By Claire Doyen
Video by Michella Spatari/AFP
Soweto - Dressed in fatigues and a bulletproof vest, Nhlanhla “Lux” Mohlauli has marshalled the frustrations of ordinary South Africans into a militant new anti-immigrant movement.
Dubbed Operation Dudula, meaning "Push Back" in Zulu, the movement has since January given a new level of organisation to the xenophobic violence that has wracked South Africa for years.
Quickly, but professionally assembled protests have drawn thousands of people into the streets of Johannesburg, harnessing anger at rising crime and unemployment against foreigners living in the country.
"The objective is simple: fight against criminal elements in our communities," Mohlauli told AFP. "And it so happens that the majority of the problems in terms of criminality come from illegal foreigners."
He was born in Soweto in the twilight years of white rule but he says he went to "the richest white schools".
On the upper floor of his Soweto home, he takes calls non-stop as a small entourage appear comfortable in a house that has a gym, sauna, and - so he says - a weapons cache.
Officially, four million foreigners live in South Africa. But the government has no reliable estimates of how many people do not have visas.
Unemployment is at a record 35 percent, but is even higher among blacks, women and youths. Yet the dream of wealth in the continent's most advanced economy continues to draw migrants.
In March, Mohlauli was arrested for housebreaking. For him, that's not a transgression, but a tactic. One of Dudula's strategies is to raid homes based on tips that thieves or drug dealers are inside.
These tips come through closed messaging groups that have hundreds of members who greet each other in military terms.
Mohlauli insists that Dudula works with the South African Police Service (SAPS), not as vigilantes.
"The South African police is always appealing to anyone with any information on any criminality," police source told AFP. "We are not going to give out names or confirm any individual that gives the SAPS any information because we guarantee confidentiality."
Things don't always unfold that way. A man was killed in early April in a township north of Johannesburg, where police said militants went banging on doors demanding to see residents' visas.
Elvis Nyathi, a 44-year-old Zimbabwean, tried to run away. He was burned alive.
Two weeks later, Operation Dudula members staged a patrol to prevent the theft of electrical cables. Chronic theft of cables is one cause of South Africa's recurring blackouts.
But that evening, gunfire broke out, leaving one person dead and six wounded.
"All of the victims are reported to be South Africans. The nationality of the suspects is yet to be determined as they did not have any proof of identity," police said.
Such incidents ignite fears that violence could spread. In 2008, 62 people were killed in anti-immigrant riots. Other bouts of violence erupted 2015, 2016 and again in 2019.
Scholarships and sports helped Mohlauli get through university and into the golf business. He says he earned enough money in golf and doesn't need to work now.
His mother made sure that he received a good education. She cleaned shops owned by whites, and made sure that he went to the same schools as their children.
"I saw kids carrying lunch boxes that were far bigger and healthier than anything my own family would eat at night," he said.
His first big moment in the spotlight came during the riots that erupted in July, when more than 350 people were killed. He organised his community to defend a shopping mall in Soweto against looters.
His own videos of this effort went viral, and an interview replayed on news stations for days.
"Nhlanhla speaks what we want to hear. We want somebody bold enough to say 'close the borders'," said one of his followers, Thabang Moloi, 54.
President Cyril Ramaphosa has warned against Dudula's methods, saying that demanding identification from the public was akin to apartheid-era pass laws that restricted the movement of blacks.
But Mohlauli sounds unrepentant.
"We were ambushed by foreigners in South Africa," he said.