South Africa: Online Tactics Stoking Anti-Migrant Sentiment Around Xenophobic Killing, Report Shows

Cape Town — The killing of Elvis Nyathi, a Zimbabwean citizen who lived in Diepsloot, Johannesburg has prompted the Centre for Analytics and Behavioural Change (CABC) to unpack the online tactics that resulted in his death.

The CABC released a report highlighting how online posts stoked xenophobic tensions between South Africans and migrants.

A spate of several murders in Diepsloot had already strained relations between local and non-South African residents with Nyathi’s killing culminating after a series of anti-crime protests in the area spurred by Operation Dudula, a “self-appointed watchdog on the issue of illegal immigrants”, according to the CABC.

According to the CABC report, notable data included:

  • The phrase “Elvis Nyathi” which peaked at 6 000 mentions on 8 April 2022 was used in some posts that had no relation to the events that transpired in Diepsloot or to Nyathi’s murder;
  • Some Twitter users attempted to deflect attention away from Nyathi’s death by accusing the media of not reporting on seven people who had been allegedly killed in the area. This, despite confusion around the number and nationalities of the alleged victims;
  • A number of Twitter users express an anti-EFF sentiment, accusing the party of remaining silent when South Africans were killed in their country, but being vocal when foreign nationals are being killed; and
  • A number of Twitter posts mentioning #OperationDudula attempted to blame pre-existing social issues, mainly crime, on foreign nationals to create traction.

The report also found that graphic content was shared on various media platforms as South Africans and migrants tried to determine how such a violent hate crime could have taken place toward a person that was living in South Africa. The verified Twitter account of Professor Jonathan Moyo, a former Zimbabwean minister of higher & tertiary education, science & technology development, posted a graphically violent image of Nyathi’s death that was shared on SABC news, with the act referred to as Afrophobia.

Broader themes and media critique

The CABC also examined some of the broader themes among posts that ran between 05 and 10 April 2022 to help better understand the incident. This was done by inspecting hashtags that were trending within posts about xenophobia, migrants and immigrants. The first theme that stood out was an attack on both the media and opposition party, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). The posts tried to paint the picture that South African media can’t be trusted because they are not covering events that appeared to be of concern to those tweeting #operationdudula.

Criticism of the media and claims that certain media houses were avoiding important breaking stories was seen before by the CABC who in their report said was similar to what was seen during the 2021 July unrest in KwaZulu-Natal.

Posts that stoked ant-migrant sentiment

Posts that featured specific hashtags and reported on incidents of crime that were allegedly carried out by migrants were not confirmed by any official body, the CABC report found. Some of the topics that they covered focused on drugs, the murder of a police official, fraud using South African ID numbers to access SASSA grants, a hijacking, the recovery of a stolen Toyota Hilux by someone allegedly driving toward the Zimbabwean border and gender based violence. No evidence was offered to prove any of the accusations made in these posts.

The report concluded by saying that while uncertainty remained around the deaths of seven Dieploot residents, “a lack of knowledge was likely used to manipulate online discourse surrounding the death of Elvis Nyathi and potentially present a justification for his killing by an angry mob of
protestors outside the police station at Diepsloot”. Initial service delivery demands turned to anti-migrant sentiment driven by hashtags like #OperationDudula and #PutSouthAfricansFirst, the report said.