Picture: Thulani Mbele
Picture: Thulani Mbele

The Bell Pottinger-type Twitterati that have agglomerated around #PutSouthAfricaFirst and "Lerato Pillay" took a step towards the outright sinister on the weekend, when appeals to "clean SA", alongside #NigeriansMustGo, began trending on the social media site.

The network of 80-odd fake accounts and the xenophobic vitriol it spews is not new: the Digital Forensic Research Lab reported on it in July, and UCT’s Centre for Analytics & Behavioural Change (CABC) released a tracking study on it last month. But its call to action on September 23 — ostensibly with a march to the Nigerian embassy in Pretoria — to "clean SA" and "reclaim" Hillbrow, Kempton Park and Sunnyside from "Nigerian criminals" carries shades of Rwanda in it.

The organic reach of the network’s dog-whistle is cause for concern: about 12,000 users were engaging in its conversations on April 1; by the end of May that number had reached 50,000, the CABC found — and was growing.

While the study notes the users have tended to steer clear of hate speech and incitement to violence — and so been protected from prosecution or a Twitter ban — that line seems to be fading fast, with threats to "assist them to leave the country if our demand is not met", and chilling exhortations to "start cleaning".

Given previous xenophobic violence in SA, one can but hope the police and security services are ready to move — and fast. But there’s little comfort in the fact that #WhereIsBhekiCele? is trending on social media. Where, indeed?

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