In light of recent attacks against Nigerians, considering South Africa’s history with apartheid, and the tendency to resort to violence for problem solving, one must take time to assess whether there is inherent tension between South Africans and Nigerians, or whether this outlash against foreigners is a result of the prevailing socio-economic conditions in the nation.
SYNOPSIS: THE HISTORY OF TWO AFRICAN GIANTS
Historically, Nigeria and South Africa share a few things in common, most notable being that they are both former British colonies and members of the Commonwealth. The relationship between the two nations prior to now has never been violent; it is well-known that during the apartheid era, Nigeria took a preeminent role in the anti-apartheid campaign, supporting black South Africans, and leading boycotts, the most prominent of which was the 1986 Commonwealth Games due to the British government’s attitude towards apartheid.
After the apartheid era, South Africa’s labor force was in dire need of professionals. Nigerians were welcomed into the country, many trooping in for the pursuit of a better life. As at 2011 there were as many as 24,000 Nigerians in South Africa, despite xenophobic attacks in 2008 against foreigners which reportedly claimed 62 lives. Olugbenga Ashiru, a former Foreign Minister of Nigeria, once stated that the mere disagreement between the countries did not mean that they were at odds with one another. In recent times, Nigeria has enjoyed a decent relationship with South Africa, considering the presence of major South African businesses such as DSTV(Multichoice), MTN, and ShopRite in Nigeria.
HISTORY OF XENOPHOBIA
This negative trend can be traced back to the late 1990s, just after the end of the apartheid era. Originally classed under the broad umbrella of ‘discrimination’, xenophobia targets individuals who are not an indigenous people in a country. It has been suggested that this reliance on violence for problem solving is a result of the lingering trauma of apartheid. Many South Africans suffered terribly at the hands of those they considered foreigners on their own land. There have been reported xenophobic attacks against Somalis, Ethiopians, Mozambicans, Zimbabweans, and numerous other nationalities between 2000 and the present.
The notion that this is a systematic attack perpetrated against only Nigerians is seemingly buttressed by some South Africans who bemoan that ‘Nigerians are taking their jobs’, along with claims against other Africans that they are into illicit activities such as the sale of drugs and fraud. It is assumed that attacks on even legitimate Nigerian-owned businesses is a form of declaration that they believe that such products and services should be solely provided by their fellow South Africans. However, these assumptions are not steadfast; 70% of migrants in South Africa originate from neighboring countries, with Nigerians merely being part of the remaining 30%. The Institute of Security Studies have identified that the leading nationalities in the heroin network in South Africa are individuals from Tanzania, Mozambique and Kenya. Based on these statistics, the influx of Nigerians to South Africa is not the underlying issue. The average South African is not aware of these facts, highlighting the probability that negative rhetoric is promoted against Nigerians, despite the historically amicable nature of relations between the nations. An example of such damaging rhetoric could be observed from the comments of Naledi Pandor, South Africa’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, who stated that the Nigerian government should help prevent Nigerians involved in drug peddling and human trafficking from coming into their country. Beyond this negative rhetoric, the real frustration can be found with the contemporary issues in the nation, and the government’s approach to handling these issues.
THE REAL PROBLEM?
South Africa has a myriad of societal and economic issues to address. The World Bank states that South Africa is the most economically unequal country in the world, pointing to a massive wealth divide between the rich and the poor. Poverty is rampant in the country; an Oxfam report, as at January 2019, stated that 25.2% of South Africans live in extreme poverty. With an unemployment rate hovering around 27%, 54% of whom are young South Africans, this creates a fertile breeding ground for disgruntled citizens to pursue violence and blame foreigners for their woes, rather than the South African government, or the man in the mirror.
Similarly, Nigeria’s dangerously high unemployment rate of 23.1%, according to the National Bureau Statistics, and government ineptitude contributes significantly to civil unrest.
As Nigerians, the paramount solution is not the repatriation of Nigerians from South Africa, nor is it the naturalization of South African companies in Nigeria, or the summoning of the South African High Commissioner to Nigeria. The real matter that requires immediate resolution is the inefficacy of the Nigerian government in satisfying its citizens’ needs. This is not the first time Nigerian citizens have been killed; it has been a recurring event that the Nigerian government merely issues warnings over, while proceeding to remind South Africa of its contribution to the anti-apartheid movement.
But let’s put this into perspective; would the South African government stand by idly and watch if US citizens were being targeted? That’s inconceivable, because the US seeks to ensure the protection of the lives of its citizens anywhere in the world. To get to this level, the mentality of our leaders must change. They need to be reoriented towards building lasting legacies, beyond myopic self-aggrandizement, or party loyalty. History only remembers the actions of men, not their lofty thoughts and ideals.
In order for the lives of Nigerians to be properly valued, our system of governance must develop to the level where our nation is reckoned with such that the lives of our citizens are never considered inferior.
Written by Philip Oke
Edited by Christopher Koya