South Africa: Anti-Immigrant Rhetoric Gained Ground During Run-Up to South Africa’s Elections

An online activity report by the Centre for Analytics and Behavioural Change (CABC) has found that South Africa’s socio-economic problems are increasingly being blamed on immigrants.

Between January 1, 2024, and April 30, 2024, there were more than 1.5 million mentions online regarding immigrants, with the main topics centered on the employment of immigrants, alleged crimes they commit, and calls to deport them. This negativity seems to have accompanied the rise of political parties that campaign for tougher immigration laws such as Patriotic Alliance (PA) and Action SA.

According to CABC, news media coverage about immigrants in South Africa was about specific incidents and failures surrounding the immigration system. However, conversations on social media were focused on fear-mongering and biased narratives that further divided society through making unauthenticated claims about criminal activities and proposing mass deportation from South Africa.

In May alone, the conversation saw over 450,000 mentions with top hashtags such as #Abahambe, related to the Patriotic Alliance’s border patrol activities led by Gayton McKenzie. Others included #PutSouthAfricaFirst; #ElectionResults; #SAElections.

The report found that hashtags like #Abahambe and #onsbaizanie posts mainly revolved around the party calling “on all Gauteng residents who have fallen victim to crimes committed by illegal foreigners” to attend a meeting, and those reporting on the activities of Patriotic Alliance as it prepares for, during and after elections. #OperationDudula was mostly driven by the @PSAFLive account which reported on alleged crimes committed by immigrants within South African borders.

Election-related hashtags, #ElectionResults, and #SAElections24, motivated discussions on the EFF’s performance. Most reposted content was that the EFF lost votes because it failed to “prioritize” South Africans.

Anti-immigrant remarks resonate among a sizable online community and were used in some parties’ campaigns,” according to the CABC. “This online anti-immigrant sentiment has now been bolstered with increased political power.”

The report said that social media platforms spread “fear, prejudice, and divisive narratives” that had no basis on immigrant crime. To counter this, the CABC suggests that civil society organizations, campaigns, and the media combat xenophobia, racism, and hate speech in online discussions; leverage social media for advocacy on immigration issues; and cover policy implications, legal frameworks, and administrative reforms when reporting on immigration.