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Xenophobia: What next?

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Xenophobia in South Africa


There is justifiable anger exhibited by Nigerians and their government over the repeated killing and maiming of Nigerians as well as the destruction and looting of their property in South Africa. Over the years the reaction of the Nigerian government to the unconscionable targeting of Nigerians and other Africans residing in that country has been tepid which is what has probably given them the courage to execute their evil designs with impunity. Luckily, this time around as the stories and pictures of the mayhem got to Nigeria, the government and its citizens have shown justifiable anger and revulsion.

The South African High Commissioner to Nigeria was summoned by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to be told of Nigeria’s concern over the ill-treatment of Nigerians in his country. The government cancelled its planned attendance at the World Economic Forum on Africa in Cape Town. It also despatched a special envoy to the President of South Africa, Mr. Cyril Ramaphosa as a deep expression of its concern about the ill-treatment of Nigerians in that country. Some Nigerian musicians and other persons that had engagements in South Africa have cancelled them in anger.

The Nigerian government has also indicated that it may be asking for commensurate compensation to be paid to those whose property have been destroyed or looted. The amount of losses incurred by Nigerians has not been computed so far but they are expected to run into billions of naira in the last 10 years or so. By the year 2016, some 118 Nigerians had been killed and many more maimed. As at today, the figure must have risen to about 130 deaths.

It is a pity that not much had been done by either the South African government or our own government to curb this mayhem. That is why it has festered. In fact, it can be said that it is this lack of serious restraining action by the South African government that has led to the escalation of these Xenophobic attacks. In South Africa, there is the feeling that foreigners including Nigerians are parasites, the cause of the misery of the poor black South Africans. In 2015, the Zulu King, Goodwill Swelithini reffered to black immigrants as “lice who should be plucked out and left in the sun.”

There is no evidence that he was called to order by the government. Many poor South Africans have a strong resentment against black immigrants who they see as those taking the jobs away from them. There are about 800, 000 Nigerians in South Africa according to Nigeria’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Geoffrey Onyeama. Many of them are traders and artisans but the rest are white collar workers which include an estimated 700 medical doctors. But the picture painted by the South African Minister of Foreign Affairs Ms Naledi Pandor is that of a large community of Nigerians engaging in criminal activities. She said in an interview with a South African news website that Nigerians are doing illegitimate jobs in that country and that they are involved in human trafficking and drug peddling. She said: “I would appreciate them in helping us as well to address the belief our people have and the reality that there are many persons from Nigeria dealing in drugs in our country. I believe that Nigerian nationals are involved in human trafficking and other abusive practices.

This kind of assistance of ensuring that such persons do not come to our country will be great assistance to our nation. Nigeria needs to address the belief that its countrymen are involved in criminal activities,” said the Minister. For three reasons her statement is very lousy and very undiplomatic. One, the alleged criminals from Nigeria manage to get visas to South Africa through dubious and corrupt arrangements within the South African High Commission in Nigeria whereas genuine potential travellers for genuine purposes are sometimes denied visas. Two, all foreigners in any country of their residence are expected to live under the prevailing laws of their country of residence.

Nigerians in South Africa are no exception. Therefore any Nigerian who violates the laws of South Africa ought to be subjected to the legal process as every other person and if found guilty should be appropriately punished. There is therefore no need for the Foreign Affairs Minister to use a big brush and tar all Nigerians with the coal tar of generalised crime. Three, such generalised and sweeping remarks made with flourish is probably what contributes to the targeting of Nigerians by desperate South Africans who think that it is Nigerians who are responsible for their poor state of well-being. But their state has been that way since the apartheid days.

In fact, the anti-apartheid propaganda of the African National Congress (ANC) had actually led to a state of rising expectations by the end of apartheid. I had been to South Africa several times during the days of apartheid and the message was that once apartheid is dead, blacks will take over the gold mines and swimming pools and arable land owned by the whites. This was an alluring message but it was not a promise that was ever likely to be fulfilled. Now apartheid is dead but the blacks have not become owners of gold mines and swimming pools and large parcels of land. Rising expectations when not fulfilled can lead to rising frustrations. The minority whites still control the economy of South Africa. They own 80% of the arable land. Eventhough there is a Black Economic Empowerment Scheme it has achieved very little in terms of ameliorating the plight of the blacks in that country.

This year, the unemployment level in South Africa is put at 29% and 50% of this figure comes from the youth population. The Cyril Ramaphosa government has proved woefully unable to curb the spiral of unemployment. So these unemployed and even unemployable youths with no useable skills take their frustration out on foreign immigrants especially Africans. The problem is compounded by the fact that many Africans from Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Zambia and Mozambique see an industrialised South Africa as an Eldorado that can absorb their skills in high net worth companies.

They flock there flaunting the admirable skills that many black South Africans do not have. That triggers a lot of envy, jealousy and frustration and creates a terrain of nightmare and violence which has come to be called Xenophobia. It is not a problem that will go away overnight. That is the truth and truth takes longer to get its boots on. The South African government has to commit itself deeper to the economic transformation of its country with special emphasis on youth education and capacity building. Killing foreigners or destroying their businesses is not the answer.

Immigration is a fact of life today. Nobody can stop it. Nigerians and other Africans are going to Canada in droves because of that country’s relaxed immigration policy. Chinese, Indians and Malaysians are in Nigeria and other parts of Africa today working in their oil and gas industries, telecommunications, power and agricultural sectors. South Africa has massive investments in Nigeria, a lot more than Nigerians have in South Africa.

Their investnments cover such areas as banking, telecommunications, hospitality, media, retail trade, aviation etc. Some Nigerians decided in the heat of the attack of Nigerian businesses in South Africa to attack these South African businesses in Nigeria. But it is an action that will backfire because of the huge investment of Nigerians in these businesses and the Nigerian employees whose jobs are being put at risk. Secondly, if we are asking for compensation for the business outfits of Nigerians destroyed in South Africa they, too, by the measure of reciprocity deserve to ask us for compensation too. At the end of the day, we will gain nothing. Most of the people who attacked South African businesses were not doing so simply as a measure of revenge but they were opportunistic criminals bent on looting, the way the black and poor South Africans also did. Thievery can wear the clothes of patriotism sometimes, but it is not patriotism.

Eventhough these attacks have generated a lot of anger in Nigeria it is wise for the government not to take a rash decision. Engaging the South African government at the highest level is the best way to go. Tampering with South African businesses in Nigeria would be counter-productive because these investments have added value to Nigeria’s economy. If at the end of the day diplomacy fails our government still has the option of taking the matter to the African Court of Human and People’s Rights in Arusha, Tanzania for adjudication. But it seems strange to me that the leadership of the African Union has maintained an ungolden silence so far on a matter of high importance that has the potential of disrupting the peace, security and relations of several African countries if it remains unresolved.


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Cyril RamaphosaXenophobia
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