Xenophobia, nationalism & populism: what’s going on with #PutSouthAfricansFirst?

I worry that a xenophobic flare up is imminent in South Africa. The flames have been fanned for the past few months and we’re poised to reap the bitter harvest. There’s a hashtag that’s been bubbling just under the surface of many Twitter communities that is being used to marshal locals who don’t like people from other countries making a living in South Africa. It rears its head in the most unlikely places, from the Far Right to the Far Left, and it seems to represent a nascent movement that draws from a disparate set of interests.

A broad set of interests is tapping into this hashtag, which is mostly used to criticise the employment of foreigners (which, in turn, is often used as a proxy issue for attacking the Ramaphosa government). Are they doing this in a coordinated fashion or are they independently attempting to tap into, and harness, our discontent? I don’t know. This post is just intended to lay bare some of the pieces of the puzzle; how they all fit together remains to be seen (soon).

#PutSouthAfricansFirst is a clarion call to nationalism along the lines of Donald Trump’s Make America Great Again (MAGA) and the people using it range from everyday South Africans wishing the best for their kinfolk, all the way through to racist, xenophobic, Afrophobes, railing against the presence of non-South Africans in our country. Their calls have only become louder as they tap into people’s desperation and frustration caused by the economic hardship of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The African Transformation Movement’s (ATM) main slogan on their website

There are two sides to this ‘movement’:

  1. The ‘legitimate’, public side which is represented by former Johannesburg mayor, Herman Mashaba (who launches his new party, the People’s Dialogue, later this month on the 29th August 2020) and the African Transformation Movement (ATM), a party with strong Radical Economic Transformation and State Capture-era ties through its head of strategy and policy, Mzwanele Manyi, once an ANC spokesperson and briefly the owner of the former Gupta media empire. The ATM’s president, Vuyo Zungula, is also a big fan of the hashtag
  2. An anonymous side that is particularly vitriolic in its attacks on foreigners, led by accounts such as @uLerato_Pillay and @landback_, and which researchers have linked to the South Africa First (SAF) Party (see below)

…and somewhere in this mix we see truck drivers making their physical presence known on the ground.

Many groups are tapping into the #PutSouthAfricansFirst movement

Since 5 June this year (just over two months ago at the time of writing), I’ve collected roughly 434,000 uses of the hashtag which is a very sizable amount for any topic in South Africa. The hashtag (including related variations) receives several thousand daily uses:

Daily tweet volumes for #PutSouthAfricansFirst and related hashtags

Here’s what a sample of 321,953 of those tweets look like as a network where each node is a Twitter user, and users are connected to each other when they interact with each other by retweeting and @mentioning each other (communities of like-minded people are highlighted in different colours according to a community detection algorithm):

Interaction network showing the main groups using the #PutSouthAfricansFirst hashtag. I’ve only included the names of Twitter users who clearly identify themselves with the hashtag or associated groups.

Take a look below at some of the top hashtags being used in association with #PutSouthAfricansFirst. They include support for truck drivers, attacks on the Ramaphosa ANC, attacks on those perceived as supporting foreigners (Pearl Thusi and Thulas Nxesi) and counter-responses from various foreigner groups:

Many of the top hashtags being alongside #PutSouthAfricansFirst attack foreigners

Some things to consider:

Radical Economic Transformation, the ATM, truck drivers and fossil fuels

Arguably, the coming out party for the #PutSouthAfricansFirst ‘movement’ was the recent truck drivers strike. Drivers abandoned their trucks on highways across the country to protest the hiring of foreign drivers. This isn’t the first time truck drivers have lent their physical presence to political events though. Indeed, we’ve seen many of the groups in this data working together in the past.

Truck drivers previously played a key role in the EFF’s march ostensibly against loadshedding but really against reform attempts at Eskom that affect vested fossil fuel interests (paywall). The EFF march represented a real confluence of factions. It was spearheaded by the EFF and State Capture-era lobbyists, TransformRSA, who previously worked to protect Jacob Zuma and to promote nuclear energy over renewables (and the group has continued to attack the Ramaphosa presidency, with their work being given front page coverage in Independent Media-owned news properties e.g. here and here). The ATM was also in attendance (including Manyi and Zungula) at the EFF march and again in the mix here.

It’s important to emphasise that there’s little evidence that the EFF are aligned with the #PutSouthAfricansFirst movement though. In fact, they promote the opposite ideal: a pan-African society.

Herman Mashaba, The People’s Dialogue and anonymous xenophobes

Herman Mashaba is launching his new political party, The People’s Dialogue, on the 29th of August 2020 (#Launching29August), which just happens to be on the same day that a march is planned and promoted by #PutSouthAfricansFirst xenophobes under the #29AugustCitizensMarch hashtag. Mashaba has apparently denied that there’s any link between the two events happening on the same day despite both groups rallying behind the same #PutSouthAfricansFirst hashtag.

It might all just be a coincidence.

Finally, DFR Lab’s Jean le Roux has done some work digging into the identity of one of the prime xenophobes, @uLerato_Pillay, including links to Mario Khumalo’s South Africa First (SAF) party. The plot thickens…

What’s being said?

To round things off, let’s take a quick look at some more examples of the kinds of things that key players are saying in conjunction with the #PutSouthAfricansFirst hashtag:

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