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Has South Africa’s Donald Trump Arrived?

The xenophobic firebrand Nhlanhla “Lux” Mohlauli is courting poor Black voters by stoking hatred of foreigners. It’s working.

Operation Dudula leader Nhlanhla “Lux” Mohlauli
Operation Dudula leader Nhlanhla “Lux” Mohlauli
Operation Dudula leader Nhlanhla “Lux” Mohlauli arrives for the Soweto Revival Launch at Diepkloof Extreme Park in Soweto township in Johannesburg on Feb. 27. PHILL MAGAKOE/AFP via Getty Images
By , a journalist based in Johannesburg.

JOHANNESBURG—In heavy army boots, fatigues, and his trademark bulletproof vest, Nhlanhla “Lux” Mohlauli danced the toyi-toyi down the streets of Johannesburg on May 27. Supporters in military garb followed him in doing the iconic South African protest dance, some with their faces hidden by balaclavas, others armed with handcuffs, all shouting anti-immigrant slogans and carrying “South Africa First” banners. South Africa’s answer to America’s Proud Boys were on the move.

Lux, the charismatic millennial behind Operation Dudula, a new South African movement terrorizing migrants from neighboring countries and stoking xenophobia, had just appeared in court for ransacking a house where he believed drugs were being sold, and he had begun leading a defiant march back to his home turf of Soweto.

I assumed that the Operation Dudula leader, having exited the court—the case was once again delayed—in a suit and tie but having quickly changed into camo in the back of a car, couldn’t have been carrying his pistol, which he usually has on him, even during interviews in his own home.

JOHANNESBURG—In heavy army boots, fatigues, and his trademark bulletproof vest, Nhlanhla “Lux” Mohlauli danced the toyi-toyi down the streets of Johannesburg on May 27. Supporters in military garb followed him in doing the iconic South African protest dance, some with their faces hidden by balaclavas, others armed with handcuffs, all shouting anti-immigrant slogans and carrying “South Africa First” banners. South Africa’s answer to America’s Proud Boys were on the move.

Lux, the charismatic millennial behind Operation Dudula, a new South African movement terrorizing migrants from neighboring countries and stoking xenophobia, had just appeared in court for ransacking a house where he believed drugs were being sold, and he had begun leading a defiant march back to his home turf of Soweto.

I assumed that the Operation Dudula leader, having exited the court—the case was once again delayed—in a suit and tie but having quickly changed into camo in the back of a car, couldn’t have been carrying his pistol, which he usually has on him, even during interviews in his own home.

“No gun today?” I asked.

“Look under your jacket,” Lux replied with a flirty grin.

I did. With the sleight of hand of a magician he’d taken his pistol from his pocket and held it at my waist.

“Hope the safety’s on,” I said, and he looked suitably chastised, then reassured me he’s a pro and offered to teach me how to shoot.


Lux marches down a Johannesburg street, accompanied by supporters.
Lux marches down a Johannesburg street, accompanied by supporters.

Lux marches down a Johannesburg street, accompanied by supporters, after an appearance at Roodepoort Magistrate Court on May 27. Kate Bartlett for Foreign Policy

The 35-year-old is gaining popularity in South Africa for his vicious diatribes against foreign African nationals, blaming them for stealing locals’ jobs and the high rate of violent crime. Operation Dudula, meaning “eradicate” in Zulu, targets places where Zimbabweans, Mozambicans, and others work, and its events have often turned violent.

In April, a Zimbabwean man in an informal settlement near Johannesburg was lynched by a mob—just hours after Lux visited the area spouting anti-immigrant rhetoric.

With unemployment at an official 35 percent, youth unemployment at  64 percent, and widespread poverty, South Africans are looking for a reason for their woes. Some blame the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party for failing to deliver on its promises. Twenty-eight years after the advent of the “Rainbow Nation,” many people living in shacks are still waiting for promised government housing; the state power utility, Eskom, has collapsed to the point that there are frequent power cuts; and even millions of dollars meant to help fight COVID-19 were found to have been misappropriated.

But for many, it’s immigrants—who make up about 5 percent of the population—who are easy scapegoats.

South Africa is the continent’s most developed economy, attracting migrants seeking a better life from poorer neighboring countries such as Mozambique and Zimbabwe, while others come from as far afield as Somalia, fleeing conflict. Many of them have worked hard to establish small businesses, setting up convenience stores known as spaza shops in the townships. Others work in restaurants or as cleaners and gardeners, or they drive trucks or Ubers. Analysts say these people do the jobs South Africans don’t want, with fewer protections, and they argue that migrants in fact aid the economy.

The N3 highway, a crucial corridor between the economic powerhouse of Johannesburg and the country’s main container port of Durban, is regularly blockaded by protesters decrying the employment of foreign drivers. The freight industry said a three-day blockade last month cost the struggling economy 300 million rand (about $20 million). While nothing as organized and media-savvy as Operation Dudula has been seen before, there have been other flare-ups of xenophobic violence and anarchy, notably in 2008, when more than 60 people were killed, and more recently in 2019, when about a dozen people died.

Loath to alienate a large part of the electorate, the government has been slow to condemn xenophobia, with some ministers openly espousing it themselves.

Still, loath to alienate a large part of the electorate, the government has been slow to condemn xenophobia, with some ministers openly espousing it themselves.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa has, belatedly, denounced the likes of Operation Dudula. Julius Malema of the opposition Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party, South Africa’s original populist rabble-rouser, has haughtily dismissed Lux as a “small boy” but in some ways Malema appears to be emulating him.

Malema himself came to prominence as a youth leader in the ANC but was thrown out for bringing the party into disrepute. He then founded the populist EFF in 2013. As with Operation Dudula, image was everything for the EFF, with its lawmakers donning workers’ overalls—in communist red—and regularly disrupting parliament. Malema railed against “white monopoly capital” and vowed to take back South Africa’s privately owned land—which remains largely in the hands of the white minority. The EFF is now South Africa’s third-biggest party, gaining ground in the last general election in 2019 and taking more than 10 percent of the vote, while the victorious ANC saw its worst-ever performance.

But Operation Dudula’s leader says the EFF and ANC are has-beens, and, with his good looks, abundant charm, and a hateful message that appeals to many in this deeply unequal country burdened with a brutal history, Lux certainly looks set to be a new, dangerous rising star in South African politics.

So, is he an opportunist, tapping into an obvious grievance; is he a narcissist and fantasist who’ll do anything for Instagram likes and likely a political career; or does he really believe what he says?


At every Operation Dudula event—usually involving angry speeches over a loudspeaker followed by a march to immigrant areas where terrified foreign nationals are asked for their papers, threatened, sometimes beaten, and routinely have their stalls trashed—Lux makes his entrance like the Messiah resurrected and tells the crowd why foreigners are the source of all the problems in South Africa today. The police helpfully cordon off the roads for the marchers and then stand aside.

After Lux speaks, he’s swarmed by besotted supporters—many wearing T-shirts emblazoned with his face—clamoring for selfies, from hip middle-class youth to the gogos or grannies he’s always boasting about helping to protect.

On the May 27 march through Johannesburg with Operation Dudula members carrying anti-immigrant banners and shouting that “kwerekweres” (a derogatory term for foreign nationals) must go home, cars honked their support. One driver actually pulled over and got out to hug Lux, gushing, “I love you so much!” Lux, as he often does, just gave a jaunty wink.

But it’s not all guns and machismo. Lux is a riot of contradictions, from his posh private-schoolboy accent and love of literature to his obsession with golf and fondness for jazz.

The sprawling township of Soweto—synonymous to most non-South Africans with the 1976 uprising during which police killed nearly 200 students, and the former home of Nelson Mandela—lies about 45-minute drive from Johannesburg’s leafy northern suburbs, the result of the policy of apartheid spatial planning meant to separate the races.

The bridge leading to the township is plastered with ads for tombstone carvers and funeral parlors, in a place where death, either because of violent crime or diseases like AIDS, is big business. Also frequently advertised are the services of sangomas, or witch doctors, offering penis enlargement or backstreet abortions. Ramshackle hair salons and barbers with hand-painted signs do a roaring trade, and there’s music blasting from the taverns on almost every corner.

Lux grew up here, raised by a single mother after she split with his “career criminal” father—a bank robber with a Robin Hood bent who, according to Lux, gave his ill-gotten gains to the ANC-in-exile. Whether this is true or a son’s fantasy, like many of the Operation Dudula leader’s unverifiable claims, is hard to tell. He often appears to embroider the truth and is prone to exaggerate.

These days there has been an obvious injection of new money into Soweto, with large middle-class homes springing up, some of them almost palatial. Still, it’s a far cry from old-money Sandton, where blonde women wearing Lululemon athletic wear sip soy lattes while walking pedigree pooches, and where Lux got a sports and academic scholarship to attend one of Johannesburg’s most elite private schools, St. David’s Marist Inanda.

It was there that the kid from Soweto learned to play the piano, honed his oratory skills on the debate team, hung out with rich white friends, and became an avid golfer.

His mom, Rose Mohlauli, a pretty woman who looks younger than her age and exudes warmth, told me one day, luckily out of her son’s earshot, that as a teen he was called a “cheeseboy”—township slang for someone posh enough to afford the fancy dairy product.  She’s proud of him, she said, though his new high-profile platform worries her, and so she goes to every Operation Dudula rally as his “bodyguard.”

At school, Lux said, he got to travel for sports, visiting China and other countries. But he wasn’t a fan, complaining: “In other places people speak English, but they’re weird, you can’t even hear half the things they’re saying.” Ironically, he went on to start a degree in international relations at the University of Johannesburg.

He later turned his ambitions skyward—literally—and trained as a pilot.

So how did a guy who loves old-school hip hop and is currently reading a Paulo Coelho novel end up heading a xenophobic movement?

Ironically, Lux says it all started out as community activism.

“I went to better schools because of bursaries,” he said. “I learned that there’s a different world, there’s a very rich world, because of these schools, and there’s a very poor world where I come from.”

So he decided to help children in Soweto who’d had less opportunity, finding them secondhand soccer cleats and tutoring them in math.

“Over time … we started being a serious force in the township,” he said. “When a mayor or whoever comes into the township and people just want to kill this person because there’s no service delivery, they would then ask me or us to be there to mediate.”

Indeed, at an April 28 imbizo, or town hall meeting, in Soweto, angry resident after angry resident took turns at the microphone to hurl abuse at Police Minister Bheki Cele for what they said was a failure of the police to keep the neighborhood safe from drug dealers and thieves, a failure of government to provide basic services like electricity, and a failure of the ANC in general to better the lives of Black people post-apartheid. Cele could only sit stony-faced, as the fury in the room was palpable, with many in attendance vowing never to vote for the ruling party again.

Operation Dudula’s anti-immigrant message had certainly struck a chord among many of the attendees, with one man telling the police chief that “foreigners are roaming around our country, they’re doing whatever they want to do.”

Lux in the dock during a court appearance.
Lux in the dock during a court appearance.

Lux in the dock during his court appearance at the Roodepoort Magistrate Court near Johannesburg on March 28. PHILL MAGAKOE/AFP via Getty Images

Lux has become even more prominent in his community since July 2021, when South Africa experienced some of the worst violence of the post-apartheid era. Sparked by the brief jailing of former President Jacob Zuma for contempt of court, riots broke out in parts of the country, descending into the widespread looting of shops and businesses. That’s when, Lux says, he called friends in the community who like him owned guns, and they took up guard outside Soweto’s Maponya Mall, keeping looters at bay.

They were hailed as heroes, and Operation Dudula in its current form emerged from an anti-looting operation, though it has since morphed into an anti-immigrant movement. Why? Because while South Africans might be arrested for stealing food to eat, foreigners are responsible for drug dealing and “a large majority of violent crimes,” Lux claims.

South Africans are justifiably outraged at levels of crime in the country, which has among the highest murder rates in the world, and Lux is riding a wave of communal anger, but statistics show foreign nationals actually only make up a small percentage of the prison population.

South Africans are justifiably outraged at levels of crime in the country, and Lux is riding a wave of communal anger, but statistics show foreign nationals actually only make up a small percentage of the prison population.

“This is our country, and we’ll put South Africans first in South Africa,” Lux said when asked how far he’s prepared to go. “We will meet force with force. … If you kill us we will have to at some point let our animal instinct of defending our lives kick in.”

Then, with his typical cliched bravado, he adds: “I am not scared of anyone. … I’m a product of Soweto, I’ve seen countless people die in front of me.”

Lux’s own house is still in the township, where he lives on a quiet street with his wife and twin toddlers as well as about 10 young men from Operation Dudula who sport Black Panther-esque berets and bulletproof vests, and lounge around smoking shisha: part bodyguards, part frat bros. The house has all the accoutrements of the new middle classes. In the yard next door, a pit bull barks angrily.

Lux said he has dubbed his home “the White House,” and he proceeded to make some off-color Monica Lewinsky jokes. But the well-stocked bookshelves tell of his other side, too, as they display an eclectic range of titles from the Complete Works of Oscar Wilde to Graham Greene and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

Asked where his own money comes from, as well as how Operation Dudula is funded, “the commander,” as Lux is called by his saluting acolytes, is always vague. He had several businesses, now on hold, he replies, and as for the movement—well, everyone chips in.


People burn tires during a protest against rising crime they attribute to foreigners.
People burn tires during a protest against rising crime they attribute to foreigners.

Men are seen behind burning tires as community members protest rising crime in Diepsloot, South Africa, on April 6. GUILLEM SARTORIO/AFP via Getty Images

On April 6, Lux and Operation Dudula visited an impoverished informal settlement called Diepsloot, where corrugated iron shacks stretch as far as the eye can see and where residents are living in fear of violent crime—for which many blame foreign nationals.

That night, Elvis Nyathi, a 43-year-old Zimbabwean father of four who held a steady job as a gardener and had lived in South Africa for six years, was set on fire and burned alive by a South African mob. The mob had been going around the shacks demanding to see residency papers of foreigners living there.

But asked if he felt responsible for Nyathi’s death and sorry for his family, Lux was unequivocal.

“I don’t have enough info to feel pity for Elvis’s wife,” he said. “I am busy mourning the lives of South Africans who died at the hands of foreigners.”

In the wake of the murder, Nyathi’s family fled back to Zimbabwe, but not before they held a memorial service at a community center in Johannesburg. The vitriolic responses I received when I tweeted about the memorial are a testament to just how mainstream xenophobic hatred in South Africa, including on social media, has become.

At the memorial, Nyathi’s widow, wrapped up in a blanket and almost catatonic, couldn’t respond to questions. But a cousin, Velempini Ndlovu, told me what had happened in Diepsloot on the night of the attack.

A vigilante group came to the family’s shack and asked to see their identity documents as well as demanding 300 rand (about $20), Ndlovu said. The family gave them 50 rand, which was all they had. That’s when the assailants beat up Nyathi and his wife.

“Then they took the husband to further beat him up and then burn him alive … so my cousin was actually killed for 250 rand,” Ndlovu said bitterly.

The memorial service was a humble affair. Mourners sang along to a gospel singer clad in a shiny gold coat, while a brief slideshow of Nyathi’s life flitted sadly across a bedsheet hung by the stage. At the entrance, a company called Zororo Phumulani Funeral Plan was using the occasion to advertise its insurance services.

Police cordoned off the area, presumably to prevent any xenophobic attacks on the memorial, but found themselves instead having to protect the Zimbabwean ambassador to South Africa from his own countrymen.

When Ambassador David Hamadziripi got up to speak, he was shouted offstage by angry migrants who blame the fact that they have to be in South Africa at all on the Zimbabwean government and its disastrous economic policies. Wide-eyed, Hamadziripi fled the building under police protection and sped off in his car with diplomatic license plates.


While Zimbabwe’s ruling party failed to use the memorial service as a political platform, other groups were more successful. In attendance was a contingent from Malema’s EFF, which has positioned itself as anti-Operation Dudula. The EFF members hijacked the service as a pulpit to rail against Black-on-Black violence.

Many of Malema’s policies favor opportunism over ideology, and he changes with the winds. The aging enfant terrible was first Zuma’s greatest defender, then his biggest detractor. He says he speaks for the working class, but he wears Gucci and Louis Vuitton. He initially rejected jumping on the xenophobia bandwagon and has, to his credit, regularly condemned attacks on foreign migrants, presenting himself as a Pan-Africanist.

However, shortly after Lux launched a January operation forcing foreign vendors from the sidewalks in Soweto, Malema paid a highly publicized visit to Johannesburg restaurants to check the local-to-foreign worker ratio. He denied the checks were xenophobic, framing them as a way to protect fellow Africans from being exploited. However, the photo-op would have played well with EFF supporters who’ve seen him as weak on migrants and who might have been turning toward more radical groups like Operation Dudula.

With his penchant for metaphors, Lux compared the EFF leader to a Nokia phone; it was once hip, he said, but no one has wanted one since the iPhone was invented. Operation Dudula, of course, is a high-end Apple product in his view.

So, who does he admire in global politics? Well, the man whose rhetoric most resembles his, of course: Donald Trump.

“I don’t know if I liked the man, but I liked his views definitely,” Lux said. “Putting Americans first in America and prioritizing Americans over illegal foreigners, man, that’s a no brainer—it’s what Dudula does.”

Lux (center) raises his fist alongside Soweto residents.
Lux (center) raises his fist alongside Soweto residents.

Lux (center) raises his fist while chanting slogans with Soweto township residents as they march to deliver a petition over what they say is a general lack of service delivery and electricity in their community at the Johannesburg mayor’s office on June 21. PHILL MAGAKOE/AFP via Getty Images

With no trace of irony, the 35-year-old regularly compares himself to icons of South Africa’s liberation struggle. Still, he said he’s not using Operation Dudula as a stepping stone into the mainstream political arena, even though people are pressing him to run for office. But his protestations can’t help but feel disingenuous, and it’s clear his swift rise to notoriety has spurred greater political ambitions.

As in other countries where upstart far-right movements have siphoned voters away from established parties, other politicians are now clambering to catch up.

As in other countries where upstart far-right movements have siphoned voters away from established parties, other politicians are now clambering to catch up. Rather than disavowing Operation Dudula, many are taking a leaf out of its book, and it’s not just minor opposition parties like ActionSA and the Patriotic Alliance—the latter of which has been sending members to “confiscate” expired goods from migrant-owned shops. It’s members of the governing ANC itself.

Just last month, Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula blamed “illegal foreigners” for the high rates of unemployment in the country, and when I asked Cele, the police minister, to denounce attacks on migrants like Nyathi, he echoed Lux in saying that the focus should be on South Africans who’ve been killed. His refusal to condemn xenophobia in no uncertain terms shows how the government is scared to alienate citizens by coming out too strongly against Operation Dudula.

As South African voters head to the polls in 2024, the ANC will be looking to distract them from its massive failings. As the party’s traditional voter base ages, South Africa’s so-called born frees, or those who don’t remember the anti-apartheid struggle, will be looking for new, inspiring politicians—not “dinosaurs,” as Lux calls the current crop of lawmakers, but savvy millennials like him who can quote Jay-Z. Those in government may be keen to dismiss Lux as a clown, but they do so at their peril, much as elites in the United States dismissed another evident narcissist no one saw coming in 2016.

“I just lead people, I lead the free world, I lead everyone outside politics, which is the majority of the country, so that’s why the politicians are scared,” Lux said. “If I say we’re turning into a political party, our movement is too big, it will definitely change the landscape, everything will change.”

Kate Bartlett is a journalist based in Johannesburg.

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