By Oghene Omonisa, Emmanuel Edukugho, Ebun Sessou & Tofarati Ige

Mr. Ugo Nwangaga called home once in a while with exciting stories about a refreshing new life in South Africa.

He moved down there in 2006 in pursuit of the proverbial greener pastures, and he found success. A profitable business dealing in computer accessories, a comfortable apartment, a smart car, a Nigerian wife, his girlfriend whom he had returned to Nigeria to marry in 2010, and taken with him back to the rainbow nation, and who has given him two lovely kids: the good life.

But the calls with exciting stories recently stopped, not because Mr. Nwangaga wanted an end to calling home, but because his folks back here no longer want such calls. They crave assurances about his safety, following news of anti-immigrant attacks over there. Now, it is he that receives frequent calls from home, worried calls.

‘They’ve every reason to be scared’, he concedes. He reveals that he is in his late 30s, with his parents still relatively young; and he has three sisters and a brother, all of whom will like to have him living and not dead. ‘And dying violently and especially in a foreign land is something nobody will wish for a loved one.’

Mr. Nwangaga is not alone among Nigerians in South Africa whose relatives back home are very worried about.

Xenophobic Attacks:Nigerians protesting against xenophobic attacks in South Africa at the South African High Commission, in Abuja, yesterday. Photos: Gbemiga Olamikan.

The frightening footage of foreigners being hunted and beaten in broad daylight, of shops being looted and torched, of homes up in flames, of cars being smashed, of scared immigrants huddled in dirty blankets in open camps or queuing for food, is enough to send shivers up the spine of the toughest father or brother, not to mention a mother or sister or even child. The images from South Africa certainly give genuine reasons for Mr. Nwangaga’s folks to keep up with his safety, like every other Nigerian and African who has a loved one holed up in a country that was before now regarded as a land of dreams.

The anti-immigrant riots have left at least six people dead, more than 5,000 displaced, and shops looted and razed.

According to the Nigerian Consul-General in South Africa, Ambassador Uche Ajulu-Okeke, the loss by Nigerians in the attacks included looted shops, burnt shops, two burnt mechanic shops, 11 burnt cars and two stolen cars among others.

The attacks stem from a perception that immigrants, mainly from other African countries, are taking jobs at the expense of South Africans in a country with high unemployment.

Though many immigrants have left the country since riots began, more are still behind. Much of the violence are concentrated in the port city of Durban, in the KwaZulu-Natal Province, especially the poor sections, generally called setllements.

According to Mr. Nwangaga, many successful African migrants feel safe in other major towns like Johannesburg, Cape Town and Port Elizabeth, mostly in highbrow sections, and in other towns across the country. ‘So, it is not as if every immigrant has been attacked, which is exactly what I try to tell my people back home.’

But not every successful Nigerian living in South Africa will agree with Mr. Nwangaga.

Mr. Idah Peterside, Nigerian ex-international and Super Sports football analysts has a different story to tell. He says in a telephone chat that returning home one evening during the heat of the riots last week, he sighted two or three menacing youths close to his house at Sandton, a highbrow suburb of Johannesburg. They were armed. He had to drive past his own house. Driving back, he quickly used his remote-controlled key to open the gate, drove in and quickly controlled the lock before the merchants of brutalities realised what happened. They had guns. That only goes to show no foreigner was completely safe.

Xenophobic society

Seeking reasons for the xenophobia will not lead too far. South Africa’s status as a country with one of the most unequal societies in the world is not far-fetched, a violent legacy of racial apartheid.

There have been frequent explosions of xenophobic violence over the past few decades, notably in 2008, when 62 people, including 21 South Africans, were killed and more than 150,000 displaced.

Prior to 2008, at least 67 people died between 2000 and March 2008, in what were identified as xenophobic attacks. ‘Buyelekhaya’ (go back home) campaign has frequently been used to justify these xenophobic actions, blaming foreigners for unemployment, crime, illicit drugs and the spread of HIV/AIDS.

The recent eruption of xenophobic violence was allegedly instigated by Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini, who reportedly told a cheering crowd on March 22 that foreigners should ‘pack their bags’ and leave, and that they were ‘lice’ who should be ‘plucked out and left in the sun’. He added, ‘I won’t keep quiet when people who have no say are playing with this country. We ask that immigrants must pack their bags and go back where they came from.’

These comments by the king were made in a province that President Jacob Zuma and the governing African National Congress (ANC) rely on to keep political power. Rather than being condemned by other influential figures in the country, they were only fueled when Mr. Edward Zuma, the president’s son seemed to support the king by claiming that ‘foreigners were taking over the country’, and raised the suspicion of a coup.

Furthermore, ANC Secretary General, Gwede Mantashe, suggested that all undocumented migrants would have to be moved to refugee camps.

If the violence was instigated by elite comments, the commoners easily bought into it with their mindset.

“Our citizens took action because they (immigrants) wouldn’t leave and they were being told they must leave”, says Mr. Nana Mkhonde, 29, a resident of Bottle Brush, Durban’s impoverished informal settlement. They came with nothing, they can go with nothing as well. I feel bad because they left crying, but we have no choice.”

The governing African National Congress has condemned the violence but Mkhonde, an unemployed single mother, responds: “The government says it’s wrong because when they give jobs they help themselves. If you don’t have friends in the ANC, you get nothing. What about us? Our government is doing nothing for us. The reason we’re fighting foreigners is because of our government.”

Police minister, Nathi Nhleko, describes the attacks as examples of ‘Afrophobia’, not xenophobia. “What you don’t see is you don’t see Australians being chased on the streets, Britons being chased on the streets and similar demands being placed on them that they should leave the country and so on,” he says.

“What you effectively see is largely Africans against one another in a sense now. That’s why I’m saying it represents a certain type of political problem that has got to be dealt with by ourselves as South Africans. In a sense, what we are witnessing are actually Afrophobic kind of activities and attacks, resembling all elements of self-hate among Africans.”

Hard work, entrepreneurship

Immigrants are known to be more hard working than locals, explains Barr. Ben Owem, a Lagos-based legal practitioner. He posits that immigrants are mostly chased out of their countries by war, poverty, unemployment and other social problems. “These make them to fight to survive. They have to work, whatever work and at whatever rate, to survive. Every penny is of great value and it is put to good use – no wastefulness. These form the driving force which local South Africans have found in African immigrants which they term stealing their jobs. Jobs South African will not do, and rates they will not accept.”

A local resident holds a stone and a traditonal Zulu weapon after a skirmish with foreigners as thousands of people take part in the “peace march” against xenophobia in Durban, South Africa, on April 16, 2015. South African President Jacob Zuma on April 16 appealed for the end of attacks on immigrants as a wave of violence that has left at least six people dead threatened to spread across the country. In the past two weeks, shops and homes owned by Somalis, Ethiopians, Malawians and other immigrants in Durban and surrounding townships have been targeted, forcing families to flee to camps protected by armed guards. AFP PHOTO

“We have to work to survive’, explains Mr. Adolphus Abu, a Nigerian who was once in South Africa and presently based in Ghana. “It’s the spirit of hustling. That is what the these black South Africans find fascinating. Where does a black South African travel to? They lay back in their country and complain of no job. But other Africans will come, do those menial jobs, save from the jobs and start a trade. Then when they see Nigerians, Malawians, Zimbabweans, Ethiopians and other African migrants prosper, they tell you their jobs are being stolen.”

Many black South Africans whim about the government not making education readily affordable for them, providing this as one of the reasons why they are unemployable. Mr. Nwangaga disagrees: “That’s the talk of a lazy man. I, personally, don’t have a university degree, but I came to South Africa and started work as a marketer, from where I saved to start my own business. While education guarantees a good job, lack of it is no hindrance to do something meaningful”.

But Mr. Mkhonde, the South African resident of Bottle Brush, Durban insists: “They (migrants) should go because we have no jobs. I’m a citizen and I want to work for 150 rand a day but foreigners will do it for 70 rand a day. In the kitchens and the factories they are taking over our jobs. They bring cheap goods and we don’t know where from. They leave their countries with a lot of skills and we have nothing. Our education is not good enough.”

The successes accomplished by these immigrants could generate envy and jealousy in some South Africans, which could lead to the violent attacks. Mrs. Toni Mazwembe, a resident of Johannesburg agrees: “Yes, one can’t overlook that aspect. Today, you see a Nigerian, Mozambican, or Zimbabwean arrives with almost nothing, tattered and hungry looking. In a few months’ time, you see him looking well fed and well-dressed, then you begin to wonder what he did that you had never done before his arrival. And this is your country.”

Did he ever have the feeling of being envied by South Africans while in South Africa? “Yes”, Mr. Abu reveals. “I noticed such feelings. Though it’s natural, I don’t see it as reason enough to want to kill your fellow human or ask him to leave your country. Success through hard work is supposed to be admired and imitated, but not be revolted against.”

Successful Nigerians are reputed for big spending, especially where women are involved. Could this have generated envy in male South Africans, that immigrants are stealing their women from them too, and played a role in instigating them to take to violence? “One can’t overlook that factor”, Mr. Abu laughs.

He expatiates: “Of course, you know we Nigerians. It’s an open secret that the average South African woman would rather have a relationship with a Nigerian man than her countryman. The reason for this is not far-fetched. Traumatised by long years of war and repression, most South African men do not have the patience to woo a lady. They often have no time to waste and would rather go straight to the point. Women, however, want a man who would care for them, devote attention and time which their men are often too impatient to provide. Little wonder then that South Africa has one of the highest cases of rape in the world.

“While on the other hand, Nigerian men living in South Africa are known to be flamboyant and they spend time on women.

“As a matter of fact, in some night clubs, South African men are not allowed entry because they don’t have the financial wherewithal to buy drinks. This in turn makes the Nigerian men more attractive to the womenfolk as they see them as more willing and capable of taking care of their needs”

What an irony. Nigerian women claim that their men are not romantic. But to South African ladies, Nigerian men are simply good in treating women nicely. Abu continues:

“Another factor is that South African girls dream of marrying Nigerian boys, so the South African guys hate us because of that.”

Does Mrs. Mazwemba agree with this view? “I’m happily married with kids, please’, she says with a wry smile. “I’m not interested in men. But I think Nigerian men are romantic, going by the few I know.”

But not every South African is proud of the evil actions of their fellow citizens though. Ms. Sue Clark, 50, from a property company that gathered donations for victims of the attacks via a Facebook post, muses: ‘At the beginning of the week I was saying I’m no longer proud to be South African, but now I’m saying I’m truly proud to be South African.

“This is hope. Just so many people want to make a difference.”

African response

If the world is a global village, the South African youths who traded in violence did not realise it. Every country hosting a foreigner equally has its nationals in other countries.

Leaders and countrymen of killed, maimed and displaced African immigrants have followed the riots live back home. They have decided to teach the South African a lesson or two. Protests have been held at various South African embassies across the continent during the week, and several South African musicians have been forced to cancel concerts abroad. A group of about 200 Mozambican protesters this week blockaded the Southern Lebombo border and stoned South African vehicles, refusing to allow cars with South African registration plates to pass. Sasol, an energy and chemical giant, evacuated 340 South Africans from Mozambique over fears for their safety. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has also condemned the ‘barbaric, criminal and xenophobic murder of innocent foreigners.’

Back home, protesters have stormed the South African High Commission in Abuja, threatening to shut down South African companies in Nigeria if the killings and arson are not stopped and suspects brought to justice. Protesting youths have also stormed MTN office in Benin City, Edo State.

And dreaded Islamic group, Boko Haram, late last week, ironically gave Pretoria 24 hours to halt the attacks or face the consequences. In a brief YouTube video message, the group threatened to export its terror to South Africa if Pretoria does not contain the situation.

Remorse

It has turned out the South African violent rioters, like their government, did not realise the gravity of the destruction and the implications for South African immigrants and their investments in other African countries. Goodwill Zwelithin, the Zulu King who allegedly sparked off the violent riots with his inciting comments, has since denied making them, claiming he was quoted out of context.

Ready to butcher non South Africans

President Jacob Zuma cancelled his state visit to Indonesia early this week to frontally attend to the crisis. He visited a camp for displaced African immigrants in Chatsworth, South of Durban, where he promised ‘to stop the violence’, and assured foreigners of their safety in the country.

The South African Defence Force was sent to the streets mid this week to contain the riots, and four South African men suspected of killing Mozambican national Emmanuel Sithole in Alexandra township in an apparent xenophobic attack, have been arraigned this week at the Wynberg Magistrate Court in Johannesburg.

What next?

The streets of South Africa are now almost calm, returning to normal. The violence leaves scares, many shallow, others deep, so deep they will take time to heal. Some immigrants have left to return no more. Some may return. And those who remained behind, keeping with memories of the haunting and beatings, of looting and torching and general anarchy will hurt for long. South Africa has had a history of xenophobic riots and violence. Will this be the last in recent times? It is hoped that President Jacob Zuma will not only stop the violence but also begin to reduce the factors that triggered off violence – make young black South Africans employable and employed.

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