After Elvis Nyathi, a Zimabwean gardener, was brutally murdered on April 6 near his township home in Diepsloot, north of Johannesburg, video clips began to circulate among migrant communities in the area. They showed a group of around 30 men beating Nyathi with sticks, then pouring gasoline on him and setting him alight. According to reports, the attackers had accused him of being a criminal for not producing a passport to prove that he was a legal migrant. 

Nyathi was the victim of the violent anti-migrant mob violence that has become commonplace in South Africa’s townships in recent years. The xenophobic attacks on people and property often go uninvestigated by the police, and officers have been accused of extortion when they do respond. Amnesty International has described the years of inaction leading to this moment as a failure of the country’s criminal justice system. 

With little trust in the police, migrant communities have had to find their own ways to protect themselves and their businesses, using Facebook, WhatsApp, Telegram, and Twitter to create early warning systems, find solidarity, and support one another.  

“I keep a WhatsApp group of 250 members to keep my brothers informed, in case of any anti-migrant unrest,” Festos Markos, an Ethiopian community leader based in Diepsloot, told Rest of World. “Sometimes a simple warning in our WhatsApp group keeps us on guard, in case anyone needs rescuing.”

Activists at the African Diaspora Workers Network (ADWN) say attacks on migrants have become more frequent in recent years, with so-called nationalist movements and online campaigns like #OperationDudula (dudula translates roughly to “push away” in the isiZulu and isiXhosa languages) and #PutSouthAfricansFirst springing up, fueled in part by a stubbornly high unemployment rate, which is now estimated unofficially to be roughly 35%, and by rising inflation.

“It is sad that migrants are being used as scapegoats for the country’s failures.”

“It is sad that migrants are being used as scapegoats for the country’s failures,” Dr. Janet Munakamwe, chairperson for ADWN — which is a migrant activist organization and member of the media team at Kopanang (which means “unite”) Africa Against Xenophobia (KAAX), a coalition of civil society groups that campaign against discrimination — told Rest of World.

As the tensions have spiked, more migrant business owners and community members have joined private groups to stay ahead of the threats, said four migrant business owners who spoke with Rest of World. The groups aim to alert members when mobs are closing in to attack their shops and communities, to coordinate rescues, and to console the bereaved and injured. The group administrators are usually community leaders, influential people who are well informed, well connected, and keep an eye on the spaces where anti-migrant groups operate. 

Fellow countrymen and other concerned migrants are invited to join through secret group links on WhatsApp and Facebook. Membership is strictly by invitation, to guard against potential spies from vigilante mobs getting access to the group. Serious discussions and debates take place on more-formal platforms, such as Microsoft Teams and Zoom Apps. 

Before the violence in April that led to Nyathi’s death, Facebook and WhatsApp groups for Diepsloot migrant groups were flooded with warnings of a coming “shutdown” of businesses. These shutdowns are a strategy used by disgruntled township residents as a form of protest against the government, but they often end in violence against migrants and looting of their property.

The April shutdown was rallied by a group calling itself “Diepsloot Residents,” after reports that seven locals had been killed over a single weekend in Diepsloot, allegedly by migrants. South African police minister Bheki Cele said the additional killings had taken place between October and December 2021, but names of the victims were never disclosed. Activists have pointed out the lack of evidence linking migrants to the murders; some have even questioned if the deaths happened at all. Xenophobic mobs were also organized on social media, including around the #OperationDudula hashtag.  

Even though migrants were warned through their social media groups to stay safe and stay indoors, mobs came knocking on their doors demanding passports.

For Markos, the owner of a small Ethiopian restaurant and grocery store, this was all unpleasantly familiar. His shops were looted during earlier waves of xenophobic attacks in 2008, 2015, and 2019. The attacks prompted him to create a social media group to help keep the community safe. The group is also used to plan funerals and make donations to repatriate deceased community members to Ethiopia. Markos and other members of the Ethiopian community have arranged funerals of fellow countrymen who were murdered during the frequent robberies that target migrant-owned businesses in the township. Two members of his community have been shot dead this year during robberies.

In Pretoria, Hamza Abdirahmaan Mahamad, who is originally from Somaliland, also turns to a WhatsApp group of scores of Somali business owners around South Africa for support and information. He is part of the Somali business community on Facebook as well, where he has donated to victims of attacks. Mahamad lost his grocery shop during xenophobic attacks in 2019 and now works in transportation, though there are anti-migrant attacks in that industry too. 

KAAX has started a hashtag campaign to counter xenophobic hate speech spreading through social media platforms, but it has faced an aggressive response. Members of the coalition report being cyberbullied by nationalist groups and had hate speech directed at them during their Twitter campaigns. There have been allegations that anti-migrant groups sending voice notes to migrant social media groups, messages and videos warning migrants to leave the country or face death.

While social media has been the primary communication tool of nationalists and other anti-migrant groups, it has also served as a source of solace and safety for communities who are trying to protect themselves from future attacks. “In the midst of all the pain and suffering here in South Africa, social media gives us a place to hide away,” Mahamad said.