just how big an issue this is, immigration in South Africa.

AKINWOTU: Well, it's been a major issue for a long time, but in the lead-up to the elections, it's really taken off. South Africa holds more migrants than any other country on the continent, but it also had the highest unemployment in the world last year. And over the last week, just talking to people, this narrative has come up over and over again - just how much despair there is at the lack of opportunities, lack of jobs and really the failed promise of the post-apartheid settlement. And a lot of that anger has been channeled at the government but also at migrants, and it's manifesting in disturbing ways. In recent years, we've seen the rise of notorious vigilante groups, like one called Operation Dudula, and they raid and attack homes and businesses of foreign nationals. Dudula means to force out in Zulu, and they actually tried to register as a political party this year but were barred. But we're seeing this same sentiment spread through South African politics.

KELLY: Say more about that - like, what that actually looks like and sounds like on the campaign trail.

AKINWOTU: Well, there's one party called Patriotic Alliance, and they're led by a controversial figure called Gayton McKenzie. And he's posted videos like this one.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GAYTON MCKENZIE: Abahambe.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Abahambe.

MCKENZIE: Abahambe.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Abahambe.

AKINWOTU: Abahambe means they must go in Zulu. And in the video, McKenzie and other activists - they're running along the South African side of the Limpopo River, which borders Zimbabwe. And they're essentially chasing away migrants who are trying to cross into South Africa, and some of them have rifles and pistols. And there are other more establishment figures who are stirring this kind of sentiment, too. I met a businessman and politician called Herman Mashaba. He's the former mayor of Johannesburg, and he founded a party called ActionSA. That party is contesting in these elections. Mashaba is someone who has become more prominent because of the way he talks about migrants.

HERMAN MASHABA: There's a reason why we've been made a capital of the world. Every 11 minutes, a woman is raped in this country. They've allowed drug cartels from all over the world to come and destroy the lives of our youth, our families and our way of life.

AKINWOTU: And this kind of dangerous rhetoric has gone from being widely criticized along the margins to being more normalized. And even parties like the ANC, the African National Congress, which is a symbol of Pan-African unity in a way - they're taking a tougher line now, in part wary of losing support to groups like this.

KELLY: Emmanuel, have you been able to interview immigrants about all this while you've been in South Africa? What do they say?

AKINWOTU: Well, they talk about the way the environment has grown so much more threatening. We met Brian Muziringa. He's a 48-year-old Zimbabwean. He's been in South Africa since 2001 after fleeing political violence in his home country. And he told us he suffered several xenophobic attacks over the years. But despite what he's gone through, he feels he understands why this has been happening.

BRIAN MUZIRINGA: The people are frustrated from the social ills which are happening in the country. They tend to see the migrant as the weakest link for their voice to be heard. Vulnerable people tend to familiarize with people who speak what they want to hear.

AKINWOTU: And basically, this is the context for this election. The ANC are fighting to hold on to their majority because of growing frustration with the direction of the country, the economy. And hostility to immigration in South Africa is one of the ways that these political parties are exploiting that. The polls open tomorrow, and we're likely to get the results sometime in the next few days, possibly this weekend.

KELLY: Possibly results this weekend. OK. NPR's Emmanuel Akinwotu reporting there from Durban, South Africa. Thank you.

AKINWOTU: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Emmanuel Akinwotu
Emmanuel Akinwotu is an international correspondent for NPR. He joined NPR in 2022 from The Guardian, where he was West Africa correspondent.