Again, Xenophobia in South Africa - A Nigerian Perspective
By Dele Agekameh
The great Nelson Mandela, that fine African who captured the hearts and minds of people all over the world, would be consumed by grief if he could behold what some South Africans are doing today. He always sued for tolerance, peace and equality, even in dealing with South Africa’s former oppressors. His foresight saved South Africa from the fate of many African nations today, and he never lost sight of what a strong Africa could be in the world.
Fresh attacks on black foreigners have, once more, unearthed the cankerworm of xenophobia in South Africa. In the latest spate of attacks, which began around the end of March, black foreigners in Brits, located in North West province and Durban, located in Kwazulu-Natal province have faced the hostilities of locals. The hostility has been aimed at persons and their businesses, in the same pattern of attacks that have become a regular occurrence in South Africa since 2008. Nationals of many African countries have had to seek refuge in police stations.
The widespread violence that erupted in South Africa in 2015 is still fresh in our memories, when a particularly bloody wave of xenophobia enveloped the country, after divisive remarks by Zulu King, Goodwill Zwelithini, stirred racial sentiments amongst the black population. The attackers have always cited competition for jobs and incursion of criminals from other parts of Africa as reasons for their outbursts against black foreigners in the country. Nigerians in South Africa have been accused as being behind majority of the activities that fuel the attacks in several instances, with places like the notorious Hillbrow area of Johannesburg being fingered as the den of “Nigerian criminals”.
The Nigerian government has said that hundreds of its nationals have been killed in South Africa in the past few years alone. On March 15, South African authorities confirmed that a 44 year old Nigerian man was killed in eastern Pretoria, and a manhunt was launched for his killers. Despite the repeated attacks and killings of Nigerians and other African nationals in the country, the hostility has never been contained. The attacks have continued, sometimes with the alleged complicity of South African police and even public figures, as in 2015.
The response of the Nigerian government has always been measured, and many would say, ineffective so far. What we have on our hands is a crisis that could trigger retaliatory attacks all over Africa. The governments of African countries like Nigeria, Malawi, Zimbabwe and others, who are usually caught up in the xenophobic episodes, have been too soft on their South African counterparts. Finding a lasting solution to the severe anti-African sentiments that bubbles beneath the surface amongst the black population has now become a matter of great serious concern to all.
The significant number of Nigerians migrating to other countries creates the impression that “Nigerians are taking over”. Thus, our size, which can be a strength, is working to our detriment in places like South Africa, where locals with xenophobic tendencies find the numbers of our countrymen around uncomfortable, despite the possible advantages of this large number to their economy.
On April 1, South African president, Cyril Ramaphosa, condemned the latest attacks, reminding his countrymen of the sacrifice of African countries towards the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. His message could pass for an “April fool” joke because the president himself has been credited with statements that could have incensed xenophobic sentiments. It is also clear that the election season rhetoric amongst South African political leaders, has stirred up those ugly sentiments. Black foreigners are the usual scapegoats for the high level of crime and economic strife suffered by the lowest rung of the South African society.
In decrying the targeted attacks on Nigerians and others in South Africa, one must also acknowledge that Nigeria has some bad eggs, all over the world, who have been giving the country a nasty name. Just recently, there was news of the apprehension of five Nigerians who allegedly were involved in the daring robbery of a money exchange house in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates (U.A.E). Within the same period, news of the execution of a Nigerian woman in Saudi Arabia for drug related offences was in the news. This led to a plea made by Abike Dabiri-Erewa, a senior special assistant to the president on diaspora affairs, for Nigerians to adopt good conduct when abroad. She said the woman executed in Saudi Arabia was the eighth Nigerian executed there in recent times, while another 20 are on death row in the kingdom. The image of the country is suffering a battering in many places. Even one of our closest neighbours, Ghana, recently deported scores of Nigerians who were reportedly subjected to inhumane treatment during the process.
The trouble of wide-scale emigration from Nigeria is not a surprising thing when the country is struggling to provide basic amenities to a growing population. It is often said that the generation of Nigerians below 45 years of age, have never seen a stable Nigeria, without the dream-killing and suffocating lack that pervades every facet of life. As Nigerians go in search of better systems and opportunities in foreign countries, the hardworking and focused ones are quietly assimilated into their new environments without ceremony, while the antics of the bad crops are publicised and magnified until it becomes a smear on the image of the country.
With the large population in Nigeria, the size of our emigrants are also substantial, especially in an underperforming economy. The significant number of Nigerians migrating to other countries creates the impression that “Nigerians are taking over”. Thus, our size, which can be a strength, is working to our detriment in places like South Africa, where locals with xenophobic tendencies find the numbers of our countrymen around uncomfortable, despite the possible advantages of this large number to their economy. Being the most identifiable African immigrants, because of their industry and numbers, Nigerians bear a great portion of the brunt of South Africa’s hatred.
Without paying much attention to the high crime rate in South Africa, even in neighbourhoods predominantly populated by native South Africans, South African political leaders and authorities irresponsibly point at African immigrants, through obvious accusations and subtle hints, and through inaction at times of xenophobic attacks. The weak response to the indolence of South African authorities is also a contributing factor that is, perhaps, the most unfortunate for the victims. Nigeria and other African countries need to explore all avenues available to pressure South African into taking responsibility and standing up to the dangerous fire of xenophobia burning within its borders. No better avenue than the African Union (AU) exists for an open discussion and adoption of measures to protect Africans in South Africa.
With the South African elections around the corner, there is a greater danger to Nigerians and other foreigners in this period. It will be wise for the Nigerian government to secure the assurances of South Africans that there will be consequences for inciting violence against Nigerians and others. In a continent that requires greater collaboration than ever before in its history, this seemingly small matter of xenophobia in South Africa can lead to far greater consequences for African unity if it is not dealt with decisively. A few high profile prosecutions will go a long way to reassure African countries of South Africa’s commitment to peaceful co-existence, to which it has only paid lip-service so far.
The great Nelson Mandela, that fine African who captured the hearts and minds of people all over the world, would be consumed by grief if he could behold what some South Africans are doing today. He always sued for tolerance, peace and equality, even in dealing with South Africa’s former oppressors. His foresight saved South Africa from the fate of many African nations today, and he never lost sight of what a strong Africa could be in the world. South Africans need to be reminded of the example laid down by their most revered statesman. Particularly, the political leaders in South Africa need to remember the achievements of that visionary leader, which he earned through collaboration and tolerance.
For Nigeria, the plight of our countrymen in these foreign countries should be an indicator of that popular saying: “there is no place like home”. Nigerians should not have to flee their homes in search of basic comforts in a foreign country. Also, for whatever reason that a Nigerian has left this country, the government’s duties for his or her safety is not extinguished by reason of the decision to seek a better life in another country. The government is responsible for the welfare of its citizens, wherever they may be. The truth is that we must get it right at home before our government can be composed enough to protect its citizens abroad. May God help us.