For years, Freeman Bhengu tried to earn a living in Soweto, the township on the outskirts of the country’s commercial capital, Johannesburg, where he grew up. He wired houses, he helped renovate them and he even managed the local football talent. But nothing stuck.

On June 16, 2021, Bhengu, then 45, took a nine-hour bus trip from Hanover, a town in the Northern Cape province, to Soweto. He was eager to attend the launch of Operation Dudula, a grassroots movement lobbying against undocumented African migrants.

Dudula means “push out” in the Zulu language. For years, people from neighbouring countries have come to Africa’s most industrialised economy seeking economic prosperity. 

During the last two decades, tensions have arisen between Black South Africans and these migrants. Locals say they have taken jobs that should belong to them and have accused many migrants of running thriving drug trades within townships.

Dale McKinley, a spokesperson for the advocacy group Kopanang Africa Against Xenophobia (KAAX), attributes the rise of anti-immigration sentiment to the “socioeconomic realities of the majority”.

Since 2021, about a third of South Africans have been unemployed. “People are desperate, people are suffering and as a result, they turn to the most vulnerable, and the easiest targets, 

which are migrants, and particular, illegal migrants and those who don’t have documentation,” McKinley told Al Jazeera.

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