Who is behind South Africa’s xenophobic nationalism?

By amaBhungane Reporters

Evidence gathered for amaBhungane suggests that if South Africa descends into xenophobic violence, it will be disproportionately due to the actions of a few political actors.

Two years ago, on 27 April 2020, the #PutSouthAfricansFirst campaign was launched. 

It was just one month into South Africa’s Covid-19 hard lockdown, and with this launch, South Africa’s turn towards xenophobic nationalism took a giant step forward. 

Unlike grassroots, organic movements, this movement appeared to arrive fully formed from day one. One could hypothesise many potential agendas behind the move towards targeting foreigners for political gain. After all, this political play – tapping into our desire to protect “our own” from “the other” – is as old as society itself.  

Who in the South African context might be open to such a cynical strategy?

  • Perhaps the ANC Radical Economic Transformation (RET) faction has realised their attempts to position “White Monopoly Capital” (WMC) as the bogeyman responsible for all the country’s ills have not delivered the political goals they had hoped for, and now they are looking to galvanise new political momentum?
  • Maybe other elements of the incumbent ANC, aware of their own failure, decided to shift the blame on to foreigners to obfuscate their own shortcomings?
  • Perhaps ActionSA, a newly birthed party, looked to the successes of Trump’s Maga movement and similar movements around the world and realised the power of a similar nationalist message?
  • Maybe so-called WMC actors did something similar to shift attention away from their role in contributing to the unequal society we live in today?

Some of these scenarios seem more plausible than others when one looks at the pre-history of the #PutSouthAfricansFirst movement, its launch, who has used the hashtag, and the social media data produced around its use.

What we do know is that two noteworthy groups were there on day one when #PutSouthAfricansFirst launched: ActionSA’s Herman Mashaba and the alleged ANC RET-offshoot party, the African Transformation Movement (ATM). 

Were these two groups unwitting early adopters of a dangerous message or were they in on the game?

Emphatically no, says ActionSA’s national chairperson, Michael Beaumont. He told amaBhungane: “It is simplistic and malicious that Herman Mashaba’s long-standing outspokenness about illegal immigration, which long pre-dates the #PutSouthAfricansFirst movement, can be interpreted as evidence that either he or ActionSA were part of a coordinated effort or campaign.”

He added, “If you seek someone to blame for xenophobic violence, look no further than our own national government that has failed to manage our borders, failed to document people legitimately in our country and failed to protect South Africans and foreigners alike against criminality in our country – the confluence of these failures is responsible for the constant threat of xenophobic outbreaks in our country.”

The ATM also denied being part of a campaign, noting: “Your theory or analysis is nothing but a wild witch-hunt and an attempt to mire the ATM into controversy.”

Other groups that had been circling around the ANC factional battles, such as the All Truck Drivers Forum (ATDF) and the Umkhonto weSizwe Military Veterans Association (MKMVA) also had a strong presence from early on.

Figure 1: Diagram of the main groups involved.

One can ascribe the rise in anti-foreigner, nationalist narratives to specific dynamics within South Africa, but the truth is that these dynamics occur in many societies. Such movements have been the go-to tool in any populist’s toolbox from time immemorial. (See sidebar, How to create a populist movement, below)

The question is: have these resentments been deliberately manipulated and boosted?

Birth of a movement: the seeds of #PutSouthAfricansFirst

The slogan has quite a pedigree. The first use of the #PutSouthAfricansFirst hashtag occurred on 4 February 2020. The tweeter was Letshela Mofokeng, who describes himself as the leader of the Nationals of South Africa (NSA), a “socially conservative political party in South Africa, standing for free speech, traditional & family values, national sovereignty”, whose tagline is “we put South Africans first”.

inset 2

Mofokeng told amaBhungane, “We [NSA] are a centre-right conservative party… Our party was registered with the slogan ‘Put SA First’… It started as my own campaign, and back in the day people weren’t really talking about illegal immigrants because they’d be labelled xenophobic.” 

After this single use, it was not used again until its seemingly coordinated launch on 27 April 2020. 

Even before #PutSouthAfricansFirst appeared as a hashtag, the ATM (whose head of strategy was Gupta-associate and later Zuma spokesperson Mzwanele Manyi) used a variation of this slogan as far back as

2019. 

inset 3
Figure 3: A screenshot of the ATM’s now-defunct website front page from April 2019.

The ATM told amaBhungane, “For us at the ATM the term Put South Africa First is first and foremost an acronym that predates all the dates that are part of your poorly researched analysis. The acronym is made up of the first letters of the ATM values as enshrined in the Constitution of the ATM which dates back to June 2018. Our values are: P-eace, U-buntu, T-ransformation, S-ervanthood, A-ccountability.” 

That same year, on 2 September 2019, a march organised by the Sisonke People’s Forum and the All Truck Drivers Forum took a xenophobic turn and 12 people were murdered.

Going even further back, Piet Rampedi (an editor in the increasingly RET-aligned Independent Media stable) reported that Mario Khumalo’s South African First party was behind the #PutSouthAfricansFirst hashtag and that, although the party was registered in November 2016, the idea for the movement was first floated as far back as 2008 after the xenophobic attacks of that year

Inset 4

Two years ago, on 27 April 2020, the #PutSouthAfricansFirst campaign was launched. 

It was just one month into South Africa’s Covid-19 hard lockdown, and with this launch, South Africa’s turn towards xenophobic nationalism took a giant step forward. 

https://7361b64a400ccfdd04a8d223e332ea3e.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html

Adverts on/off? You choose.

Unlike grassroots, organic movements, this movement appeared to arrive fully formed from day one. One could hypothesise many potential agendas behind the move towards targeting foreigners for political gain. After all, this political play – tapping into our desire to protect “our own” from “the other” – is as old as society itself.  

Who in the South African context might be open to such a cynical strategy?

  • Perhaps the ANC Radical Economic Transformation (RET) faction has realised their attempts to position “White Monopoly Capital” (WMC) as the bogeyman responsible for all the country’s ills have not delivered the political goals they had hoped for, and now they are looking to galvanise new political momentum?
  • Maybe other elements of the incumbent ANC, aware of their own failure, decided to shift the blame on to foreigners to obfuscate their own shortcomings?
  • Perhaps ActionSA, a newly birthed party, looked to the successes of Trump’s Maga movement and similar movements around the world and realised the power of a similar nationalist message?
  • Maybe so-called WMC actors did something similar to shift attention away from their role in contributing to the unequal society we live in today?

Some of these scenarios seem more plausible than others when one looks at the pre-history of the #PutSouthAfricansFirst movement, its launch, who has used the hashtag, and the social media data produced around its use.

What we do know is that two noteworthy groups were there on day one when #PutSouthAfricansFirst launched: ActionSA’s Herman Mashaba and the alleged ANC RET-offshoot party, the African Transformation Movement (ATM). 

Were these two groups unwitting early adopters of a dangerous message or were they in on the game?

Emphatically no, says ActionSA’s national chairperson, Michael Beaumont. He told amaBhungane: “It is simplistic and malicious that Herman Mashaba’s long-standing outspokenness about illegal immigration, which long pre-dates the #PutSouthAfricansFirst movement, can be interpreted as evidence that either he or ActionSA were part of a coordinated effort or campaign.”

He added, “If you seek someone to blame for xenophobic violence, look no further than our own national government that has failed to manage our borders, failed to document people legitimately in our country and failed to protect South Africans and foreigners alike against criminality in our country – the confluence of these failures is responsible for the constant threat of xenophobic outbreaks in our country.”

The ATM also denied being part of a campaign, noting: “Your theory or analysis is nothing but a wild witch-hunt and an attempt to mire the ATM into controversy.”

Other groups that had been circling around the ANC factional battles, such as the All Truck Drivers Forum (ATDF) and the Umkhonto weSizwe Military Veterans Association (MKMVA) also had a strong presence from early on.

Figure 1: Diagram of the main groups involved.

One can ascribe the rise in anti-foreigner, nationalist narratives to specific dynamics within South Africa, but the truth is that these dynamics occur in many societies. Such movements have been the go-to tool in any populist’s toolbox from time immemorial. (See sidebar, How to create a populist movement, below)

The question is: have these resentments been deliberately manipulated and boosted?

Birth of a movement: the seeds of #PutSouthAfricansFirst

The slogan has quite a pedigree. The first use of the #PutSouthAfricansFirst hashtag occurred on 4 February 2020. The tweeter was Letshela Mofokeng, who describes himself as the leader of the Nationals of South Africa (NSA), a “socially conservative political party in South Africa, standing for free speech, traditional & family values, national sovereignty”, whose tagline is “we put South Africans first”.

inset 2
Figure 2: There was a single use of the #PutSouthAfricansFirst hashtag before its official launch of 27 April 2020.

Original tweet

Mofokeng told amaBhungane, “We [NSA] are a centre-right conservative party… Our party was registered with the slogan ‘Put SA First’… It started as my own campaign, and back in the day people weren’t really talking about illegal immigrants because they’d be labelled xenophobic.” 

After this single use, it was not used again until its seemingly coordinated launch on 27 April 2020. 

Even before #PutSouthAfricansFirst appeared as a hashtag, the ATM (whose head of strategy was Gupta-associate and later Zuma spokesperson Mzwanele Manyi) used a variation of this slogan as far back as 2019. 

inset 3
Figure 3: A screenshot of the ATM’s now-defunct website front page from April 2019.

The ATM told amaBhungane, “For us at the ATM the term Put South Africa First is first and foremost an acronym that predates all the dates that are part of your poorly researched analysis. The acronym is made up of the first letters of the ATM values as enshrined in the Constitution of the ATM which dates back to June 2018. Our values are: P-eace, U-buntu, T-ransformation, S-ervanthood, A-ccountability.” 

That same year, on 2 September 2019, a march organised by the Sisonke People’s Forum and the All Truck Drivers Forum took a xenophobic turn and 12 people were murdered.

Going even further back, Piet Rampedi (an editor in the increasingly RET-aligned Independent Media stable) reported that Mario Khumalo’s South African First party was behind the #PutSouthAfricansFirst hashtag and that, although the party was registered in November 2016, the idea for the movement was first floated as far back as 2008 after the xenophobic attacks of that year

Inset 4
14 August 2020: A post from the Twitter account of Mario Khumalo, founder and president of the South African First party. (Image: @MarioKhumalo)

 Source: New Frame 

Similarly, ActionSA’s Mashaba has a long history of being accused of xenophobia (for example, herehere and here) before his use of the hashtag – though he vehemently denies this label.

But the curious launch of #PutSouthAfricansFirst – on Freedom Day – is strongly suggestive of someone flipping a switch. 

Launching #PutSouthAfricansFirst

On 27 April 2020, the #PutSouthAfricansFirst movement was “officially” launched – albeit anonymously. On that day, thousands of tweets were generated by a large variety of users. 

Unlike more organic movements, there was no build-up. Instead, the movement arrived fully formed. Such immediately large tweet volumes on debut were not simply due to a single tweet going viral; rather, many different people were saying many different things that were mostly on message. 

This surprisingly broad variety of content using the hashtag coupled with the lack of an organic build-up in its popularity before 27 April 2020 suggests someone kicked off a planned campaign on that day. 

The chart below captures a subset of the tweets containing the hashtag (there were probably many more generated) and visualises how abruptly ….. read more on Daily Maverick

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